Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Land of Oz

Many have seen or heard of the 1939 fantasy movie The Wizard of Oz 綠野仙蹤, based on a 1900 children’s novel by Lyman Frank Baum. If you did, you may recall Judy Garland played the schoolgirl Dorothy Gale who lives on a Kansas farm with her Aunt and Uncle but dreams of a better place "somewhere over the rainbow." The rest of the movie was about her journey returning home after she got to Oz as a result of a tornado. If you didn’t, that is alright as you probably have heard her song in the film with that title. Here it is to jog your memory.

Well, we had it easy compared to Dorothy; we flew recently by commercial plane to Wichta, Kansas to visit a dear friend of mine of 45 years. Wichita is located at the south central part of Kansas and is the most populous city of Kansas with a population over 350 thousands. With its strong aerospace industry history with Boeing (including portions of former McDonnell Douglas), Cessna, Learjet, Hawker Beechcraft,, Wichita has earned the nickname of the “Air Capital of the World”. It wasn’t an accident that GARMIN, the world leading GPS navigation device manufacturer was started 20 years ago at Wichita by and named after GARy Burrell and MIN Kao 高民環.

Before people could drive and fly around, Wichita one time had the nickname of “Cowtown”, a wild place with lawmen for hire and rowdy cowboys who drove cattle all the way from Texas and Oklahoma to this railhead for transportation to eastern markets. Till mass American settlers arrived after 1854, the place was inhabited with Plains Indians such as Pawnee, Kansa, Wichita, and Apache with a few traders here and there. The first recorded encounter with the Europeans dated back to 1541 when Spanish explorer Francisco Vazques de Coronado arrived. French came 200 years later around 1750. A beautiful park is now established at the confluence of (Big) Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers in the city with a pedestrian bridge. Stood on a rock near the river bank is the famous 44 foot Cor-Ten steel sculpture “Keeper of the Plains” of 1974 by Kiowa-Comanche artist Blackbear Bosin that has since become the symbol of Wichita and was chosen to be one of the official emblems of 1976 American Bicentennial (see photo).

When you look at the map, Kansas is in the dead center of U.S. Indeed, the northern town of Lebanon, Kansas is the official geographic center of the contiguous 48 states. Social-politically, Kansas is full of interesting history with pivotal moments and events. Triggered by so-called popular sovereignty in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, Bleeding Kansas, a series of violent events raged on in Kansas between anti-slavery Free Soiler and pro-slavery Border Ruffian elements over the critical question of whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free state or slave state. On January 29, 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state (the 34th state) that tilted the balance of U.S. Senate and gave badly needed support for President Lincoln who was facing secessions of southern states. Less than three months later on April 12, Battle of Fort Sumter at near Charleston, South Carolina ignited the Civil War.

Another significant event of Kansas in recent history is the well-known U.S. Supreme Court landmark civil right decision of 1954 - Brown v. Board of Education. The Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation of elementary schools by the Board of Education of state capital Topeka is unconstitutional (violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment), overturning rulings going all the way back to the Court’s 1896 decision and declared once-and-for-all that the justification and practices of "separation but equal" is simply wrong. This legal victory and Court’s opinion of "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" paved the way for the subsequent civil right movements and changed the American history.

In the state capital building of Topeka, you would also find (currently closed for renovation) the famous mural “The Tragic Prelude” by John Steuart Curry, one of the great American Regionalism painters who was born and grew up in Kansas. The painting shows a larger than life figure of John Brown with his arms stretched, one holding a bible and the other a rifle. John Brown was a famous American abolitionist who advocated and led armed insurrection against proslavery forces to end slavery (yes, he was one of the key figures of Bleeding Kansas). He was tried, convicted and hung late 1859 in Virginia for raiding Harpers Ferry Armory and killing several. Historians seem to agree that his martyrdom and escalation to violence did contribute directly to the start of Civil War, although President Lincoln denounced him as a delusional fanatic.

A highlight of our visit was the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City (to confuse you, Kansas City metropolitan spans both Kansas and Missouri and the museum is in Missouri side where most business and commerce are). This museum may not be as well-known as some in big cities like New York, Boston, or Chicago, but it has one of the best collections of ancient Chinese artworks, especially thousand years old Song Dynasty paintings, outside China and Taiwan.

The benefactor William Rockhill Nelson was a successful real estate developer and founder of The Kansas City Star newspaper. In his will, he stipulated that upon death of his wife and daughter, his estate including his home be used to establish an art museum for public enjoyment that is where and how Nelson Gallery (later combined with Atkins’ to form the current museum) came to be. Nelson's donation of approximately 11 million dollars worth on his death in 1915 (about 200 millions worth in today's dollar) gave tremendous flexibility to his trustees and curators to buy fine arts all over the world. Further, with the Great Depression and depressed art market, the museum was able to acquire many treasures in bargain prices.

The fabulous collection of Chinese artworks in Nelson Museum was not an accident. One of its founding trustees was the legendary Langdon Warner (1881 – 1955), an art historian and Harvard Professor, who believed to be the inspiration for Steven Spielberg's popular movie character of Indiana Jones! Professor Warner is considered the first full-time teacher of Asian Arts of U.S. He and Horace Jayne of Museum of Pennsylvania arrived in China in 1923, relatively late compared to his infamous British and French explorers like Sir Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot, and ”took” several masterpieces of DunHuang 敦煌 murals with a chemical solution. Some of these murals are now in Harvard’s Fogg Museum. Warner met and recruited his Harvard student Laurence Sickman in 1931 to help with collecting Chinese artworks for the museum. Larry Sickman later became a curator and then served as director of the Nelson museum from 1953 to 1977 till his retirement. One of his aclaimed successes was to have bargained for several ancient Chinese painting masterpieces from the last Emperor PuYi who “took” some of the palace collections when he was evicted from the Forbidden City in 1924.

