If size matters, Chinese cultural ambitions may prove hard to beat. Friday [Apr. 1] the newly expanded National Museum of China—located on Tiananmen Square and now designated "the largest museum in the world"—reopened with "The Art of the Enlightenment," a massive, year-long exhibition of European works dating from the 18th century to the present. Drawn from the collections of major state museums in Berlin, Dresden and Munich, the show features some 500 artworks, fashion items and scientific instruments. The selections reflect the complex, hard-fought emergence of rationalism, empiricism and secularism in Western culture.

"The Art of the Enlightenment" comprises nine sections exploring themes such as court life, technology, exoticism (including Western imaginings of China), familial love and psychic states. Among the myriad artists represented are Friedrich, Füssli, Gainsborough, Watteau, Piranesi, Goya, Greuze and Hogarth. Links are made with Chinese society, science and art in an effort to endorse what press materials call "the unfolding of artistic and intellectual curiosity and openness of mind"—a goal as hard to achieve in contemporary China as it was in post-Renaissance Europe. It seems likely that the show, nestled in the heart of Beijing's busiest tourist area, will have considerable drawing power—based on curiosity, if nothing else. China has no museum of Western art anywhere in its 3.7 million square miles.

As redone by the Hamburg architectural firm Gerkan, Marg und Partner, the National Museum of China, which is devoted to all aspects of material and artistic culture, now totals 2.2 million square feet. Just over 29,000 square feet are devoted to the Enlightenment show. The extraordinary size, quality and duration of Germany's artistic loan clearly signals that country's currying of favor for long-term strategic and commercial ends. (The event is primarily funded by the German Foreign Office and the BMW Group.) At the same time, it highlights the fundamental problem in Chinese museology: a fervor for building big, offset by a lack of collections, professional staffing and financial support. These conditions dictate a need for space-filling exhibitions curated and paid for by external sources, often individual artists, fashion houses or foreign governments.

The Enlightenment project was finalized by Chinese president Hu Jintao and his counterpart, Horst Köhler, president of Germany until May last year. It is the fruit of a cultural exchange program launched in 2005 by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Their accord previously facilitated the long-traveling 2003 photography exhibition "Humanism in China," as well as "Living Landscapes: A Journey Through German Art" and "Gerhard Richter," both at the National Art Museum of China in 2008.) The current show was organized by German museum directors Michael Eissenhauer, Martin Roth and Klaus Schrenk.

In conjunction with "The Art of the Enlightenment," which runs until Mar. 31, 2012, multiple scholarly forums will be held throughout the year under the rubric "Enlightenment in Dialogue." The exhibition is also accompanied by a catalogue in English and Chinese. For more information, see www.kunstderaufklaerung.de and www.aufklaerung-im-dialog.com.