Middlebury College Museum of Art

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Middlebury College Museum of Art Opens New Gallery Devoted to Asian Art

August 22, 2005

Press Preview: Friday, September 16 at 11:00 a.m.

For immediate release: August 22, 2005
For further information, contact: Colin Mackenzie, Curator of Asian Art, (802) 443–5558

MIDDLEBURY, VT—On Sat., Sept. 17, the Middlebury College Museum of Art will open the inaugural exhibition of its Robert F. Reiff Gallery of Asian art. The newly redesigned gallery, generously funded by Barbara P. and Robert P. ’64 Youngman, is dedicated to the memory of Robert F. Reiff, professor of the History of Art at Middlebury College from 1958 to 1982. Located on the second floor of the Museum, the Reiff Gallery will house ongoing exhibitions showcasing the Museum’s growing collection of Asian art as well as loans from distinguished private and public collections.

“As Asia becomes more and more visible to Americans due to its demographics and expanding role in the global economy, it is important to recognize that for thousands of years it has been home to innovative civilizations and the originator of many technological innovations,” says Ronald D. Liebowitz, President of Middlebury College. “We hope that the works of art displayed in the Robert F. Reiff Gallery will be a reminder of that legacy, an inspiration to students at the College, and a wonderful resource for the academic program and the local community.”

Richard Saunders, Director of the Museum, adds, “With the opening of the Reiff Gallery, it is now possible to display some of the outstanding recently acquired works from the Museum’s collection. We are very grateful to the Youngmans and to other collectors for lending exceptional pieces from their respective collections. With the opening of this gallery, we hope that the Museum will become a destination for those interested in Asia and its culture.”

Displaying nearly one hundred works of art, the inaugural exhibition represents the major cultural traditions of Asia, including Buddhist and Hindu works from Pakistan, India, Tibet and Mongolia, Indian and Chinese painting, outstanding Chinese ceramics and jades, early Chinese textiles, and Chinese and Japanese lacquer.

Highlights include a 12th century stone stele of the Hindu god Vishnu carved for the Sena kingdom in Eastern India, and a 12th–13th century gilded and painted Tibetan sutra cover of outstanding quality. The cover shows the goddess Prajnaparamita seated on a throne and holding the Heart Sutra in her left hand and a Vajra (thunderbolt) in her right. An important piece is an 8th–century Japanese miniature Buddhist pagoda and charm, one of a set commissioned by the Empress Shotoku between 767 and 770. The set of charms, with verses taken from theVimalanirbhasa Sutra, is one of the earliest examples of a printed text in the world. Although a million of these charms were said to have been made, most have been destroyed, and very few exist outside Japan. “This set is of enormous significance, given the economic and cultural impact of printing,” says Colin Mackenzie, Robert P. Youngman Curator of Asian Art at Middlebury. “Without printing, there would have been severe limits on the spread of literacy. Within a short period, large numbers of books were being printed in East Asia, hundreds of years before Johann Gutenberg (c. 1397–1468) invented his press. And it is, of course, significant that paper, of which this is an early example, was also a Chinese invention.”

The exhibit also includes rare examples of Chinese jade carving from the Youngman Collection from as early as the third millennium B.C.E. Chinese ceramics include fine Song dynasty (960–1279) glazed stonewares as well as outstanding Ming (1368–1644) porcelain. Foremost among these are a number of imperial pieces from the 15th to the 18th century, including a bowl with lotus decoration dating to the reign of the Emperor Xuande (c. 1426–35) and another painted with rampant dragons in brilliant blue from the reign of the Emperor Jiajing (c. 1522–66).

Another Chinese porcelain of great interest is a dish with phoenix decoration excavated from a Chinese junk that sank off the coast of Vietnam in the early 17th century. This dish was part of a huge cargo of Chinese porcelain probably bound for the Malayan peninsula or Java. Despite some minor deterioration resulting from 400 years of immersion in salt water, the piece is in pristine condition.

Another theme is the Silk Road, represented by rare examples of Chinese textiles dating between the 4th century B.C.E. and the 12th century C.E. Other Silk Road pieces include a group of Tang dynasty (618–906) ceramics, including a monumental green-glazed model of a Buddhist reliquary and a large figure of a camel with Central Asian groom. Such pieces were made for burial, and the display also includes other striking funerary ceramics, among which a Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.) model of a watchtower and a 6th century figure of a caparisoned horse are particularly noteworthy.

The display also offers some striking comparisons and contrasts. A rare Chinese Han dynasty lacquered drinking cup and a pair of eighteenth century Japanese food containers with sprinkled gold and gold leaf decoration show how each culture developed lacquering techniques to remarkable levels of refinement. A complete suit of late 18th or early 19th century Japanese ceremonial armor alludes to the martial culture of the samurais, while displayed nearby will be a scroll with a poem composed and transcribed in soft cursive calligraphy by the nun Rengetsu (1791–1875). The display also includes a fine example of a 17th century Indian court painting of the Mewar school showing Krishna stealing his mother’s curds. The brilliant colors and miniaturist technique of this painting are in striking contrast to the monochromatic tones and subtle washes of a Chinese painting of silk depicting bamboo in mist by the Chinese painter Zhu Sheng (1617–c. 1691).

On Thurs., Oct. 6 Colin Mackenzie will give a gallery talk in the Reiff Gallery. Mackenzie will speak about materials and symbols in Asian art.

The Middlebury College Museum of Art is free and open to the public Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. It is closed Mondays. The Museum is physically accessible. Parking is available in the Center for the Arts parking lot. For further information, please call (802) 443–5007 or TTY (802) 443–3155, or visit the Museum’s website at http://museum.middlebury.edu/.