Houston—Touched by the city’s hospitality and the reception his photography exhibition received at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Chen Changfen decided the 70 images featured this summer in The Great Wall of China should stay at the MFAH. After the exhibition closed in August, Chen gave 53 of the photographs to the museum, adding to his earlier gift of 11 photographs from the show and six purchased by the MFAH to make the set complete.
“Houston is such an attractive city,” Chen wrote in a letter to Anne Wilkes Tucker, the Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography, who developed the exhibition. “People in Houston love the fine arts and I am strongly touched by their enthusiasm. I am also very surprised by the care and attention for Chinese culture and the Great Wall photo exhibition.”
Chen devoted 30 years of his life to exploring and photographing unique views of the Great Wall, at times enduring extreme weather conditions and surmounting difficult terrain. Many of his photographs were taken from areas that are inaccessible to the public and during times in the year when the weather was below freezing or extremely hot and arid.
He returned to some sections more than 100 times and came to know precisely when and where to expect a rainbow or changes in leaves during different times of the year. The Great Wall of China: Photographs by Chen Changfen, the first U.S. exhibition of his photographs, concentrated on his work from the last 15 years and featured 27 color photographs printed by inkjet on rice paper, 35 gelatin silver photographs, and eight large panoramas mounted as traditional Chinese scrolls. In addition, the show included a 260-page hand-bound book with 111 color photographs printed by inkjet on rice paper that was purchased by the museum.
“Museum visitors connected to the spirituality of Chen Changfen’s photographs—to his vision and his dedication to making these images, and to the epic struggle of the Chinese civilization in creating this extraordinary landmark,” said Peter C. Marzio, MFAH director. “The museum is deeply honored to add these works to the permanent collection where they will enhance future photography and Asian art showings.”
Many visitors felt compelled to react to the exhibition in writing—in English, Chinese, Spanish, French, and German. When the show ended, the museum had collected more than 500 pages of comments, a greater verbal outpouring than any previous photography exhibition had generated.
It was clear from the statements that the writers ranged from older, well-seasoned travelers to children who were inspired to learn more about the wall. Many reacted in superlatives—powerful, incredible, dazzling, awesome, absolutely breathtaking—and many noted their newfound desire to travel to China to see the Great Wall themselves. Some found it an emotional experience:
“Chen has taken his lifetime to photograph an object that took centuries to build. If things like this can be accomplished by others, then I too can do great things.”
“As I look at these photos, I gain a new perception of God. The truth of beauty.”
“This is a fascinating glimpse into history and also spectacularly beautiful. I am enriched.”
“I welcome this introduction to Chinese culture. Chen shows that photography is art, not a reproduction of nature but an original creation.”
“Reading about Chen Changfen opens our eyes to the beauty of the energy around us.”
“What a wonderful eye for drama and mystery.”
“Truly spiritual: At times I found it difficult to focus through the tears in my eyes.”
And some spoke directly to the artist:
“You are the man Chen!”
About the Photographer
Born in 1941, Chen Changfen became a professional photographer at 18. He first photographed the Great Wall of China in 1965 on assignment for China’s Aviation Bureau, and upon completion of the assignment continued to return to photograph during his personal time. However, it wasn’t until after the late 1970s that he began to work most actively on his extensive photography project, enraptured by the Wall’s beauty and interested in its significance as a national icon and source of historical and philosophical contemplation.
Founded in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is the largest art museum in America south of Chicago, west of Washington, D.C., and east of Los Angeles. The encyclopedic collection of the MFAH numbers more than 56,000 works and embraces the art of antiquity to the present.
Featured are the finest artistic examples of the major civilizations of Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa. Italian Renaissance paintings, French Impressionist works, photographs, American and European decorative arts, African and Pre-Columbian gold, American art, and European and American paintings and sculpture from post-1945 are particularly strong holdings. Recent additions to the collections include Rembrandt van Rijn’s Portrait of a Young Woman (1633), the Heiting Collection of Photography, a major suite of Gerhard Richter paintings, an array of important works by Jasper Johns, a rare, second-century Hellenistic bronze Head of Poseidon/Antigonos Doson, major canvases by 19th-century painters Gustave Courbet and J.M.W. Turner, distinguished work by the leading 20th and 21st century Latin American artists, and The Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Constructive Art.