One of the Western world's finest collections of Chinese ink drawings created in the last 20 years is currently on view at the Middlebury College Museum of Art, and the collectors live right down the road. John and Alice Berninghausen of Cornwall lent more than 50 works by 28 "contemporary classical" Chinese artists for the exhibit, titled "The Past Within the Present." The show celebrates the 30th anniversary of the school's Chinese Studies department, which John Berninghausen co-founded.
In these ink-on-paper paintings, the delicately drawn riffs on traditional themes exude an exuberance that has characterized China's art since the mid-1980s. Once Maoist aesthetic orthodoxy was deposited in history's dustbin, younger artists began incorporating Western influences into their work. The Middlebury show abounds with examples of Modernist images adapted to an old medium and produced with brushstroke techniques used by generations of artists long dead.
The exhibit opens with Xu Lele's satirical interpretations of figures from classical Chinese stories. Hanging nearby is a scroll almost entirely covered by a giant human face drawn by Lu Fusheng, a 56-year-old Shanghai artist. Wang Mengxi, born in 1947, is represented by a pair of female nudes in erotic poses -- unthinkable in the prudish Maoist era.
Another 20 or so of the stylistically modern yet traditionally executed drawings, not part of the public exhibit, can be found 5 miles from campus, at the Berninghausens' home. The collectors are as fascinating as the artworks. Their airy wood-and-glass house, inspired in part by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, looks toward undulating hills that frame flights of migrating geese in autumn and spring. No wonder the Berninghausens have dubbed it Wang Yan Po -- Mandarin for "Gazing at Wild Goose Ridge."
Most of the couple's initial purchases were made at galleries in Bangkok, Taipei, Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul. Until the early 1990s, works by contemporary Chinese artists were much easier to find on the periphery of the People's Republic itself. These outlets were patronized mainly by Chinese living abroad; few Westerners were collecting such art in those days, Berning-hausen recalls.
By the late '80s, he and Alice had also begun buying pieces directly from artists in Mainland cities, having formed friendships with several Chinese practitioners of ink drawing. These artists had grown increasingly candid with the two fluent foreigners as China quietly abandoned its rigid communist ideology.
"Many artists then in their thirties or forties returned to the mainstream of Chinese painting," Berninghausen explains. Their embrace of pre-revolutionary art may have resulted in part from their almost complete lack of awareness of the Modernist style developed in Europe and the United States.
Near the close of the Middlebury show are expressionist portraits of urban couples wearing Western suits and looking anxious and confused. These denizens of the new China may be responding to their culture's rapid makeover with a bewilderment similar to what Berninghausen experienced when he first encountered Chinese society in 1962. A Minne-sota native, he took a semester off from the state university to travel to Taiwan, where his parents had moved for a year. Berninghausen's father, a dean and librarian at the University of Minnesota, had been invited to Taiwan by the exiled Mainlanders who took control of the island as the communists established the People's Republic.
Then a 21-year-old sophomore majoring in Spanish, Berninghausen learned rudimentary Mandarin in preparation for his visit. "But I was wholly unprepared for the depth of Chinese culture," he says. Although his politically liberal father was no fan of Taiwan's conservative leader Chiang Kai Shek, the senior Berning-hausen was regularly fêted by the island's elite. Conversations with refined and scholarly Chinese awakened in the young man "a realization of how abysmally ignorant we Americans were in those years in regard to a sophisticated culture that was not Western."
Back in Minnesota, he decided to double-major in Chinese and Spanish. He ultimately enrolled in Stanford's PhD program in Chinese language and literature "because I figured I could hang on to my Spanish but would lose my Chinese unless I kept at it."
In March 1972, six months after Richard Nixon made his door-opening visit to Red China, Berning-hausen was invited to the country as part of a delegation of the Com-mittee of Concerned Asian Scholars. China's communist leaders had solicited this tour by Americans opposed to the Vietnam War. Berninghausen was then a fervent antiwar activist; he also viewed Mao Zedong as a revolutionary hero.
But his exposure to actual social and political conditions in China led to disillusionment. "The reality was the opposite of the rhetoric,"
Nonetheless, Berninghausen bought several revolutionary posters as souvenirs, finding them aesthetically appealing despite their hackneyed portrayals of smiling Red Guards. Years later he would learn that some of these posters were the products of artists whose ink drawings he and Alice had begun collecting.
In 1973, Berninghausen accepted a job offer at the University of Vermont. He taught there for three years before being asked to help establish a Chinese Studies program at Middlebury. That same year, the Berninghausens married. Alice, a native of Syracuse, N.Y., accompanied her husband to Taiwan during his 1980 sabbatical from Middle-bury. She, too, was immediately attracted to Chinese culture, and studied Mandarin while caring for the first of the couple's two children. She can't say why they were so taken with the ink paintings. "They just resonated," Alice says. At the time, they were able to purchase the works for under $250 each.
Those works have appreciated in value 15-fold over the past decade, John Berninghausen notes. China's dynamo economy has spawned a hyperactive art market in which prices are now prohibitive for middle-class Western tourists. The artists themselves have prospered greatly. But newfound riches have not caused them to shun old supporters. The Berninghausens now occasionally receive gifts of drawings from celebrity artists who were working in obscurity just 15 years ago. "In China, friendship is forever," he explains.
While the pair's early collecting seems brilliantly perceptive in retrospect, at the time the Berninghausens worried they might be squandering their modest assets on work that few Westerners would ever understand, much less respect. Despite these insecurities, they spent heavily on the drawings in anticipation of a 1991 show that Middlebury had agreed to host. That exhibit did not attract much attention in the U.S., but artists in China saw it as a breakthrough. And they urged their American patrons to become more knowledgeable about the history of the pen-and-ink medium. The Berninghausens took that advice and became experts in Chinese art.
That self-taught expertise will soon manifest in a book on the subject the couple is writing. Part of the research included interviews with more than 50 contemporary Chinese masters, a process that required translating some 200 hours of taped talk in a variety of dialects. "We also had to learn a whole specialized vocabulary," Berning-hausen says. "There are umpteen different words for 'brushstroke.'"
Lingering misconceptions aside, "Americans are seeing at last that other cultures have wonderfully exalted attributes," he believes. Berning-hausen hopes viewers of the collection at Middlebury will see that "You can innovate in art by returning to the past."