This week’s post is by Associate Curator Shawn Yuan, who directs the OSUMA’s exhibition program. Shawn has a background in the history of Chinese art (he has previously blogged about our Tang Dynasty ceramic horse and rider), and one of his goals since arriving in Oklahoma has been to visit the substantial collection of Asian art collected by Gordon Matzene that is in Ponca City. We’ve been pretty busy at the OSUMA, but Shawn made it up there last month. Here’s what he discovered:
On Friday, December 14, I made a long overdue trip to Ponca City to check out the Matzene Asian art collection, currently housed in the city’s library. One key part of Oklahoma’s rich cultural heritage is being known for building art collections, public and private. But for most people studying Asian art, Oklahoma is probably not their prime destination. Ponca City, a small town 45 miles north of Stillwater with only 26,000 residents, could easily be left out by those on a quest for Asian art. The Matzene Asian art collection is under the radar for most of us, largely because it is still a hidden treasure and has received little serious scholarly attention.
As I walked into the library building, built in 1935, I was welcomed by a wide-open central hall that has an almost two-story high ceiling. The interior is filled with refined architectural details, which amazingly mingle well with a stunning group of life-size Chinese ancestor portraits—my first encounter with this collection.
The collection was formed by Richard Gordon Matzene (1880—1950), an English-born photographer who traveled widely, including in China and Nepal. The library brochure provides very brief information about his trip to China: he was protected by a Chinese friend during the xenophobic Boxer Rebellion (1900). With this friend’s assistance, he acquired “many treasures from the Imperial Palace when they were offered for sale.” While I didn’t find any convincing evidence that the artworks he collected are connected with the fabled imperial collection, the large number of works and broad range of styles, subjects and themes all indicate paintings were Mr. Matzene’s focus.
Among the works on view, a 1924 photo taken in Shanghai shortly before his departure from China reveals more details about his traveling. From the inscription, the Chinese man sitting across the table with him is Li Jingfang (1855—1934), son of Li Hongzhang (1823—1901) who is arguably the most prominent statesman in late imperial China, known for his pioneering role in industrial and military modernization. Li Jingfang himself served in a few prestigious positions as well, including ambassador to Japan and the U.K., and then China’s first Minister of Postal Service. This photo was presented to Matzene as a gift by Li honoring their friendship, which is easy to discern from Matzene’s relaxed, even casual, body language of leaning forward and engaging a conversation with Li. The photo clearly testifies that Matzene was able to acquaint himself with the social elite during his sojourn in China. From the dominant number of paintings, compared to other works of art in this collection, it is not far-fetched to assume Matzene’s taste was influenced by those of China’s literati class, who considered painting and calligraphy as high art.
The large painting (over 5 feet in height) Egrets, Morning Glory and Peony, attributed to Yun Shouping (1633-1690) and dated 1685, is one of the works in the collection that well represents the “bird and flower” tradition, traced back to the Song dynasty in the 11th century. This painting depicts a perfectly staged scene by a pond, where five egrets are enjoying a quiet moment in an early summer. The artist masterfully created a restful harmony among these waterfowl—some close their eyes for napping, some attentively focus on searching food, while others call for their partners in elegant flight. The central space of this painting is filled with morning glory, peonies, waterweeds and bamboo—all growing in profusion. The artist used very fine brush strokes to paint the egrets, while applying broad ink washes for the rocky bank. The white peony and blue morning glory are laid out in the “boneless” method—flowers and leaves are filled with color washes in single and smooth strokes without ink outlines. Nearly all motifs in this painting bear auspicious or congratulatory meanings in Chinese visual culture. Egrets symbolize high income, peonies for nobility and wealth, and bamboo for resilience—a virtue valued by the literati. Such a painting could be a perfect gift for almost any occasion or personage.
The paintings Matzene collected almost all have references to the three major ideologies in imperial China: Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism. Some works are painted with a very clear mission—for being displayed in a Buddhist temple or venerated in an ancestry hall by those versed in Confucianism classics. Other works, such as a landscape of mountains towering over a diminutive thatched house, are speaking to very subtle, even hard to discern Daoist ideals of pursuing a reclusive life.
The imposing painting of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva forms a triptych with other two pieces—Buddha Shakyamuni and Manjushri Bodhisattva, which are also in this collection. In this exquisitely painted piece, Samantabhadra sits cross-legged on a large lotus throne carried by a white elephant—the bodhisattva’s celestial vehicle. He is flanked by one of the four Heavenly Kings on his right. The Bodhisattva, depicted in three-quarter view, wears a lavishly jeweled crown and a bright red overgarment. His face, wearing a solemn expression enhanced by his half-closed eyes, turns slightly downward to the implied but unseen audience. His left hand is raised to chest level holding a lotus flower stem. The gesture is coordinated with the position of his right hand resting on his lap for holding the end of lotus flower stem. A Lotus Sutra placed on top of the flower suggests that the Bodhisattva is the great patron of this sutra.
Returning back to Stillwater, I felt that I finally fulfilled a wish of 2012 before it was over. More importantly, visiting these art treasures that were brought to the States almost a century ago, makes me feel I have reconnected with a lost friend who always has a place in my heart. Matzene’s collection testifies to Oklahoma’s tradition of not only valuing its indigenous art, but appreciating those from other cultures. As we unveil the Postal Plaza Gallery next year, I am sure it will become a platform to showcase the art that has inspired all peoples, in the past and today.