Exhibition | Mirroring China’s Past

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on February 20, 2018

From the Art Institute of Chicago:

Mirroring China’s Past: Emperors, Scholars, and Their Bronzes
Art Institute of Chicago, 25 February — 13 May 2018

Curated by Tao Wang

Artist Unknown, Court Beauty, Qing Dynasty, Late Kangxi Reign, between 1709 and 1723 (Beijing: The Palace Museum).

Chinese bronzes of the second and first millennia BC are some of the most distinctive achievements in the history of art. Exquisitely ornamented, these vessels were made to carry sacrificial offerings, to use in burial, or to commemorate family in public ceremonies. When they were found by emperors centuries later, these spiritually significant objects were seen as manifestations of a heavenly mandate on a ruler or dynasty and became prized items in imperial collections. This exhibition—the first to explore how these exquisite objects were collected and conceptualized throughout Chinese history—presents a rare opportunity to experience a large number of these works together in the United States.

Unlike Greek and Roman bronze sculptures of human and animal forms, most objects from Bronze Age China (about 2000–221 BC) were vessels for ritual use. Beginning with the Song dynasty (960–1279), emperors unearthed these symbolic works and began collecting them, considering them to be evidence of their own authority and legitimacy as rulers. Several 18th-century portraits of Emperor Quianlong include his bronze collection, demonstrating how ancient bronzes came to play a critical role in imperial ideology and self-fashioning. In addition to impressive collections, the royal fascination with bronzes led to the creation of numerous reproductions and the meticulous cataloguing of palace holdings. These catalogues are works of art themselves, with beautiful illustrations and detailed descriptions.

From the 12th century onward, scholars and artists also engaged in collecting and understanding ancient bronzes, especially their inscriptions. Unlike emperors, who commonly employed art to promote and implement political and cultural policies, scholars regarded bronzes as material evidence of their efforts to recover and reconstruct the past, and they occasionally exchanged them as tokens of friendship. Today ancient bronzes still occupy a prominent position in Chinese culture—as historical or nostalgic objects and as signifiers of an important cultural heritage that inspires new generations, as seen in the works of contemporary artists on view in this presentation.

Mirroring China’s Past brings together approximately 180 works from the Art Institute of Chicago’s strong holdings and from the Palace Museum in Beijing, the Shanghai Museum, and important museums and private collections in the United States. By providing viewers with a new understanding of ancient bronzes and their significance through time, the exhibition illuminates China’s fascinating history and its evolving present.

The catalogue is distributed by Yale UP:

Tao Wang, ed., with essays by Sarah Allan, Jeffrey Moser, Su Rongyu, Edward L. Shaughnessy, Zhixin Jason Sun, Tao Wang, Zhou Ya, Liu Yu, and Lu Zhang, Mirroring China’s Past: Emperors, Scholars, and Their Bronzes (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2018), 296 pages, ISBN: 9780300228632, $60.

A lavishly illustrated book that offers an in-depth look at the cultural practices surrounding the tradition of collecting ancient bronzes in China during the 18th and 19th centuries.

In ancient China (2000–221 BC) elaborate bronze vessels were used for rituals involving cooking, drinking, and serving food. This fascinating book not only examines the cultural practices surrounding these objects in their original context, but it also provides the first in-depth study tracing the tradition of collecting these bronzes in China. Essays by international experts delve into the concerns of the specialized culture that developed around the vessels and the significant influence this culture, with its emphasis on the concept of antiquity, had on broader Chinese society. While focusing especially on bronze collections of the 18th and 19th centuries, this wide-ranging catalogue also touches on the ways in which contemporary artists continue to respond to the complex legacy of these objects. Packed with stunning photographs of exquisitely crafted vessels, Mirroring China’s Past is an enlightening investigation into how the role of ancient bronzes has evolved throughout Chinese history.

Tao Wang is Pritzker Chair of Asian Art and curator of Chinese art at the Art Institute of Chicago.

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