Flowers and Landscapes, 1672
Detail: Leaf 1: Peony by Yun Shou-P'ing
Artist: Wang Hui (Chinese, 1632-1717)
Repository: National Palace Museum (Taipei, T'ai-pei Shih, Taiwan)
Richard Edwards, our pre-eminent Chinese Art emeriti faculty member, sat down with us recently to discuss his career and the creation of the Palace Museum Collection in the 1960s. His lifelong interest in China hit him in the 1940s as he visited the country during World War II as a Quaker delivering medical supplies.
In traversing the countryside, he discovered what was essentially undiscovered by the majority of the West, the purposeful hand of Chinese artists. He came back to America to work on his PhD and moved back to China for research. He was thrilled to be in his newly adopted country but the timing proved difficult as he faced the 1949 Revolution and by that time spent several months traveling with his new family to escape the war.
As we talked, it became clear that Dr. Edwards passion for China was so professionally predominant that he chose his teaching posts purely by the ability to focus on China and China alone. The University of Michigan gave him that opportunity. He was allowed to focus on Chinese Art and grow the curriculum and thus our own Visual Resources Collections. As his studies expanded, Dr. Edwards was even able to see the creation of the Center for Chinese Studies at UM.
One of Dr. Edwards many legacies was the creation of The Palace Museum collection. Due to geographic conflict, there was concern for the treasures of China. They were moved to Taiwan for protection. In the early 1960s, Dr. James Cahill of the Freer (PhD UM HART) managed via long negotiations, to bring a team from UM to photo-document the priceless art housed in the Museum in Taipei. They came back with about 9,000 black and white and some color images. Dr. Edwards was able to negotiate the permanent home of this collection to be where the students would be…the University of Michigan Department of History of Art.
To our knowledge, it was the most significant photo-documentation of Far Eastern art ever attempted.
The UM field group brought with them a photo lab, scholars and a photographer. For months they photographed what the major works as proscribed. As the scholars huddled together they questioned whether they should go forward and photograph even the minor works? Who knew when the opportunity would occur again?
They worked through the nights and left Taiwan with more than they hoped and more than the governments perhaps, wanted.
Over time, this overreach has been well documented and proved to China how very deeply the scholars valued their cultural icons.
The impact on scholarship was significant as much of what was now photographed was of such high quality, scholars could pour over the art. It seems to have led to an explosion of Chinese art studies.
This collection has been well-maintained in the VRC. Some of the images were made available via the HART Distribution project and some were shown at the Freer. More will be digitized soon to protect the aging negatives.
The Writings of James Cahill, “CLP 117: 2005 “The Place of the National Palace Museum in My Scholarly Career.” published in National Palace Museun Monthly (Gugong Wenwu), special issue commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Museum, Accessed on August 15, 2012
The Research News, “Richard Edwards: Opening up Vistas of the Far East”, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Volume XXXVI, No. 10-11, October-November 1985