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Power/Play: China's Empress Dowager

Event Details

Power/Play: China's Empress Dowager

Time: September 24, 2011 to January 29, 2012
Location: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Street: 1050 Independence Ave SW
City/Town: Washington, D.C. 20013-7012
Website or Map:
Phone: 202.633.1000
Event Type: exhibition
Organized By: Smithsonian Institution of Asian Art
Latest Activity: Aug 30, 2011

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Event Description

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 Freer Gallery's thirty-five glass plate negatives, acquired from the estate of the photographer's sister, Princess Der Ling, comprise the only group of these intimate portraits held 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.

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