Ashmolean acquires big private Chinese art collection

( Xinhua ) Updated: 2013-12-16 13:50:34

The oldest museum in Britain has acquired a large private collection of modern and contemporary Chinese art, announced Ashmolean Friday.

The collection with about 450 pieces was described by museum director Professor Christopher Brown as "the single greatest collection of this type in the West." It was bequeathed to the museum by professor Michael Sullivan, a British art historian and a leading scholar in modern Chinese art history and criticism who died in September.

"This is an extraordinary gift," he said. "It makes us the key institution in the UK for the display of modern Chinese art."

While Shelagh Vainker, curator of the Chinese Art with the museum, said "this extensive collection in the west was built up in 70 years over friendship with Chinese artists."

Ashmolean acquires big private Chinese art collection

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Sullivan volunteered to go to China before graduation, and worked as a Red Cross ambulance driver helping carry wounded from the battlefield in the war between China and Japan.

It was at this time that he began to form lifelong friendships with leading contemporary Chinese artists, many of whose works he collected or was gifted.

Among the most important pieces in the collection are works by Qi Baishi (1864-1957), Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Huang Binhong (1865-1955) and Fu Baoshi (1904-1964).

A later acquisition was Xu Bing's 2002 piece Landscript, a unique ink painting with the landscape formed with Chinese characters. Xu's work was the subject of an exhibition at the Ashmolean earlier this year.

"Sullivan collection has long been the leading private collection of modern Chinese art in the West, and added to the existing Ashmolean collection of Chinese paintings founded in the 1950s which is already the leading public collection of modern Chinese paintings in Europe we really have a very substantial collection indeed," said Vainker.

She told Xinhua that Sullivan had always been interested in what young artists were doing in not just Chinese mainland, but also Taiwan as well, so the collection was formed over a long period of time.

"Michael Sullivan's career purpose, you could say, was to make the East better understood in the West, and to add his collection to what is already there in the Ashmolean in this university setting and in the museum setting really contributes to that understanding," she added.

Vainker said that there were several outstanding pieces among these paintings, oils, watercolors, and sculptures bequested by Sullivan. "There is a Qi Baishi landscape as there aren't so many of those in his oeuvre," she said, picking out one of the most notable pieces.

Sullivan also bequested his papers, correspondence, and archive and the archive is particularly important, said Vainker. In March next year, a commemorative exhibition will go on show at the Ashmolean entitled "Michael Sullivan: A Life of Art and Friendship."

Vainker told Xinhua that around 40 paintings shall be displayed for the exhibition, which opens on March 11. "The focus will be Michael's close association with the artists, featuring paintings with written dedications to him, or painters where there were known correspondence with him," she said.

In 2012, an exhibition was held at the National Art Museum in Beijing to celebrate Sullivan's work.

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