Exhibition of Rockefeller Asian art collection transports, teaches

Two of my primary interests in art are as a means to travel and as history teacher. Through art, distant places – past and present – can be visited. Tony Abeyta’s paintings take me to the Southwest. Russian Impressionism lands me on the earthy, vast plains and mountain ranges of that country. I experience Tangiers through the eyes of Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Travel is the hobby I’m most passionate about. When I travel, I am my best self; my most curious, open, engaged, welcoming, aware. I learn when I travel. My perspectives evolve.

I’ve found art museums and galleries wonderful opportunities for travel – through pictures.

My pursuit of art has also exposed me to a people’s history – unvarnished – the likes of which I did not receive growing up white, male and middle class in middle America or in college at Auburn University. The paintings of Jacob Lawrence and the photographs of Gordon Parks enlightened me to the actual history of the United States more than any textbook, documentary or lecture I was ever presented.

Dawoud Bey. Kara Walker. Kerry James Marshall. Cheyenne ledger drawings.

These artists exposed me to the American history which had been hidden from me, American history not as promotion of white nationalism, patriarchy, cutthroat capitalism and colonialism, but through the eyes of the people trampled by those systems.

The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville’s newest temporary exhibition “Buddha and Shiva, Lotus and Dragon: Masterworks from the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection at Asia Society” satisfies both my craving for travel and offers lessons in history through artwork.

The travel aspect of the show is obvious.

Objects from the shrines, palaces and temples of China, Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Tibet, Vietnam, India, Cambodia and elsewhere across Asia fill the galleries, transporting guests. Nearly 70 pieces are on display, spanning the continent, with the earliest coming from the 6th century BCE all the way through to the 19th century.

Imagination runs wild when contemplating what these sculptures, bronzes and ceramics witnessed. The places they came from. The people who made them. Each and every item on view, among the finest examples of its kind ever produced.

The American history being shared here is more subtle.

John D. Rockefeller III (1907-1978) is the grandson of Standard Oil co-founder John D. Rockefeller. With the family’s outrageous wealth excusing Rockefeller III from work, he focused his life on philanthropy and the collection of Asian art.

His first trip to the region came in 1929, but it was after World War II when his engagement with Asia became total. Thanks to his family’s connections to the highest echelons of the U.S. government – and Rockefeller III’s deep passion for Asia, particularly Japan – he came to serve as a cultural consultant and diplomat for numerous organizations tasked with rebuilding that country after the war and improving relations, generally, between America and that continent.

A critical component in Rockefeller III’s personal effort to achieve this was his art collection.

“(Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller III) were very savvy in understanding at the end of World War II – the light bulb went off and they said, ‘We’re a global society now.’ There is no longer going to be the opportunity to say what happens in a place far away is not relevant to me and it doesn’t affect me,” Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens Chief Curator Holly Keris said during a media preview for the exhibition I attended. “They realized that we as Westerners, we’re going to have more and more interaction with countries with which we we’re not familiar and they recognized the power of art to be that tool (for introduction and understanding).”

Rockefeller wanted, “to contribute to broader and deeper understanding between the peoples of the United States and Asia.” He – and eventually his art collection – was striving for “understanding.”

“Understanding,” Rockefeller III said, “strikes deeper than mere tolerance; it reaches further than mere acquaintance or formal association; it is that quality of mind and spirit whose existence is essential to true peace.”

Japan would become a second home for the couple who, cumulatively, spent many years in Asia, traveling widely, meeting the people, learning about the cultures and collecting art. Sherman Lee, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art and an expert on Asian art, served as their consultant. The material they acquired was purposely high on visual impact to intrigue the American public.

Stone tablet from Rockefeller Asian art exhibition installation view at Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens
Stone tablet from Rockefeller Asian art exhibition installation view at Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens

The Rockefeller’s prime collecting years were the mid-to-late 1940s through the late 1970s, a period of unthinkable turmoil across the continent. Japan had been obliterated following World War II. The Korean peninsula was torn in half, the country divided, terrible fighting. Vietnam would take center stage in the global conflict between Capitalism vs. Communism and experience human tragedy for decades of an apocalyptic scale. All the while, Mao’s mania and murder killed Chinese people by the tens of millions across across this same timespan.

Throughout their living and traveling in Asia during this period, the Rockefellers acquired art, always with the intent of creating a public collection to be displayed in America.

“How can you create connections with cultures that are not your own, in places you can’t easily get to,” Keris said of the Rockefellers’ mindset in trying to introduce Americans to Asia. “The Rockefellers, because of the tremendous access  they had to these countries during those decades, were able to assemble a collection of the absolute highest quality with the intent of bringing it to the United States, making it publicly accessible, putting it on tour, with the hope that it would be kind of the first spark that would get people in this country interested in learning more about all of the countries in Asia.”

That’s exactly what they did. Following Mr. Rockefeller’s death in 1978 from a car accident, the collection was bequeathed to the Asia Society in New York City which he founded in 1956 to promote greater knowledge of Asia in the United States.

The fruits of that collecting can be seen through September 18, 2022 at the Cummer Museum.

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