WILLIAMSTOWN — The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, better known for its melting Renoirs and calming Corots, has been branching out of late. Three years ago it mounted its first ever foray into 20th-century modernism, with an exhibition pairing Georgia O’Keeffe with Arthur Dove. Since then, it has played host to another modern, Pablo Picasso (“Picasso Looks at Degas”), as well as a small flurry of international contemporary artists, among them El Anatsui, Candida Hofer, Thomas Struth, and Juan Munoz.
Changing it up is not just the order of the day in exhibition programming at the Clark. It’s a principle that, for now at least, underlies the museum’s physical campus and its collection, too. As the Clark undergoes the latest and most ambitious phase in its physical expansion and renovation, choice works from its renowned collection are on an extended international tour.
All this means that surprises are in store for the return visitor to the Clark. Highlights of those parts of the collection that remain can be seen in a ground-floor gallery near the entrance, as well as in a crowded, salon-style hang upstairs.
If much of this seems improvised and — necessarily, perhaps, given all the upheaval — a bit loosey-goosey, the Clark has something else to offer this summer: a series of three linked exhibitions focused on China.
The Clark has never held a Chinese exhibition before, but it has good reason to mount these three. The museum’s founder, Sterling Clark, made a scientific expedition to northwestern China in 1908-09, before he became a collector.
The story of the expedition is told in “Through Shen-kan: Sterling Clark in China” in the Stone Hill Center galleries, up the hill from the main part of the museum.
Clark grew up assured of his material well-being. He was heir to a fortune built up by his grandfather Edward Clark, a New York lawyer who founded the Singer sewing-machine company with Isaac Merritt Singer.
Like his grandfather, a major sponsor of science education at his alma mater, Williams College, he developed an early interest in science, studying civil engineering at Yale University’s Sheffield Scientific School.
He graduated in 1899, whereupon he received a commission as a second lieutenant in the Ninth Infantry Regiment of the US Army. He was sent to the Philippines, newly under American control after the Spanish-American War of 1898, and six months later he and his regiment were on their way to China, part of a multinational force to suppress the Boxer Rebellion.
If that conflict was all about the Chinese people’s unease with foreign intrusion — from the opium trade to Christian evangelism — its prompt conclusion in the foreign forces’ favor did not save Clark from Chinese hostility down the track.
Certainly, however, his experience in China, which included a second tour of duty in 1903-04, piqued his interest. And not long after resigning his military commission in 1905, he began plotting an ambitious scientific expedition to China that was underway four years later.
It lasted 480 days and met with measurable success. Clark’s team covered almost 2,000 miles in a part of China little known in the West, the Loess Plateau, which extends across Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces. It documented meteorological conditions, geology, roads, and local customs, and it collected 250 mammal samples (34 species and sub-species, to be exact), as well as other animal and plant species, most of which were sent back to the Smithsonian Institution.
Unfortunately, the expedition ended badly. One of Clark’s team, the surveyor Hazrat Ali, was murdered by hostile locals. Two Chinese farmers were killed by the team in retaliation, and the expedition was abandoned.
Clark wrote up the expedition in a book, “Through Shen-kan,” that constitutes, according to Shi Hongshuai, an expert in geographical history in northwestern China, “the most comprehensive and systematic survey of the Loess Plateau in the late Qing dynasty.”
“Through Shen-kan” is complemented by the exhibit “Then and Now: Photographs of Northern China,” which places photographs taken by Clark’s team alongside photographs taken in the exact same places now, a century later, by freelance photographer Li Ju. The appeal of such “before and after” shots may be simple. But the results are absorbing.
The expedition’s premature end was a pity. Western expeditions during this period routinely carried guns and, according to Shi, had a “tendency to use violence.” But it’s not at all clear that they were specifically to blame for the violence that disrupted the Clark mission.
More likely, the unrest broke out as a response to a more generalized resentment of the West — its forcible occupation of the eastern coast of China, its warships on the Yangtze, and so on. “It was difficult, if not impossible,” writes Shi, “for [Chinese] citizens to distinguish between foreigners conducting academic research from those occupying land, plundering cultural resources, and stealing cultural relics.”
Got all that? Ouch.
Speaking of cultural relics, Western museums in general, and the Clark in particular, have been trying to make a better go of things in recent years. “Unearthed: Recent Archaeological Discoveries From Northern China,” in the Clark’s main temporary exhibition space, is the fruit of some of those efforts.
An ironic result of Western imperialism is that it was Westerners — often members of expeditions similar to Clark’s — who introduced archeology as a scientific discipline to China. The upshot has been a bonanza of rediscovery that has done much to boost Chinese cultural pride.
Today, scarcely a month goes by without some dazzling new find that puffs out the chests of Chinese officials, and leaves sinologists the world over rubbing their eyes (how to keep up?!) and collectors salivating.
“Unearthed” presents, as its centerpiece, a reconstructed stone sarcophagus shaped like a traditional Chinese house. Built in the 5th century, the sandstone tomb was discovered in 2000 in northern Shanxi, a province traversed by Clark.
The show also included objects from the tomb of a charismatic prince and “Grand Minister of War” in the Northern Qi dynasty, Lou Rui. Lou, who had a taste for extravagant things, died in 570. His tomb was discovered in 1979. Look out for the marvelous warrior figure who stood guard over Lou’s body. Tensely upright, he holds a thin red shield, balanced on one foot, with elegantly splayed fingers.
The final part of the show is an impressive set of polychrome figures from an early Tang dynasty tomb. They were discovered three years ago near Fujiagou Village in Gansu, another of the provinces explored by Clark. They adopt dynamic poses and wear elaborately decorated clothes and threatening expressions on their faces. Several are beasts, and one is a beast with a human head. Particularly beautiful, if relatively humble and subdued, is a bearded groom who looks up and to the right, duty and readiness written all over his face.
The catalog includes an overview of archeology in China since Clark’s day by An Jiayao, a research fellow at the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. It concludes with a summary of challenges facing archeology in China today, one of which is a shortage of trained archeologists.
Of the 800 archeological projects approved by the government each year, he writes, 80 percent are triggered by new construction projects. Unfortunately, the building boom moves too quickly for archeology, and as a result “a large number of ancient sites and relics have been completely destroyed by bulldozers.”
What’s more, the popularization of archeology and the inflating international market for Chinese artifacts have caused a worrying upsurge in grave robbers. Unfortunately, great sums are on offer for people willing to break the law and, in many cases, to risk their lives in the search for loot.
The Institute of Archaeology’s An acknowledges the problems that arise from local regions rich in archeological sites using their cultural inheritance to attract tourists. A level of hyperbole has set in, causing a backlash: People no longer believe everything they are told about “new discoveries” — and perhaps with good reason.
Perhaps that’s why I found the tidy display of instruments carried by Clark on his 1908-09 expedition — a scale and weights, a surveyor’s transit and tripod, precision stopwatches, measuring tape, and a level rod — not just sobering, but strangely rousing.
Let level heads prevail.
THROUGH SHEN-KAN: Sterling Clark in China. Through Sept. 16.
Recent Archaeological Discoveries From Northern China.
Through Oct. 21
THEN AND NOW: Photographs of Northern China.
Through Sept. 16
At: The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown. 413-458-2303. www.clarkart.edu
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this review conflated two shows. “Clark Remix,” now on display, was developed by the museum’s curatorial team. “uCurate,” which opens Nov. 17, will be assembled using a computer program, uCurate, that enables members of the public to choose works from the museum’s collection for their own virtual “curatorial remixes.”