Text by Zhou Jin Photographs courtesy of the National Museum of China
Visitors paced slowly through the hall staging “The Art of the Enlightenment” at the National Museum of China (NMC) while Chen Yu, an NMC curator responsible for the exhibition, carefully observed their reactions. He tried to catch the patrons’ whispers about each exhibit, a touch of artistic charisma emanating from under his slightly graying hair.
Officially launched on April 1, 2011, “The Art of the Enlightenment” was the first major international exhibition hosted by the then newly renovated and expanded NMC, in collaboration with Berlin State Museums, Dresden State Art Collections and the Bavarian State Painting Collections.
The Chinese-German exhibition cooperation, which lasted until March 31, 2012, was bilaterally approved in 2003. Over the following eight years, Chen Yu and his team made extensive preparations along with their German partners to plan the cultural event. Nearly 600 works collected by the three German museums, as well as their 20-plus branches, were transported to Beijing to present a full spectrum of Enlightenment art, including oil paintings, woodprints, books and even models of scientific instruments. The comprehensive exhibition showcased the groundbreaking ideas of the Enlightenment and provided clues to how Germany’s artistic revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries influenced social development of Europe.
The exhibition also invited prominent experts, scholars and artists from both countries to lecture on the history of the Enlightenment and its continuing influence on today from economic, social, and artistic angles. Meanwhile, the Goethe Institute offered diverse experience programs at NMC to help Chinese youth gain a better understanding of the European intellectual movement.
“Our German partners were more than satisfied, asserting that this was the largest exhibition they had ever organized beyond Germany,” Chen recalled, unable to conceal his excitement, “and to boot, this covered all the most notable achievements of the age of the Enlightenment.”