The International Exhibition of Chinese Art, held at the Royal Academy of Arts in Burlington House from November 1935 to March 1936, was a massive undertaking, planned and executed within a very short space of time and generally acknowledged in Europe to be a great success.
From the time of the Opium war in the 1840s many Imperial Chinese works of art had begun to be dispersed onto the international art market. Some had found their way to Japan, some to the West. Following the abdication of the last Qing emperor in 1912 and with the establishment of the Palace Museum in 1925, foreign art collectors had begun to become more familiar with China's national treasures, and a new public enthusiasm for Chinese art began to take hold.
At the end of 1932, a group of British collectors led by Sir Percival David (1892-1964) proposed to hold a comprehensive exhibition of Chinese art in London.
Formal negotiations for such an exhibition were undertaken with the Chinese government in 1934, and after lengthy deliberation, the Chinese Ministry of Education, the government body responsible for organizing national cultural events, decided to participate. Chinese authorities held high expectations that this event would demonstrate the grandeur of the Chinese nation to a worldwide audience - and, perhaps more importantly, that it would help garner sympathy and support for China's resistance against Japan, which had been pressing on Chinese territory since its occupation of Manchuria, beginning in September 1931.
After having made a decision to participate the Exhibition, the National Government established an artistic selection committee, who collaborated with the British selection committee to decide which pieces from the holdings of public collections would be sent to London.
Shanghai exhibition 8 April to 5 May 1935This 'Preliminary Exhibition for the London International Exhibition of Chinese Art in Shanghai' was a rehearsal for the London Exhibition.
From 8 April to 5 May, approximately eight months before the opening of the London Exhibition, the Chinese Preparation Committee held a preliminary exhibition of the finalized collection, in the former German Club in Shanghai.
In a letter to the Royal Academy in London written in Peking in April 1935, rom Sir Percival David describes how the 'preliminary exhibition' of potential exhibits was installed in 'the old Bank of China'. These potential exhibits had been extracted from the temporary storage of the contents of the Palace Museum, described in an internal memorandum written in late 1934 by the Secretary of the Royal Academy: 'the Palace treasures are stored at present in a Shanghai warehouse in 21,000 cases... stacked one above the other.'
Never before had such a large selection of ancient works of art been on public display in China. Selected art works from different Chinese public collections entered for the first time a completely new exhibition space.
However, while Western experts called these exhibits "art treasures", both Chinese media and scholars addressed these exhibits as "national treasures (guobao)" emphasizing the national representation rather than the idea of "art" suggests a growing conception in China that these artefacts were no longer imperial property, but items in a national tradition collectively owned by the public.
Despite being heavily criticized by groups of Chinese academics on a number of grounds, the collection sent not being insured being one of them, and the involvement of the French Professor Paul Pellio, it is likely that the exhibition was ventured into as a conscious mean of national defense against the Japanese who at the time was invading Manchuria. In this effort Britain and hundreds of western individuals and institutions came to the aid of the Chinese, not the least by addressing the need for safe transportation by supplying the Suffolk to bring the entire exhibition from Shanghai to England.
A second consideration appears to have been an attempt to bring forward a unified understanding of 'Chinese Art' as 'Fine Art' as opposed to the 'Minor arts' pottery and porcelain etc. usually is considered to be. All this helped to up the status of the historical China if not its young Republic from which nothing was exhibited.
The commercial and prestigious aspects of the lenders also seems to have had some importance since the exhibition also became something of a showcase for the personal collections of the Organizing Committee. Sir Percival David for example showed 314 items from his own collection and the 187 exhibits from the British Museum were all labeled with the name of the previous owner, George Eumorfopoulos. Aside from his own personal exhibits, loans from the Louvre, the Musée Guimet and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, as well as the fruits of his Central Asian exploration, were all labeled 'Pelliot Collection'.
As part of his campaign to persuade the Chinese Government that insurance was not necessary, Sir Percival David had persuaded the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to allocate space on HMS Suffolk, a war ship, in order to transport safely the 760 art treasures (BM, Wood, Malcolm to Rackham, RAA/SEC/24/25/6) in their 93 cases.
London Exhibition 28 November 1935 to 7 March 1936
The International Exhibition of Chinese Art at Burlington House, Piccadilly, held from 28th November 1935 to 7th March 1936 was well received and attended, attracting a total of 401,768 visitors over its course of four months. 108,914 copies of the exhibition catalogue were sold, as well as 3,486 illustrated supplements, 2,196 exhibition handbooks and 33,600 copies of The Royal Society of Arts journal.
With one in four visitors purchasing the exhibition catalogue, knowledge of this event soon spread. More than one hundred articles appeared in various Chinese, English, French, German and Japanese journals during the exhibition period, which highlights its widespread popularity. The exhibition provided the first opportunity for leading international scholars of Chinese art history and archaeology to present their scholarship to an international public audience.
This Chinese art exhibition was a remarkable event which presented incomparable Chinese art pieces, attracted unprecedented crowds, and broke all records for attendance. It was the first time in history that such a large amount of Chinese objects had been on loan to a foreign country. The exhibition was an outstanding success for both Britain and Republican China.
Western scholars have claimed that this exhibition "inaugurated the modern era of Chinese art historical studies" in Europe (Elliott and Shambaugh 2005: 83-84). An English report at that time also commented that "China reveals itself as an influence comparable with Greece and Italy, not only in what is patronizingly called ‘'he applied arts,' but in the fine arts as well" (Sowerby 1936: 204).
Nanking Exhibition 1 June 1936
On 1 June 1936, following the conclusion of the London Exhibition and the safe return to China of all the collection, a 'Nanking Exhibition' was held in the capital. In addition to showcasing artwork from the Chinese collection that had been on display in England, the Nanking Exhibition also contained 1360 photographs of the various overseas collections.
During the course of these three connected exhibits, then - the Preliminary Exhibition in Shanghai, the London Exhibition and subsequent Nanking Exhibition - China's artistic heritage was on public display on both a domestic and international scale never before seen.
The Chinese Organizing Committee's selection was published in a catalogue by iteself, the Canjia lundun zhongguo yishu guoji zhanlanhui chupin tushuo 参加伦敦中国艺术国际展览会出品图说 (Illustrated Catalogue of Chinese Government Exhibits for the International Exhibition of Chinese Art in London), 4 vols., Shanghai: The Commercial Press, Ltd., 1935.
Guo Hui, New Categories, New History: "The Preliminary Exhibition of Chinese Art" in Shanghai, 1935