By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 14, 2011 at 1:01 PM

This past weekend, the Milwaukee Art Museum officially launched its long-awaited Summer of China, which includes five exhibitions, the largest of which is "The Emperor's Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City."

"It's very exciting," says museum director Daniel Keegan, "3,000 years of Chinese art, five exhibitions running simultaneously, it's a project that's been underway for three years.

"They're all really important exhibitions because of the way they slice into this 3,000-year history. But we're very excited about 'The Emperor's Private Paradise.' After it finishes here it goes back to the Forbidden City, the objects never to be seen again outside the Forbidden City's Palace Museum, so this is a big deal and it's a very interesting story, his desire to build this personal retreat within the Forbidden City."

One of the smaller shows, "Way of the Dragon: The Chinoiserie Style, 1710-1830," doesn't open until June 30.

But all of the others are up and ready to wow you with various facets of 3,000 years of Chinese art. And the experience begins immediately.

"We want people to experience China when they come in the door," says Laurie Winters, director of exhibitions for the Milwaukee Art Museum.

And it does. If you enter from the underground parking garage, you see a recreation of a bamboo garden, which is the result of a collaboration with the Garden Alliance.

Arriving off Art Museum Drive, there's a banner, of course, but your eye goes immediately to "On Site: Zhan Wang," the contemporary Chinese artist's thoroughly modern take on traditional scholar rocks.

The shiny steel piece sits in the center of Windhover Hall, beneath Calatrava's wings and with a glistening Lake Michigan as a backdrop.

"It's an update (of scholar rocks), done in a language of 21st century art," says MAM's chief curator Brady Roberts. "You think of Anish Kapoor and Josiah McIlhenney. Zhan Wang has taken something that is this very introspective, spiritual thing and made it this brash, sort of global statement on a monumental scale."

Because of its reflective surface, the work will be constantly changing, thanks to the ever-evolving light and color that streams into the Windhover windows, says Roberts.

Flanking the main Baker/Rowland Gallery, down the east and west gallerias of the Calatrava building, is "Warriors, Beasts and Spirits: Early Chinese Art from the James Conley Collection."

Upstairs in the Koss Gallery, you can see "Emerald Mountains: Modern Chinese Ink Paintings from the Chu-Tsing Li Collection," through Aug. 28.

But be sure to carve out plenty of time for "The Emperor's Private Paradise," in the Baker/Rowland Galleries.

The Qianlong Garden is a two-acre respite – with 27 structures, shrines, libraries, open-air gazebos and a range of bamboo groves, rock gardens and other natural features – in the heart of Beijing's Forbidden City, the imperial palace for 500 years.

It was built in just five years, from 1771-1776, as a retirement retreat by Qianlong, one of China's longest-reigning and most influential emperors. Like Europe's Renaissance rulers, Qianlong was an aesthete and a lover of art, so the garden and its buildings are as exquisite as one would expect.

To see its seemingly countless treasures, first you must pass through the gate and leave your stress at the door...

"We've tried to replicate one of the (garden) gates as best we could," says Winters. "The Qianlong Garden is an atmosphere of sort of tranquility and calmness, so we wanted the visitor to achieve that experience as they come in. As you walk through the gate, hopefully your pulse rate drops a little."

The entry gate is immediately striking, says Henry Tzu Ng, executive vice president of the World Monuments Fund, which is working to conserve and restore the garden and is a key player in the exhibition.

"World Monuments Fund mainly deals with architectural spaces," says Ng. "So we said, 'we don't want an exhibition that's just about more vases, scrolls and objects, but we want people to get a sense of the place.'

"It's an architectural space, it's a garden. So, when I saw the gate, I thought it was spectacular because it actually makes you feel as if you're going into the garden without having to travel 14 hours to see it."

The exhibition presents a range of objects, like paintings and murals, architectural and garden elements, furniture – including imperial thrones – cloisonne and jade artworks and much more and are seen outside the garden for the first, and last, time.

There are many treasures for visitors to discover, but what struck me most was 16-panel, double-sided screen that has a range of spiritual figures on one side and on the back, newly rediscovered paintings that were previously unknown, because the screen was attached to a wall in one of the garden buildings for centuries.

Seeing this stunning, intricate, rediscovered work is as powerful as standing in front of – and then behind – Duccio di Buoninsegna's "Maesta" in Siena, Italy.

Parallels like that are not surprising, either, says Ng, who points to a number of objects in the exhibition that use glass which Qianlong had imported from England.

"It was this whole period when China was involved with the west, encountered new things and incorporated them into Chinese art," says Ng.

"That's what I love about the emperor," adds Winters, "he fully embraced other cultures."

The Qianlong Garden complex remained in use until the early part of the 20th century, when it was shuttered and left idle for a number of reasons, says Ng. The result is an unrivaled look at period art and architecture.

"It was actually forgotten about," says Ng. "Because it was never in the public realm. It was always used by the imperial family; when the last emperor left in 1924, they closed the door and literally left it dormant for 80 years. People in China knew about this garden, historians knew, but they never really opened it.

"As they opened the forbidden city more and more to tourism they never opened this up because the space was too private and couldn't accommodate large crowds. If you look at China in the 20th century there were a lot of other priorities and a lot of other things happening."

A big part of the problem was the kind of conservation and restoration work required to bring the garden back to life. While resources were an issue, says Ng, so was conservation technology. And so was the loss of skills.

The World Monuments Fund found just one person (out of more than a billion Chinese) capable of recreating a specific element that needed restoration in one piece, for example.

"The conservation challenges were very formidable," adds Ng. "They didn't feel that they could handle it at that time. It was only in the last 20 years China has opened up more to the West, has become more prosperous, that they've actually looked at it.

"When we first asked them, is there a project that you think would be good for international collaboration, they identified this because of this issue, which was how would the international standards conserve a place like this with these challenges? It was only when we started working in the year 2000 that they decided it was time to actually conserve it," he says.

"That whole discovery is a big part of this story. It hadn't been seen for 100 years even by people in China."

"The Emperor's Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City" closes on Sept. 11, as do "On Site: Zhan Wang" and "Warriors, Beasts and Spirits."

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.