Czech's Chinese puzzle

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 March, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 March, 1993, 12:00am

LADISLAV Kesner is a member of that fearsome category - a man with a mission. He is driven by his passion and, after a few minutes in his company, it is obvious that this is a man who does not like the word ''no''.

During the six days he has been in Hongkong, after an awkward seven weeks of research in China, the Czech curator has gone knocking on the best doors he can find with only one purpose in mind; to find a home for 5,000 of the most precious works of Chinese art ever assembled in Europe.

''It saddens me. It really does,'' the head of the Asian Arts Department of the National Gallery in Prague said yesterday, ''that these wonderful pieces have been sitting in boxes in Prague for so long and have never been exhibited.

''I don't have any children yet but I imagine you would feel the same way about them. You want the best for each of them.

''I feel the same way about this collection. I want the best for each piece. For them to have a home, even if it is a temporary one.'' And that is the young Czech's immediate goal. In his home country, the Government has little sympathy for expensive projects such as housing a rare Chinese collection of paintings, sculpture and ceramics. After all, their country has just split in two.

They have an electorate that is screaming for better food supplies, proper transport services and jobs. Art galleries, or renovations to existing art facilities are low on the list of priorities for the public purse.

''Sometimes, I do get disheartened. I feel like I am a travelling salesman, knocking on doors trying to sell something that nobody wants,'' he said.

''A few years ago, when I was first in charge of these pieces I wrote a lot of letters to people in Hongkong. But nothing came of that. I know now that you have to develop contacts before you can do something as ambitious as I hope - get Hongkong and Taiwanese people to help fund the collection.

''So, I had this idea to offer parts of it, on a long-term loan, just to find a home for pieces.'' Mr Kesner, whose China research was paid for with a John Paul Getty Fellowship, said it is hard to place a value on the works in his charge, but that many of the pieces would command at least US$500,000 at auction.

International art experts tend to agree. The Prague collection includes rare early art, and many fine examples of religious sculpture, paintings and ceramics.

Outstanding works in the collection include a series of painted pottery figures from the Western Han dynasty, a silk banner excavated from the tombs in Changsha, dating back to the Western Han dynasty in 168 BC and an exquisite set of polychromed pottery figures of court attendants from the Sui-early Tang dynasty.

The quality of the collection is the result of cultural exchanges developed between China and Czechoslovakia during the lead-up to the Communist Revolution in 1949, and the eight-year period which followed the Maoist victory mainland.

''Many of our pieces have been donated by artists from my country, who collected these pieces during their stays in China. Because these people were also gifted, they understood the quality of the works and brought many back with them,'' he said.

''As time went on, with the expansion of the collections at the National Gallery (in Prague) many of them donated their collections to us because they need special care.

''The Government has been good in many ways. The collection is housed in a proper temperature controlled environment and is catalogued in detail. The only problem is that we do not have a permanent gallery to exhibit it.'' Sweeping his hand around the grand spaces of the Tsui Museum of Art in the Old China Bank Building in Central yesterday, he said he could easily fill the space from only a small portion of the Prague collection.

''Only the collection of the British Museum, and perhaps those in Paris and Berlin is better than ours. The difference is that ours is unknown and largely unseen outside the world of art experts.

''Now we have just too many things to show in the space available in Prague. Even my colleagues who are curators of galleries there are not necessarily my supporters. They are worried that if I receive funds then they will lose money for their collections.'' For the next four days, Mr Kesner, who speaks and reads five languages, including Chinese, is to continue his campaign of door knocking. He never gives up, and is always thinking of new angles to pitch for funds for his passion.

''The Czechoslovakian government is very interested in developing closer ties with Hongkong because it is so strong economically,'' he said.

''This could provide possibilities for sponsorship or perhaps the setting up of a gallery here for our works. I want to nurture a relationship in Hongkong where people will know what we have, and want to help us preserve it,'' he said.

If the door-knocking campaign fails to deliver a commitment in Hongkong this week, Taiwan is the next stop on his conscious-raising campaign.

''Everywhere I go I am telling people about my Prague collection. Sometimes I do feel like giving up and just being a scholar and working in some American university,'' he said.