WILLIAMSTOWN -- For almost a century, the life of Sterling Clark, prior to 1910, was something of a mystery. The only clue to the Clark Art Institute founder's adventures was a book he had published in 1912, which detailed his 17-month trek across northern China from 1908 to 1909.
The book, "Through Shen-Kan: The Account of the Clark Expedition in North China," would turn out to be the key to a renewed cultural exchange between China and the Clark Art Institute, beginning in 2008 and ultimately resulting in three exclusive exhibitions at the museum this summer. Among the artifacts being exhibited, some for the first time, is a fully reconstructed sarcophagus of a Chinese dignitary from the sixth
"When I came to the Clark 19 years ago as a graduate student from Georgetown University, I met with the former director, David Brooks, who admitted we knew very little about Mr. Clark's life before 1910," Assistant Deputy Director Thomas Loughman said Monday. "We knew about Mr. Clark's life from 1920 on because he was an avid diarist. He wrote about what he ate for lunch and what purchases he and Francine made. We knew somewhat about his life from 1910 to 1920, when he began buying art, because we had the receipts. But prior to 1910, all we had was this book he had published which seemed to paint a very different portrait of the Mr. Clark we knew."
Loughman wouldn't begin to find out the answers to the questions posed
Director Michael Conforti presents the answer in the forward of the catalog to this season's major exhibition, "Unearthed: Recent Archeo logical Discoveries from Northern China,":
"Just as that early-20th-century expedition significantly advanced contemporary understanding of the region's topography and wildlife, so too, this 21st-century exhibition seeks to expand and enrich today's public understanding of its cultural history."
To tell the story of China's discovery of its past, the Clark enlisted the aid of Guest Curator Annette L. Julian, of Rutgers University, an expert in Chinese archeology. Together, they have crafted "Unearthed," a show that explores the history of northern China through artifacts -- vases, reliefs, religious statues and a sarcophagus -- that hint at the cultural influences that mixed in the region and the art from the fifth to eighth centuries that has since faded out of existence.
The show's centerpiece, the Sarcophagus of Song Shaozu, is one of the most impressive tomb objects to be found in China, according to Julian.
"This is the first time that it's been put together since it was found and the first time it has been out of China," she said. "It is unique because of its structure; it's the only one we know of that is made to represent a house. It's made out of 108 pieces of stone. It weighs about nine tons, so it has never been displayed intact in China."
Song Shaozu is known to have been a Chinese dignitary, who was buried in 477 C.E., according to a tablet found in his tomb. However, Julian said it is unclear if he was Chinese.
"His name is Chinese and the outside of the sarcophagus is detailed in Chinese art, but the inside walls are covered in nomadic artworks," she said. "This is very representative of the mixing of culture that took place in this area."
Like many of the tombs being preserved in China today, Shaozu's tomb was found accidentally during construction -- what is commonly referred to as "salvage archeology."
Artifacts from an undisturbed Tang Dynasty tomb, discovered in 2009 near Fujiagou Village in Lingtain County of China's Gansu province, had to be collected in three days, according to Julian.
"They had three days to remove everything, for the fear of tomb raiders and exposure," she said. "Many of the pieces here have never been exhibited -- not even in China. China does not exhibit any archeological finds before it is published; they have made a great exception. Many of these works, because of their condition, will never be seen again. The colors that remain intact today would fade with exposure to the light."
She said pieces, such as a pair of "Tian Wang," or "Heavenly Kings," which would have guarded the dead, were shining examples of the blend of Buddhist cosmology and nomadic beliefs that had taken place in the region.
Two other exhibitions, located in the Stone Hill Center, put Clark's 1908-1909 expedition in China into context.
"Through Shen-Kan: Sterling Clark in China," tells the story of Clark's expedition -- during which he and a team of naturalists set out to map the topography of the region -- through a series of historical documents, tools, photographs and biological specimens collected during the trek.
Loughman, who curated the exhibit, said the show draws heavily from the archives of the Smithsonian Institute, to which Clark and naturalist Arthur de Carle Sowerby donated their discoveries.
"The book is the key," Loughman said. "It is the onion in its unpeeled state."
A collection of 16 paired photographs, "Then and Now: Photographs of Northern China," also exhibited in the Stone Hill Center, juxtaposes photographs taken during the expedition to modern-day photographs of the same scenes taken by contemporary Chinese photographer Li Ju.
"Unearthed," runs through Oct. 21. "Then and Now: Photographs of Northern China," and "Through Shen-Kan: Sterling Clark in China," run through Sept. 16.
To reach Jennifer Huberdeau, email firstname.lastname@example.org.