In a small, unassuming library tucked away in the Museum of Fine Arts, curator Nancy Berliner leans over a delicate scroll that’s neatly unfurled on a long wooden table. Weights pin down the perfectly-preserved, 17th-century object to reveal a stretch of narrative that takes place on a river long ago. Our eyes pass over the work’s masterful, inky brushstrokes conjured by Chinese artists Wang Hui and Jiao Bingzhen.
Their scroll celebrates the power of nature — ancient trees, lotus flowers on the water and humans' search for meaning. "You were away from human relationships and politics, and you could get to the core of what it meant to be a human and reflect on your life,” Berliner says.
Soon, MFA visitors will also be able to ponder this intricate painting more deeply because prominent collector Wan-go H.C. Weng has given it — along with 182 other artworks — to the museum. They join approximately 7,500 Chinese objects currently held by the MFA. This is the “largest and most significant gift of Chinese paintings and calligraphy in the museum’s history,” according to the MFA's announcement Thursday.
"Every once in a while a gift comes to the museum that is completely transforming — and today we have one of those gifts,” Berliner says.
The Weng collection includes brush and ink paintings, poetic calligraphy, ink rubbings and textiles spanning 13 centuries and five imperial dynasties.
Weng's art-loving family started building this trove in 1875 and passed it down through six generations. Their approach was passionate and academic, and now, at 100 years old, Weng is still studying, writing scholarly books and painting.
“Wan-go Weng decided that the collection would go from his personal hands into the hands of the museum,” Berliner says, “and it's just a thrill for us to have this collection here to take care of and to continue to explore and to share with the public.”
Weng foreshadowed this week’s donation with an earlier one in July. In celebration of his own 100th birthday, he gave Wang Hui’s 17th century landscape titled, “10,000 Miles Along The Yangzi River” to the MFA. That scroll’s history is as storied as the journey depicted in the 53-foot-long painting itself.
The core of Weng’s trove dates from the Ming and Qing dynasties — basically from 1368 to 1911. Adding these objects to the MFA's Chinese art holdings make its collection one of the most outstanding in the country, Berliner says.
“I am so glad to have the paintings in a good place," Weng reflected via email. "Now I don’t need to worry about them. The MFA became my museum and this is incredible — almost like a story.”
The story of Weng’s relationship with the MFA began in 1949. He was living in New York when museum curator Kojiro Tomita caught wind of the famed collection and wrote a letter hoping to see some artworks. According to Berliner, Weng wrote right back, and even drew the curator a detailed map for his visit. “When Wan-go [Weng] first made the decision to present us with the collection he said to me, 'Tomita would be very happy,' " she recalls.
Weng's favorite piece is an album of works by artist Yun Shouping. The book is filled with expressive brush and ink paintings and calligraphy on creamy paper matted on silk. Berliner is a fan, too.
“I love this page because it's not just paintings of trees — it's all about rhythm, it's all about abstract shapes,” she says, pointing at the piece. “It's the rhythm of the brush moving the textures. It's as much an abstract expressionist work of art as anything that was done in the mid-20th century.”
The curator, who has known the collector since the 1980s, has a deep affection for Weng.
“Whenever he starts talking about paintings that he loves ... he gets this faraway look in his eyes, as if he's remembering some dear friend or a wonderful meal he had. It's a physical and deeply emotional passion,” the curator says, “and it's contagious.”
An exhibition of highlights from the collection is planned for the fall of 2019.