Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum acquires world class collection of Chinese art

One of the greatest private collections of modern and contemporary Chinese art has been bequeathed to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.

The Khoan and Michael Sullivan Collection of Modern Chinese art, considered one of the most significant private collections of its kind, has been bequeathed to the University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. Announced by the museum on 13 December 2013, the news comes at a time when the visibility of Chinese art is rising in the United Kingdom. 

Qi Baishi, 'Landscape with Blue Mountain', 1953, hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 94.3 x 61.7 cm. Image courtesy Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Qi Baishi, ‘Landscape with Blue Mountain’, 1953, hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 94.3 x 61.7 cm. Image courtesy Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

What is the Sullivan Collection?

Professor Michael Sullivan (1916 – 2013) was a distinguished art historian, scholar and collector whose knowledge of modern Chinese and Southeast Asian art and architecture was amassed from extensive travels in that part of the world. Sullivan, along with his wife, Khoan, formed lasting relationships with artists and scholars, many of whom gifted them some of their art, leading to the broad, rich collection of over four hundred works. The Sullivan Collection, which includes many works of art never before displayed publicly, will now become part of the permanent collection of Britain’s oldest museum, the Ashmolean.

Khoan and Michael Sullivan, 1944-45. Image courtesy Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Khoan and Michael Sullivan, 1944-45. Image courtesy Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

The collection includes works by influential painter Qi Baishi (1864 – 1957), Zhang Daqian (1899 – 1983), one of the most prodigious twentieth century Chinese artists, and Fu Baoshi (1904 – 1965) who brought Japanese elements into Chinese painting. There are also more recent works such as Landscript (2002) by Xu Bing, who is currently the Vice President of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

Professor Michael Sullivan, Oxford, 1995. Image courtesy Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Professor Michael Sullivan, Oxford, 1995. Image courtesy Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

According to The Guardian, “the Ashmolean already has the best collection of modern Chinese art of any museum in Europe, one that it began collecting in the 1950s.” The museum’s Khoan and Michael Sullivan Gallery, opened in 2000, has previously displayed some of these works. The Gallery plans to showcase the works from the Sullivan Collection on rotation and will have a commemorative exhibition of new artwork from the Collection in March 2014, titled “Michael Sullivan: A Life of Art and Friendship”.

Xu Bing, 'Landscript', 2002, ink on paper, 50 x 173 cm. Image courtesy Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Xu Bing, ‘Landscript’, 2002, ink on paper, 50 x 173 cm. Image courtesy Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

In the press release announcing the bequest, Director of the Ashmolean Professor Christopher Brown CBE said:

Michael Sullivan was a long-standing friend and supporter of the Ashmolean and it is through his foresight and generosity that we have received this outstanding collection. We hope this is a fitting testament to a great art historian and collector.

The collection is supplemented by supporting materials, such as original correspondence with the artists and details of how the works were acquired, which help to contextualise the artworks. Dr Shelagh Vainker, Curator of Chinese Art at the Ashmolean, told the BBC:

[Sullivan] collected through the twentieth century in every style [and] because he started collecting in the 1940s, so it’s a collection that has been formed over seventy years. (…) As a package, it’s not just the leading collection in the West, it’s a unique resource for the whole subject. (…) The whole field of Chinese art has exploded in the last decade or so.

Who was Michael Sullivan?

Michael Sullivan’s book Chinese Art in the Twentieth Century (1959) was the first, in any language, to address the subject of China’s modernist art. Between 1960 and 1984, Sullivan taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, and Stanford University, before retiring to Oxford in 1985. In 2012, Sullivan was awarded the American Friends of Shanghai Museum’s Award for Excellence, honouring his lifetime contribution to the study and preservation of Chinese art.

Zhang Daqian, 'Landscape', handscroll, ink and mineral colour on paper, 13.5 x 53.6 cm. Image courtesy Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Zhang Daqian, ‘Landscape’, handscroll, ink and mineral colour on paper, 13.5 x 53.6 cm. Image courtesy Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

The rising popularity of Chinese art

The bequest of the Sullivan Collection comes at a time of rising interest in Chinese art and cultural exchange between the United Kingdom and China. Earlier in 2013, more than eighty artworks from British galleries were displayed in a touring exhibition in China titled “Toward Modernity: Three Centuries of British Art”. In an interview with the BBC in May 2013, V&A’s Head of Asian Collections Anna Jackson acknowledged the importance of art exchanges, referring to them as “soft diplomacy”.

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is currently displaying an exhibition of Chinese painting from 700 – 1900, on loan from various galleries in China and elsewhere. Through seventy masterpieces, some of which are on display for the first time in Europe, the exhibition tells the story of China’s wealth of artistic traditions. Xiang Xiaowei, who represents the Ministry of Culture at the Chinese Embassy, spoke to the BBC about the exhibition:

As China becomes more and more strong, we have been treated as, sometimes, a danger or challenge to the old hierarchical system, but [when] we look at all these art pieces, the message is very clear. We are very peaceful people. The philosophy behind it is inward looking and self-cultivation and perfection. I don’t dare to say that [the exhibition will change people’s perceptions of China], but at least this exhibition will provide an alternative angle for people to look at who we are.

Kriti Bajaj

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Related Topics: acquisitions, museums, Chinese art and artists, individual art collectors, venues in the UK

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