Photo Exhibit: POWER|PLAY: China’s Empress Dowager

09/24/11 How political leaders use photography and how it is used against them [look at the Michele Bachmann Newsweek cover controversy just last month] is not a new topic by any means. A fascinating exhibit opening today at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M Sackler Gallery examines how 100 years ago the Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi used photography to build up her image in the West.  The exhibit runs until January 29, 2012.

 

[The Empress Dowager Cixi in sedan chair surrounded by eunuchs   China, Qing dynasty, 1903-1904 Glass plate negative Image credit: Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, SC- GR 261]

From the media guide:

“Following China’s disastrous Boxer Rebellion, the Grand Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) was held in low regard throughout the world. In 1903, a strategy emerged to use photographic portraiture to rehabilitate her public image. Cixi allowed a young aristocratic photographer named Xunling to take elaborately staged shots of her and her court, designed to convey imperial authority, aesthetic refinement, and religious piety. As the only photographic series taken of Cixi—the supreme leader of China for more than forty-five years—it represents a unique convergence of Qing court pictorial traditions, modern photographic techniques, and Western standards of artistic portraiture.”

 

[The Empress Dowager Cixi China, Qing dynasty, 1903-1904 Glass plate negative Image credit: Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, SC- GR 251]

 
“The Freer Gallery’s thirty-six glass plate negatives, acquired from the estate of the photographer’s sister, Princess Der Ling, comprise the only extensive group of these intimate portraits outside of the Palace Museum in Beijing. Following a major digitization project, the negatives will be revealed in full detail in The Empress Dowager, a compelling and immersive exploration of this enigmatic icon. The exhibition also will feature two original prints of Cixi that were presented as diplomatic gifts to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 and to his daughter Alice in 1905, underscoring the complex relationship between the Qing court and foreign powers. A display of film clips will demonstrate the evolution of the Empress Dowager as a character throughout the twentieth century—from a depraved tyrant to a long-suffering ruler.”

 

[Empress Dowager Cixi and attendants on a barge on Zhonghai Lake, Beijing China, Qing dynasty, 1903-1904 Glass plate negative
Image credit: Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, SC- GR 243]

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