by Julia Sommer
From the Dodge City wildness of newly independent Mongolia to the outer reaches of China, Patricia Berger personifies the art historian breaking new ground.
Curator of Chinese Art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco from 1982 to 1994, she joined the art history faculty this year as the specialist in Chinese and Inner Asian art.
Perhaps Berger's biggest coup at the Asian Art Museum was bringing the exhibition "Mongolia: The Legacy of Chinggis Khan" to the United States, against all odds, in 1995-the first-ever show of Mongolian art in this country. (Her many collaborators included Berkeley scholars such as Lewis Lancaster and James Bosson of East Asian Languages.)
The adventure started in 1991, just after Mongolia cut its ties to the Soviet Union, when she took a hair-raising Mongolian Airlines flight to Ulan Bator. "It was like the wild West," she recalls, "a free-for-all melee. Everyone was armed to the teeth."
After adventures worthy of a novel, she convinced skeptical officials that a traveling exhibit of Mongolian artwork in the West would bring tourism, which indeed it has. Now "Silk Road" trips through Mongolia are all the rage.
To get the breathtaking collection of sculptures, paintings, masks, books and ritual implements out of Mongolia, Berger helped win grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Luce Foundation.
Mongolia received the proceeds from the show's catalog sales, and the exhibit went on to the Denver Art Museum and the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C.
Berger made her first trip to China in 1978 as part of a U.S. delegation studying the Han dynasty. They were the first Westerners since 1949 to see Tun-huang, a famous cave filled with Buddhist sculptures and paintings from the fourth century. Next semester she will teach an undergraduate seminar on the site.
Since then, Berger has visited China at least every other year, witnessing its amazing transformation.
Beijing, for instance, has changed from a monochromatic city of Mao-coated bicyclists to a cosmopolitan metropolis with skyscrapers and traffic jams.
As curator at the Asian Art Museum, Berger was involved in such exhibitions as "6,000 Years of Chinese Art: Treasures from the Shanghai Museum"; "Views from Jade Terrace: Chinese Women Artists, 1300-1912"; and "Latter Days of the Law: Images of Chinese Buddhism, 850-1850."
Oddly enough, Berger's interest in all things Asian began in her rural, upstate New York high school with an experimental course on East Asian literature.
At Cornell, she starting taking Chinese "as a lark."
"I found the language seductive, fascinating, so very different from English." She graduated in 1969 with a BFA in painting, then came to Berkeley to study with James Cahill, an expert on Chinese painting. She received her PhD here in 1980 with a dissertation on rituals and festivities in eastern Han art and now takes the place of Cahill, who retired last year. She even occupies his old office on the fourth floor of Doe Library, surrounded by the noise and dust of the library's seismic reconstruction project.
Berger's current research concerns 18th-century Chinese patronage of outlying areas, which brought Tibetan and Mongol artists to the court of the Chinese emperor and, in turn, sent art as gifts to the high lamas and Chinese architects to build Buddhist monasteries.
"Art was used as a political tool then too," says Berger. "It's part of the diplomatic history of the area." She notes that the first art exhibit to come out of communist China in 1975 served as a diplomatic ice-breaker and helped introduce China to the West as a tourist destination.
Berger is also developing the field of Sino-Tibetan art, daunting to many because of its prolific pantheon. Since virtually all Sino-Tibetan art concerns Buddhism, Berger has found herself slowly but surely drawn into its study and practice.
"It seeps into you as you study the art," she says.
This semester Berger taught Early Chinese Painting and a seminar on Chan painting during the Sung and Yuan dynasties. She only had to take her students across the street to the Berkeley Art Museum to see the Chinese painting collection there on long-term loan from Cahill.
The exchange goes both ways. Berger helped BAM mount one of its current exhibitions, "Art of the Sung: Court and Monastery," and is involved in helping build BAM's Chinese painting collection.
"I think my experience as a curator makes me a better teacher," says Berger. "I can convey to students the practical reality of works of art."