To appreciate the quality of the Chinese collection of Nelson Museum, one can look at two pieces that we saw on this trip. One is a Chinese painting of Southern Song dynasty by Li Song李嵩. It is entitled The Red Cliff depicting great poet of Northern Song Su Shi’s 蘇軾 (the one in red color cloth on the boat in the painting) visiting the Red Cliff 赤壁 on YangZi river. Of course, Su Shi's poems on Red Cliff are still revered as one of the best in Chinese literature.

The other one is perhaps of more significance and unique in Chinese arts and history. It is the large (approximately 6x8 ft) limestone bas-relief entitled Procession of the Empress as Donor with Her Court 文昭皇后禮佛圖 (see photo on the right below). This 1500 years old masterpiece depicts a procession led by Empress WenZhao 文昭皇后of Northern Wei 北魏 dynasty for a worshipful donation to Buddha. It is one of the best artworks of the period and an important example of the fusion of Chinese arts into the Gandharan style Buddhist art of India whereby the figures are elongated with elegant strokes and curvature.

This relief was on the south side (right-hand side of the entrance) of the central BinYang cave 賓陽中洞 in LongMen Grottoes 龍門石窟 since around 500 AD near LuoYang city 洛陽. Note LongMen Grottoes 龍門石窟 is one of the three most important grottoes of China in arts and archeology (the other two are DunHuang 敦煌 and YungGang 雲崗.

While I was not able to complete the details of how the relief was brought to Nelson Museum, close involvement of Larry Sickman and his colleagues at MET (New York Metropolitan Art Museum) seems certain. The companion relief entitled “Procession of the Emperor as Donor”孝文帝禮佛圖 that used to be on the opposite north-side of the same BinYang cave is now hung in the of New York Metropolitan Museum of Arts MET (see photo on the left below. To reunite them on paper, I am including a photo of the Budha sculpture in the center of the cave from Google image database in the middle blow).

According to stories, a 14,000 Chinese silver dollars (one chinese silver dollar contains 0.8 ounce of silver) contract was discovered in 1953 by Communist China government between an unidentified American art dealer (the fence?) known by his Chinese name 普愛倫, and a notorious Chinese Art dealer Yue Bin 岳彬 of Beijing for (illegal) acquisition of the reliefs. Subsequently, Yue was prosecuted and sentenced to death with deferred execution. He died in jail two years later. By now all involved in the case directly are probably dead; we may never know all the facts and details. Clearly this is not an isolated case. It is not clear when and if this and other cases (with China and many other nations of the world) will be resolved and the stolen goods be returned to their rightful owners.

While in Kansas City, we saw statues of Winston Churchill and his wife (see photo on the right). It turns out that Missouri has a special tie with Churchill. In May 1946, after Churchill was voted out of the office, his good friend President Truman invited him to visit U.S. and accompanied him to Westminster College, a small but reputable four years liberal arts college in Fulton of central Missouri, 150 miles east of Kansas city. That is where Winston Churchill gave his famous Sinews of Peace aka the "Iron Curtain" speech that defined the era of Cold War for the next 46 years. In May 1992, former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev gave his "The River of Time and the Imperative of Action" speech at the same place to close formally the curtain of the Cold War.

By the way, there is another important Kansas City citizen - Walter Cronkite who was a former CBS News anchorman and arguably one of the most trusted American journalist. He set the standard for all TV newsmen followed. His famous Feb 1968 report from Vietnam forewarned the tragic consequence of escalation of the un-winnable war and sealed the position in history for those leaders who did not understand it. President Johnson was quoted to have said, after Cronkite's report, "If I have lost Cronkite, I have lost Middle America". Walter Cronkite died on July 17th, 2009 at age 92, the day we arrived at Kansas.

Within driving distance from Kansas City, there are two American Presidents' hometowns and libraries. One is President Harry Truman's in Independence, Missouri, 15 miles east of Kansas City. Another is his successor - President Eisenhower's in Abilene, Kansas, 150 miles west of Kansas City. Both Presidents Truman and Eisenhower played crucial roles in ending WWII by defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Both set major postwar policies including Containment and "threat of massive retaliation" against communist expansion that placed U.S. in a strong leadership position of the free world. Both weren’t rated well in office but are now considered top 10 American Presidents by historians and many.

We visited the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas. Growing up as a small town boy (see photo of his home at right) with mid-western values and instilled with rigorous military training, Eisenhower’s low-key style is perhaps expected but it also earned him the criticism of a “do-nothing” president. He obviously was a brilliant planner and executive, judging from what he has accomplished in WWII. He has done great things for the country including the establishment of NASA and space program (that allowed for Kennedy's "going-to-the-moon" campaign) as well as the National Interstate Highway System starting in 1956 (I-70 pass through his home town that made our round-trip from Wichita to Kansas City and back through Abilene very easy!) What I am still curious about is what he really thought of Richard Nixon, his Vice President pick and father of his grand daughter-in-law.

Talk to you soon!

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