Boston is back in the China trade. The city whose clipper ships brought vast quantities of Chinese art and furnishings to America now is reversing the tide -- by sending to the People's Republic of China the first official collection of American paintings in 30 years.
It is all part of an unprecedented thawing of the world's most populous country following the normalization of diplomatic relations and the 1979 signing of the US-Chinese Cultural Agreement by President Jimmy Carter and Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping.
The 70 American paintings, which will tour Peking and Shanghai from September through November, are all from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), which has a particularly strong collection of American painting and (due partly to gifts from local private estates assembled in the 18th and 19th century) one of the most comprehensive collections of Oriental art in the Western world.
The work have been chosen to represent the history of American painting -- from the 17th-century portraiture of John Singleton Copley through the seascapes of Fitz Hugh Lane and Winslow Homer, and on to the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline.
Since the communist revolution establishing the People's Republic of China in 1949, the country has largely been closed to the influence of Western art. Most of what the present generation of Chinese knows has come through photographs says Peabody Gardner, the MFA's assistant to the director who is overseeing the exhibition. "They've never looked at an American painting on a one-to-one basis ," he notes, adding, "It's fascinating to think of what their reaction will be."
The museum was invited to organize the tour by the US International Communication Agency (ICA), which works closely with the Chinese Ministry of Culture and has already lent its support to Chinese tours by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Ballet.
This time, however, the ICA is footing the entire bill of $250,000 -- an indication, perhaps, of the brisk upswing in cultural relations between the two countries. Museum personnel point out, however, that the exchange should not be taken as a particular pointer for President Reagan's foreign policy because it was formally agreed to last fall.