The Tale of a Bodhisattva

Nearly every day I run across some previously unknown person or event relative to Cranbrook’s history. My latest obsession is with a Chinese wall painting purchased in 1939 by George Booth for the Art Museum’s collection. Sadly, it is no longer in our collection, but the story is quite interesting nonetheless.

As early as 1916, Booth was acquiring Chinese objects from the Japanese dealer Yamanaka & Company, and soon after from Duveen Brothers and the Parish-Watson Company in New York, Spink & Son in London, and Gumps in San Francisco. As was customary, dealers maintained a relationship with their clients via letters often suggesting objects they might be interested in and including photographs and catalogs. In 1939, Booth began a relationship with the well-known Chinese dealer, C.T. Loo, who had offices and gallery space in both New York and Paris.

Bodhisattva from the Five Dynasties Period. Cisheng Monastery, Wenxian, Henan Province, China. You can clearly see where the wall painting had been cut into three sections in order to remove it from the temple.

Loo was widely considered one of the most prominent, and controversial, dealers in Chinese art and artifacts in the early twentieth century. Loo traveled annually to China to hand-pick the objects he wanted, many of which were chiseled out of or pilfered from ancient Buddhist Temples and monasteries. Daisy Yiyou Wang, Curator of Chinese and East Asian Art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and the pre-eminent scholar of Loo, stated “he is remembered as a culprit for the depletion of the nation’s cultural heritage.” Loo justified his practice by stating that he was preserving China’s history by getting the objects out of China – that the Chinese couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of them! In 1915, after a visit to the U.S., Loo opened a gallery in New York. His first sale was to Charles Lang Freer.

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The three sections were shipped to Paris and reassembled by restorers there.

Booth’s first interaction with C.T. Loo came in the fall of 1939 when he acquired two Chinese bronzes. In correspondence about the bronzes, Loo also suggested to Booth a large “fresco” (or wall painting) which stood thirteen feet tall. After consultation with Eliel Saarinen, Booth acquired the work, which arrived in January 1940.

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Part of the detail drawing of the Art Museum’s east wall. Saarinen designed a recessed panel which housed the painting. AD.11.236, November 5, 1940. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

In December 1941, John Gettens of the Fogg Museum examined the painting and found it to be in generally good condition. It was of the “usual mud wall of Chinese temple paintings” which included organic matter – straw, seed hulls, and rice. It was covered with a very thin white coating of kaolin, and the colored pigments were malachite, azurite, red iron oxide, yellow ochre, vermilion, and white clay.

The painting hung in the main gallery of Cranbrook Art Museum for more than thirty years. In 1974, the Museum Committee unanimously decided to sell the painting instead of pay the $5-6,000 to have it restored. Funds from the sale were to go towards the care and restoration of other works in the collection, as well as for renovations to museum storage space.

Tracing which shows the location of small areas of in-painting by Cranbook’s Marshall Fredericks, October 1941. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Thus ends the saga of the Chinese temple wall painting at Cranbrook as we do not know its whereabouts today. Other temple paintings can be found in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Princeton University Art Museum, and the Toledo Museum of Art.

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

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