Peter and I recently enjoyed seeing Unearthed: Recent Archeological Discoveries from Northern China at the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, a show which will be there until Oct. 21. I liked the little statues of oxen, people playing music, camels, holy people and warriors.
Much of the art blends references to Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, and some Tang Dynasty art mixes imagery from China, such as peonies and vines, with plants more common to the Mediterranean, such as the acanthus and palmettes. Below is a sarcophagus seen for the first time outside of China. Apparently tombs were to reflect the lives of those gone, with some important objects recreated in miniature. An ancient sage was quoted: “the deceased was treated as though dead and yet still alive, as though gone and yet still present… Well-cared for spirits meant good fortune for the living; neglected spirits turned into implacable ghosts.”
I learned from the placards, which Peter tells me those in the museum business call tombstones, that museum co-founder Sterling Clark was a civil engineer who went on an expedition to China in 1908, along with a naturalist, a meteorologist, an artist, and some others. They didn’t take any artifacts, but he later wrote a book about some findings. As I wondered what drew him to China, I unearthed a bit of the Clark family history, which enhanced my appreciation of the venerable museum. Apparently Sterling Clark’s wealth came from a grandfather who was a lawyer for Singer, and who helped implement payment plans that made the sewing machine affordable for many. Much of this fortune was divided between four brothers in Cooperstown, New York. After college, Sterling joined the army and ended up seeing some of the Boxer Rebellion in China. Afterward, he wanted to go back and explore. Then, without much desire to return to Cooperstown, he went to Paris, where he fell in love with Francine, who acted in the Comédie-Française and cared for her little girl.
Eventually they got married. (a sentence I’m borrowing from Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, in which she comments that “eventually” is dragged out with innuendo.) Family divisions ensued, but the couple spent much of the rest of their lives happily amassing art. Williamston, Mass. was the lucky recipient of their collection, a generous endowment, and a building where Sterling Clark’s ashes are buried under the steps.