By Raymond Zhou
The New York Times reported that a pair of statues, a gift from China, has received the cold shoulder in Italy.
A cultural exchange program between Ningbo and Florence has unexpectedly hit an aesthetic roadblock. Florence gave Ningbo a replica of Michelangelo's David, which Ningbo gladly accepted and erected in a public venue. In return, Ningbo, a city south of Shanghai, donated two reproductions of Tang dynasty figures.
Florence residents called them "ugly and too imposing". As a result, the 13-ft tall statues have been put in a warehouse. Local officials are now worried guests from Ningbo are coming for a visit.
Some netizens suggested that the disparity comes from the two pieces of art. Florence is the birthplace of European renaissance, with world-famous sculptural masterpieces, while Ningbo is not known for such art.
I'm not in a position to determine the gap in the value of the two gifts. I've studied Michelangelo as part of my college course on the renaissance, but I know almost nothing about Ningbo's "Civilian bureaucrat and military officer". That does not imply the latter is less valuable artistically or financially as I'm no expert.
Since both are replicas, I believe the crux lies in aesthetics, not values. The Tang statues are obviously in the Buddhist tradition, a world apart from the Greco-Roman-Renaissance axis. Putting them side by side, one needs a different set of standards to appreciate and evaluate each of them. By extension, it is understandable that putting one in the context of the other will yield jarring incongruity.
However, incongruous is not the same as ugly. Can you imagine erecting a statue of David in a Chinese city a century ago? Or 50 years ago? I bet if Ningbo had put the matter to a vote by all its citizens, it may well have been vetoed and the end result would be to remove it from public sight, most probably inside a museum where visitors are more prepared to come face-to-face with a bigger-than-life sculpture of a naked young man.
In other words, not every Chinese can appreciate the beauty of David without some rudimentary education, at least background information about its status in art history. Public nudity, even in art, runs counter to Chinese morality and sensibility. I remember the early years of China's reform - that is, a generation ago - when artistic expressions featuring nudity often met with public outrage.
A statue on a bridge in a big city had to "wear a thick layer of clothing" after it was completed. The mural in the Capital Airport, which had one of the female figures slightly exposing her upper body, caused a big controversy.
The Ningbo officials deserve plaudits for their courage to highlight a piece of artistic work that may more readily spark sneers than cheers in the local community. They have either studied the history of civilization or have consulted experts. And they probably believe the shock value may subside and residents, even those ignorant of European culture, may cast away their doubts and admire it for what it is.
Or maybe I'm overestimating their aptitude. They could have been in the same quandary as the Florence officials, but went ahead and installed it anyway because not doing so might entail the loss of face.
I don't have a solution for the Italians. They should have asked for a photograph before consenting to the gift. Maybe they would have chosen a replica of a terra-cotta soldier instead.
If you look at the larger picture, the incident illustrates the need for two-way cultural understanding. While a Chinese city is educated enough to convince its citizens of the beauty of a nude sculpture, a European city, one far better known than its Chinese counterpart, is so unfamiliar with Oriental art that a crash course is out of the question.
(China Daily 09/06/2008 page4)