Cleveland Museum of Art visits 'China's Southern Paradise' via myriad pieces

Sep. 8—It is an exhibition eight years in the making, Clarissa von Spee beginning work on it eight years ago when she was a curator at The British Museum in London.

And now, on another continent, "China's Southern Paradise: Treasures from the Lower Yangzi Delta" is ready for its debut — at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Boasting more than 200 objects from 30 international collections, the ticketed show opens on Sept. 10 and runs through Jan. 7 in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Exhibition Hall.

"It's an exhibition about a region, which is not much bigger than the state of Ohio," says von Spee, the James and Donna Reid curator of Chinese Art, interim curator of Islamic Art and chair of Asian art at CMA, during a recent media preview. "It's the (area around Shanghai), and it has for centuries been the artistically and culturally most active in China.

"Everything we today associate with traditional China — rice and silk production, jade carving, bamboo carving, landscape painting, garden culture — all of this really originated in this area or flourished there," she continues. "It was a powerful region."

Visitors to "China's Southern Paradise" will see a wide range of pieces, including silk prints, porcelain, bamboo carvings and even a pair of chairs from the Ming dynasty. Due to some sensitivities, several objects are forbidden from being photographed and are marked as such.

Why has this region been so culturally relevant? Several reasons, von Spee says.

"It was a very advantaged area. It was facing the sea. It was a very fertile area, very mild climate," she says. "Historically, it received waves of migrants.

"These boosts of population were very positive. (They) stimulated the economy, stimulated consumption," she continues. "And with consumption, wealth was generated. And with wealth, there is a desire for luxury goods. With luxury goods, you start to produce art."

When von Spee uses the word "historically," she means over many centuries, and the exhibition reflects that. It begins in the Neolithic period before moving forward through the years, all the way into the 18th century.

"The time frame is enormous," she says, "because we want to see how the region developed."

Although organized largely chronologically, some galleries are more thematic in nature, von Spee says. And while some offer mostly works in the same medium — one gallery is home to several long scrolls — others are more eclectic.

As with any large CMA exhibition, "China's Southern Paradise" required the meticulous work of many at CMA, including von Spee, who chose the pieces; the art handlers; gallery designers; conservators, who check the conditions of the pieces and ensure they are being displayed safely; and registrars, who had what the curator calls "an enormous task," bringing in the pieces from all over the world.

According to CMA press materials, the show is composed of pieces loaned from more than 30 institutions around the world as well as "selections from the Cleveland Museum of Art's world-renowned collection of Chinese art."

Among the lenders are six Chinese institutions, including the Beijing Palace Museum, the Shanghai Museum and the Nanjing Museum, a news release states.

"This is an exhibition that the Cleveland Museum of Art is uniquely qualified to organize," says William M. Griswold, director and president of the museum, in the release. "Our incredible holdings of Chinese art have inspired the confidence of our more than 30 partners across the world to lend works of art, which allow us to present an exhibition with objects of impressive quality and scope never seen together before."

Gallery Glances: 'Contemporary Debris' to fill Valley Art Center

The release calls attention to CMA's "well-known carved jade cup with Daoist procession," which is "almost identical in shape and decoration with an imperially marked white cup in the Beijing Palace Museum," are on display together for the first time.

"Believed to have been made by Suzhou craftsmen, they exhibit a high point of refinement and workmanship, and offer a unique opportunity for comparison," the release states.

You will see so much during a walk through "China's Southern Paradise," one of the first works being "Ceremonial Disc," a jade piece estimated to come from a time between 3300 and 2300 B.C., from the Liangzhu culture.

Another piece that may capture your attention is "Architectural Structure," a work of stoneware with green glace from 1127 to 1279. As with so many of the selections, it offers fine details to be examined.

Much later in the exhibition, you may be struck by a large painting, a portrait of Emperor Kangxi, the ruler of the core regions of China from 1661 to 1722. On loan from The Palace Museum, it is one of the pieces visitors are prohibited from photographing.

Returning to the subject of the exhibition's journey from conception to debut, von Spee says the pandemic set it back a bit, but she's thrilled its day finally has come.

"I'm very excited about this, and we thank our Chinese partners, as well," she says. "It's a special moment to show this exhibition because we are all aware that there are political (and) economic tensions between the United States and China.

"This exhibition — and I know our Chinese partners have the same attitude — we hope transcends the tensions with art and through culture."

'China's Southern Paradise: Treasures from the Lower Yangzi Delta'

Where: Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd.

When: Sept. 10 through Jan. 7.

Tickets: $15, adults; $12, those 65 and up, 6 through 17 and students with ID; free, children 5 and under and CMA members.

Info: or 216-421-7350.

'China's Southern Paradise' complementary programming

Symposium: In conjunction with the exhibition "China's Southern Paradise: Treasures from the Lower Yangzi Delta," the Cleveland Museum of Art from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 4 will host "Jiangnan — Objects in Focus." Featuring 15 scholars from the United States, Asia and Europe, who will each give a talk spotlighting one exhibit in their respective area of expertise, the one-day symposium has the goal of discussing highlights of the exhibition and fostering a better understanding of the Jiangnan region and its artistic and cultural role in China and beyond, according to a news release. It is free, but tickets are required.

Lecture: "'Heaven Is High and the Emperor Is Far Away': Jiangnan in Ming Dynasty China" will be given by Craig Clunas, professor emeritus of the history of art, University of Oxford, at 2 p.m. Nov. 5 in CMA's Gartner Auditorium. Says a news release from CMA: "Although the Jiangnan region of China, meaning 'south of the Yangtze,' was the site of the first Ming dynasty capital, the court relocated to the north of China half a century after the dynasty's founding. From this time, emperors and their immediate families were largely absent from the culture of this prosperous and vibrant heartland. But many ties still linked the culture of Jiangnan's "Southern Paradise" and that of the Ming court. This lecture focuses on what artworks, as well as literature, can tell us about the often-fraught relationship between Jiangnan, its people, and their distant rulers in the north." It is free, but tickets are required.

Info: or 216-421-7350.