By Christie Nicholson
Article published in The Columbia Journalist on February 21, 2006.
An exhibit opening this week called “A Passion for Asia: The Rockefeller Family Collects” celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Asia Society with 150 masterpieces from the collections of three generations of Rockefellers.
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As a teenager Nelson Rockefeller laid eyes on a body that would affect him for the rest of his life. It was an armless and headless bodhisattva, a Buddhist statue dedicated to helping the rest of us reach enlightenment.
The white marble sculpture from the 8th Century stood in the front hallway of his family’s townhouse on 54th Street, greeting guests with a sensual grace, its pelvis pushed out as if it were dancing. Rockefeller became so adoring of it that he asked his mother to leave it to him.
She did leave it to him, and he then left it to the Asia Society, a museum that holds masterpieces of Asian art.
“The Rockefeller family were not simply possessors of objects,” said Vishakha Desai, president of the Asia Society. “The collection is based on real involvement with the works. The family said, ‘They move us and spiritually uplift us.’”
An exhibit opening this week called “A Passion for Asia: The Rockefeller Family Collects” celebrates the 50th anniversary of the society with 150 masterpieces from the collections of three generations of Rockefellers.
When John D. Rockefeller the third founded the Asia Society in 1956, his intentions were to bring an understanding and recognition of Asian culture to Americans. For the last 50 years the society has promoted Asian business, politics, and culture, through films, exhibits, and education. Still, even as globalization has become a practical reality, exoticism can be intimidating and little is known about Asian art and history.
The 50th anniversary year plans to change that. The hope is that one family’s passion might catch on with other New Yorkers – that their long held enthusiasm might be contagious.
John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller made their first trip to China in 1921, and it was during this trip that they fell in love with Asian culture. Mrs. Rockefeller became intensely interested in Buddhism and created a “Buddha room” at The Eyrie, the family’s summer home in Mount Desert Island, Maine. Their six children loved this room, with its 10 Buddhas sitting and standing like gentle guards of serenity.
“She would burn incense in the room,” said Adriana Prosner, the co-curator of the exhibit. “The children thought it was magical.”
Visitors to the museum have an intimate view into the family’s interest in Asia through photographs and letters. In one photograph Nelson Rockefeller and his brother, John D. Rockefeller the third, lean back on the porch of an Asian-styled teahouse on the family estate in the Pocantico Hills, N.Y.
In a letter on display, Mrs. Rockefeller writes about her philosophical struggle between a Christian god and Indian deities, “I think Buddhist art is the most inspirational and spiritual.”
The society’s exhibit is divided into three themes: Nourishing the Spirit, Landscape Design and Home as Aesthetic Retreat.
In “Nourishing the Spirit” a bronze Bodhisattva of Compassion holds a lotus flower in his left hand and his right is outstretched, beckoning the viewer.
“I love the sensuality of Asian sculpture,” said Christine Dobush, an appreciator of art. “In Asia, their gods flirt with us. You’d never see the Christ figure flirting with anyone.”
In “Landscape Design” a photograph of Mrs. Rockefeller’s “Spirit Path” on Mount Desert Island, draws the eye down a shaded lane, lined with 10 Buddha stone sculptures.
“For the family, the exhibit provides a window into cultural tradition,” said Desai. “They felt that three-dimensional art was the best way to skip time and space and inspire interest in Asia.”
A security guard in “Home as Aesthetic Retreat” has already chosen his favorite piece. It is a triptych wood-block print of a moonlit Japanese landscape, in blues and grays.
“I think it looks natural,” he said as he pointed to the mountains. “See the birds flying there? They are just where I’d imagine them to be.”
The print happens to be one of Mrs. Rockefeller’s most treasured pieces. It is one of the few she purchased with her own money. It is so loved by the family that when the print is not on display, her grandson David Rockefeller keeps it in one of his bedrooms.