Discovering the Belz Museum as Part of A Taste for China

One of the greatest joys of working on exhibitions outside my area of specialization is getting to explore the collections of other museums. As part of the project A Taste for China currently on view at the Brooks, I visited several public and private collections looking for Chinese and Chinese-inspired art to borrow for display. As a result I spent an afternoon at the Belz Museum of Asian & Judaic Art which is located in downtown Memphis. I was very graciously received not only by their director, Belinda Fish and the institution’s preparator, Phil Bradshaw, but by Mr. Jack Belz himself. Together they gave me an extraordinary guided tour of the collection. Thanks to them, I was given great insights into how the collection came together and heard wonderful stories about their favorite acquisitions. Of course, this made the experience even more remarkable.

From the moment I entered the museum, I was a bit overwhelmed by the collection. Almost unbelievably huge and fine carvings of ivory and jade, or extraordinarily graceful ancient Chinese tomb sculptures, or panels of embroidered silk that were at once expansive and delicate stood nearly everywhere. Interspersed with these objects were still others, not just of different scale and material, but belonging sometimes to other cultural traditions—whether Jewish, Meji-period Japanese, or French classicism. Despite the richness and variety of the Belz Museum’s holdings, many objects stood out on their own due to their incredible quality and visual appeal. Among many memorable works was a terra-cotta sculpture of a Han Dynasty sleeve dancer. Though made of simple, almost unadorned clay with a rather matte surface, the piece—which shows a young woman moving her over-long sleeves in a graceful arching motion—perfectly evokes the elegance and sophistication known through ancient writings of that storied, almost mythical world. No less evocative are a series of crawling and obsequious courtiers, made of the same simple material. Arranged in a row, they capture the strict court etiquette of the Tang Dynasty and are rare examples of sculpture which literally depict people kowtowing. One could look at tomb sculptures at the Belz Museum for hours, and be amazed by the range, quality, and number of these works.

I was also very much taken by the museum’s collection of semi-precious stones. These run the gamut from rough but spectacular natural formations of amethyst or quartz to highly carved and finely polished sculptures of jade. Although the larger pieces of stone carving had the greatest physical impact, it was some of the smaller works that really caught my eye. Among these was a white jade sculpture of a head of Chinese cabbage. It is so delicately worked with curving stems and ruffling leaves that at first it really looks like an actual vegetable. Its maker took advantage of the stone’s translucence, and carved the piece so finely that light shines through it—enhancing the feeling that you are looking at a living plant. While I made a point of trying NOT to ask to borrow works that were on public display, I had to make an exception for the cabbage. Thanks to the generosity of the Belz Museum, the cabbage is now part of A Taste for China. But soon it will return to its home galleries.

I also had to make an exception and ask for the loan of one of the largest and most beautiful embroideries in Belz collection, a huge bedcover commissioned the early 19th century as an imperial wedding gift. It was made for Mianning, the Daoguang Emperor of China (1782 -1850). The bedcover—of pale lavender silk reserved for royal usage—is alive with birds, flowers, and insects. In particular, it is filled with symbols suggesting a long, harmonious, and fruitful marriage. As I learned, the large bird of paradise near the center—recognizable by his flowing tail—is probably meant to suggest the emperor himself and his place as ruler of China. The piece is worked with incredibly tiny stitches and uses a rich, nuanced range of colors that really capture the richness and beauty of the natural world. The bedcover is also fascinating as it reflects how European fashions, particularly for beautifully arranged garlands of flowers and foliage, were absorbed into Chinese design.

Since I was looking for objects to borrow for an exhibition project, I was also given a truly rare opportunity—the chance to visit the museum’s storage areas. I was astounded to learn that the Belz Collection consists of over 20,000 objects. As with most art institutions—including the Brooks—most of these objects are not on view. The storage area of the museum yielded even more wonders. I was astounded by the sheer number of works, but also the number of truly remarkable things, whether jade, lacquer, bronze, cloisonné, silk, or wood. In particular, the size and beauty of a cinnabar lacquer screen captured my attention. Intricately ornamented with writhing dragons and enriched with carved jade, it bespoke the brilliance and majesty of Chinese imperial court culture. Standing near it, and no less wonderful, was a carved cinnabar chair from the eighteenth century. I was thrilled to know that the Belz Museum was willing to loan these large, fragile works. Currently they are installed in the first gallery of A Taste for China at the Brooks.

The storage area also revealed great objects belonging to particular artistic movements that I had despaired of finding in private or public collections. Two of these works were loaned to my exhibition: a French dressing table and an Art Deco Coffee Set. The latter is a fantastic and fantastical example of the chinoiserie style. This design movement represents a light-hearted interpretation of Chinese art by Western designers. The table, which is encrusted with bronze, tortoise shell, gilding, and mother of pearl, all set against ebonized wood, opens to reveal a mirror and space for toilette articles. Its decoration emulates rustic Chinese scenery, but is more informal and fanciful than the lacquerware articles upon which it was based. The Art Deco service is of pewter, but inlaid with carnelian and jade. It embodies the fascination with the modern world that characterizes much of 1920s design. Although made in China, it was clearly intended for a European or American market. Both these objects are currently installed in our galleries where they are great complements to works from own and private collections.

While the main goal of A Taste for China is to explore the long cultural relationship between China and the West through the decorative and fine arts, it was also a great chance to learn about public and private collections with holdings in these areas. Having never been to the Belz Museum before, I truly was astounded by the breadth and variety of their collection. I am looking forward to my next visit, and to bringing family and friends along to see my favorites and to make their own discoveries. Actually, I have been back twice since my initial visit, and am continually surprised and transfixed by what I see. From ancient metal work of the Warring Dynasties period to very fine French Academic sculpture, the Belz Museum has many unexpected treasures.

This blog is written by Stanton Thomas Curator of European and Decorative Art for the Brooks.

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