Hong Kong Crowds Go Mad For Emperor Qianlong

“A Lofty Retreat from the Red Dust: The Secret Garden of Emperor Qianlong” Attracted 80,000 Visitors

Emperor Qianlong is considered one of China's greatest imperial rulers

Though the (art) talk of the town still centers around Uli Sigg’s massive donation of Chinese contemporary art to the as-yet-unbuilt M+ Museum and the city’s growing stature as a contemporary art hub, Hong Kong art lovers have spent the last few months crowding into the Hong Kong Museum of Art to see something much older: an exhibition of art and antiquities from the palace of Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799).

Since opening in late June, the exhibition, “A Lofty Retreat from the Red Dust: The Secret Garden of Emperor Qianlong,” has attracted more than 2,500 people per day every weekend, with the total number of visitors now approaching 80,000. (A coup for a city where exhibitions tend to average total visitors in the three figures.)

From the Wall Street Journal:

“Secret Garden” comprises some 90 sets of objects on loan from Beijing’s Palace Museum collection, with 19 of them on view for the first time outside the Forbidden City. Though a handful have recently traveled overseas – to three U.S. museums, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York – this is the first time an Asian institution has dedicated an exhibition to Ningshougong (Tranquility and Longevity Palace), in whose grounds and pavilions Qianlong imagined he would spend his old age contemplating art and immortality. In reality, however, he stayed in the main palace of the Forbidden City and exercised political power even after he abdicated to his son in 1796. He used Ningshougong, which he personally designed, for special occasions.

Whereas the U.S. displays focused on furniture and architecture, including ornate cabinets and screens and trompe l’oeil perspective paintings, the Hong Kong show, which marks the museum’s 50th anniversary, emphasizes Qianlong’s legacy as an arts patron and collector as well as his interest in Buddhism and culture.

“We wanted to stress how the garden expressed the inner longings and aspirations of the emperor who wanted to live like a recluse-scholar,” says Hong Kong Museum of Art curator Rose Lee. “It reflects the intimate world of the emperor, unveiling his thoughts, instead of looking at the grand and monumental.”

Widely considered one of China’s greatest imperial rulers, if not the greatest, Qianlong has become a draw not only for culture-seeking museum-goers (throughout China and even as far away as France), but also collectors in Hong Kong and mainland China. This May, a jade seal belonging to the emperor fetched US$5.3 million (well over its pre-sale estimate of $1.6-2.4 million) at Bonhams in London, and last spring Christie’s sold a Qianlong-era vase for $7.9 million in New York, double its high estimate.

A Lofty Retreat from the Red Dust: The Secret Garden of Emperor Qianlong
Through October 14, 2012
Hong Kong Museum of Art, Special Exhibition Gallery (2/F)
10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong
Tel: (852) 2721 0116

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Art & Auction, Culture