All the Bells and Vessels: Museum of Art Curator Joachim Homann on New Exhibition of Ancient Chinese Bronzes

Story posted September 16, 2011

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The Bowdoin College Museum of Art exhibition Along the Yangzi River: Regional Culture of the Bronze Age from Hunan — called "a thrilling time" by the Portland Press Herald — is a collection of 60 bronze vessels and monumental bells from southern China. As Museum Curator Joachim Homann explains, visitors have an extremely rare opportunity for what he calls a spellbinding and transcendent experience.

This fall, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art offers visitors a rare glimpse into the artistry, rituals and beliefs of Bronze Age China. The exhibition, Along the Yangzi River: Regional Culture of the Bronze Age from Hunan, on view through January 8, 2012, features approximately 60 magnificent bronze vessels and monumental bells that were cast in southern China in the period between 1,300 BCE and 221 BCE. New York City’s China Institute organized the exhibition with loans from the Hunan Provincial Museum, the premier repository of archeological finds from the middle banks of the Yangzi River in southern China. Bowdoin College is the only other venue of this extraordinary show.

Dr. Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and one of the curators of Along the Yangzi River, will deliver a lecture at 4:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 22, in the Visual Arts Center at Bowdoin College. The event is followed by a festive reception and open house at the Museum of Art. All events are open to the public and free of charge.

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Rectangular Ding with Human-face Design, Late Shang period, 12th-11th century BCE, Hunan Provincial Museum

Among the most unusual objects on display is a 3,000-year-old rectangular, four-legged vessel decorated with large human facemasks. The faces of this so-called Ding exude a spellbinding presence that have captivated viewers ever since a farmer deposited the object at a scrap metal yard 50 years ago.

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Elephant-shaped Zun Vessel, 12th-11th century B.C.E., on loan from the Hunan Provincial Museum.

Equally fascinating is a famous elephant-shaped vessel. Upon close inspection, the intricate decorations of this astoundingly beautiful object reveal a crouching tiger, a bird, snakes and dragons. Most of the objects in the show, however, allude to animals and vegetation in more restrained and abstracted forms, sometimes drawing attention to an animal mask only with a pair of raised eyes that transfix the viewer. Such decoration is characteristic of several bells, either hanging or standing upright and struck by the player at the rim with a mallet. Even when silent, the bells testified to the authority and sophistication of their owners through their decoration of boldly abstracted monster faces and tigers.

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Nao Bell with Animal-face Design, 12th-11th century BCE, Hunan Provincial Museum.

The presence of such unusual imagery in Chinese Bronze Age art is still unexplained. It is obvious, however, that the shapes and decorations animate and transcend the material and imbue it with a spiritual energy that distinguished these vessels as prized possession of Chinese nobles. For the elite, luxurious bronzes justified their claim to power and defined their status even after death. During the Shang (ca. 1600-1096 BCE) and Zhou (ca. 1046-256 BCE) dynasties, aristocrats were buried with enormous cachets of bronze objects that reflect their use in cooking, ancestor worship, and court music.

This is the first exhibition ever to focus on the regional characteristics of Hunan bronzes. Artisans in the southern Chinese hinterland adapted with great skill the types of vessels from the Chinese Great Plains, some of which were traded to Hunan during the Bronze Age. But they did not feel restricted by their models. Animal-shaped bronzes and bells were a specialty of the south. This exhibition includes both imported northern vessels that defined highbrow taste, and the original, even odd, creations of the regional bronze-makers of the South. Many of these unusual bronzes were only recently brought to light through excavations. They have radically altered our contemporary perspective on the art and culture of one of the cradles of the Chinese civilization.

In addition to the lecture and Fall Open House on Thursday, Sept. 22, the Museum is organizing lectures by art historian Stephen J. Goldberg, Hamilton College (October 13) and anthropologist Magnus Fiskesjö, Cornell University (December 1).

Please visit the Museum of Art website for additional information.

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