It all started with a handful of heads, and a mistake that any current GPS device could have averted.
“These small terra-cotta heads are actually what started our whole experience,” said Sam Myers, who, with his late wife, Myrna, amassed a collection of more than 5,000 sculptures, costumes, porcelain pieces and various other artworks. Their treasures make up “From the Lands of Asia: The Sam and Myrna Myers Collection,” a massive and dazzling exhibition that opened last weekend at the Kimbell Art Museum. It includes a display of the four sculpted Greek heads that started it all.
“In terms of the number of objects in the show, this is the largest exhibition ever presented by the Kimbell,” said Jennifer Price, Asian art curator at the Kimbell, who served as on-site curator for the exhibition in coordination with the exhibition’s overall curator, Jean-Paul Desroches.
But this grand exhibition, which covers a time span ranging from thousands of years before Christ to the 20th century, begins with these humble, non-Asian heads you view in the first display case as you start through the exhibition. And they were found by accident.
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“We went to the wrong town,” admitted Myers, an American lawyer who was working in Paris when he and his late wife began their art odyssey more than 50 years ago. They began their collecting in Europe, before making numerous trips to Asia.
But rather than give up when they realized that they were not in the right town in Switzerland, the Myerses kept asking around until they found someone with ancient art objects for sale.
It was the first example of the exceptional levels of passion, perseverance and thirst for knowledge that took the Myerses from collecting general antiquities to a voracious zeal for Asian art in particular.
“At the very beginning, we made a lot of mistakes. But it was OK, because [the works were] much cheaper. Whenever we found a new type of art we liked, we tried to learn more about it. We didn’t give up the interests we had, but we expanded them little by little,” said Myers, who noted that he and Myrna studied porcelain for two years before they were able to make intelligent decisions on the authenticity of the pieces.
This exhibition, which was first presented in Montreal, features works from China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia, Tibet and Uzbekistan. And it is a stunner.
“It is the most comprehensive collection of Chinese jade in private hands. It is truly extraordinary,” said Price. “We have never had an exhibition with a major jade component in the 25 years I have been here. So this is a unique opportunity for someone who doesn’t know anything about Chinese jade to be able to see this history of jade from Neolithic times to the 14th century.”
And it is an opportunity for Myers to see part of his collection in, quite literally, a new light.
“I’m thrilled that it is here,” said Myers, following a press tour of the exhibition prior to its opening. “We look at these pieces differently, because we lived with a lot of this stuff. When you see a piece like the “Bodhisattva” [a painted wood carving of a figure often depicted in Buddhist art] actually presented with proper light so you can really see it, it is really breathtaking.”
The more than 400 works in this exhibition are beautifully and logically presented in four sections: "Costumes and Customs," "An Ocean of Porcelain," "A Thousand Years of Buddhism" and "The Magic of Jade."
That first section, focusing on costuming, immediately pulls you into the rich world of the Myers collection. There are large displays of elaborate robes and kimonos that are impressive for their colors, design and astonishing details.
“The thing that is most unusual, that first robe from a Uzbek chieftain, is probably the most extraordinary,” said Myers, when asked to pick some of his favorites from the exhibition.
While that garment is amazing, there are plenty of others that give it a run for its money. And at least one of the pieces on display, a vest made of silk and gold thread, has a story to tell.
Although it looks quite ornate, the vest was made to be worn under a suit of armor. And this particular one has a hole in it that makes it appear its owner took a spear or arrow in the chest.
“It’s a samurai’s armor. And yes somebody got through there. But it is all lined with little plaques of leather. And, whatever the weapon was, it did not go through the plaques,” said Myers. “It is the kind of undergarment no one ever saw, but it is still made of gold and silk. It is an extraordinarily fine piece.”
“The Ocean of Porcelain” section that follows is the only part of the exhibition that had no appeal for me. I find looking at blue and white porcelain tea pots and pitchers (they call them “ewers” when they are old) is about as interesting as gazing at your grandmother’s china cabinet.
But those who do not share my disinterest in ancient dinner-table objects will likely be impressed with the beauty, craftsmanship and diversity of the blue and white pieces on display.
This section does has an interesting backstory.
Price explained that the title for this portion of the exhibition was inspired by the points of discovery for them. Most of the porcelain on display comes from the period ranging from the 14th through 17th centuries. In those times, plenty of ships loaded with porcelain (including many bound for Europe) were lost at sea. But it was not until just 40 years ago that the first shipwrecks of Chinese porcelain were discovered. So many of the works in this section were snatched right out of Davy Jones’ locker to become part of the Myerses’ collection.
There is a special serenity and sense of spirituality conveyed in the “A Thousand Years of Buddhism” presentation. The pieces, which all pertain to the evolution and practice of Buddhism across Asia, are often unfamiliar. But that only enhances their beauty and intriguing attributes. What was that object used for? What did it mean to the people who made it? And much the same could be said of “The Magic of Jade” section. The only difference is that this is the only section that limits itself to one material. It is, therefore, a wide-ranging but highly cohesive overview of the many things Asian artists have done with this precious green stone over the millennia.
In the end, patrons can come away from this huge, gorgeous exhibition with two distinct stories: a general story of Asian art over the centuries, and the very personal story of the joyful passion the Myerses put into collecting these works. So which is the dominant narrative?
“If you take the audio tour, you will hear more the story of the people, because Sam and I are on there telling stories,” said Price, who describes this exhibition as her “dream show.”
“If you just walk through and read the labels, then you get more of the art history. So you get both. Or you could do neither. Because it is so visually appealing — the colors, the materials, the allure — that you could literally walk through and just appreciate them as objects.”
From the Lands of Asia
- Through Aug. 19
- Kimbell Art Museum
- Fort Worth
- 817-332-8451; www.kimbellart.org