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: Chinese Bronzes Added to Pillsbury Collection


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
In the press of these chaotic times, and the fearful consequences they hold forth, one's thoughts turn to the plight of many peoples, but to none with more sympathy, perhaps, than to the Chinese, whose spirit has persisted unbroken through centuries of upheaval. Disquiet often enters into the thought of them, and one wonders if they will be able to withstand this late and most shattering attack upon their civilization. To the doubtful, there can be no more positive reassurance than to look on the great achievements of their past, represented most fully in the Institute by the bronze ritual vessels in the Alfred F. Pillsbury Collection. Here are actual relics of the first highly civilized Chinese people. In them one sees the early symbols of a religious faith so strong it was able to insure the continuity of Chinese civilization. When hope wears thin one has only to look at them to know, with absolute certainty, that China will survive. Moreover, they remove one's thoughts temporarily from the little, troubled moment of today—this convulsion that assumes gigantic proportions for us because we are living through it—and casts them upon a stage so vast that centuries are lost upon it. Returning from any such contemplation of the immensity of time, one finds he has acquired a new perspective; new strength to cope with what the moment offers.That these bronzes speak thus compellingly across a gulf of some three thousand years is a tribute to the artists who created them. For all its enigmatic quality, their message is as strong and vibrant now as then; once heard, it cannot be forgotten. This sense of communication with the past, together with its vigorous phrasing, is perhaps the chief factor in the appeal of bronzes such as those assembled by Mr. Pillsbury. Already widely known by lovers of Chinese art, this collection has attained a new peak of distinction by reason of recent additions, among which a late Chou basin is of extraordinary beauty. To represent these bronzes, even with the most superficial comment, might be characterized as presumptuous on the part of any but the most scholarly student of Chinese art. Nevertheless, they are here recorded as having become a part of the Pillsbury Collection because knowledge of their existence and present situation is in itself of interest to those to whom the world looks for further enlightenment on the subjects of Chinese art and history.The recent additions, the latest made in January, 1941, cover the four great periods of Chinese bronze art, here dated according to the Karlgren system: Shang (Yin), 1766 B.C. to 1122 B.C.; early Chou (Yin-Chou), 1122 B.C. to about 950 B.C.; Middle Chou, about 950 B.C. to about 650 B.C.; late Chou (Huai), about 650 B.C. to about 200 B.C. Recently, in consideration of the close alliance between Shang and early Chou examples, Mr. Karlgren has grouped the two under the single head of Archaic period. The bronzes lately acquired by Mr. Pillsbury—two tsun, a yu, a p'an, and a chien—represent these various periods.The earliest piece is a tsun of the Shang period from An Yang; a finely proportioned vessel with the stamp of elegance and virility characteristic of Shang bronze art. It presents a form of tsun hitherto unrepresented in the collection, and is therefore of special interest. In this type of body is large and rather squat with a deeply flaring rim and a narrower, slightly flared base. The all-over decoration, interrupted by scored flanges, occupies four areas: the body, base, shoulders, and throat. The décor consists of dragons and monster masks on a spiral background, the throat band of dragons being terminated by a border of rising blades. Three bovine heads, vigorously modelled in high relief, adorn the shoulders.This bronze is a fine example of the An Yang style; well-proportioned, the decoration suggestive of powerful forces held in strict control, the casting excellent. It has a brilliant green patina, exceptionally heavy over most of the body, with small areas of paler green and some dark blue. The harmony of these colors with the silver of the metal, where the surface has been cleaned, contributes to the striking character of the piece, which is one of the most commanding in the collection.The second tsun is the large beaker type already represented in the collection. It might be dated at the end of Shang or the beginning of Chou, for while it displays all the stylistic elements characteristic of the former, it has an exuberant, slightly swaggering quality associated with the latter. If it was made after the conquest of the Shangs by the Chous in 1122, it was done by a Shang craftsman whose spirit had not yet been broken.When the Chou barbarians overthrew the Shangs, according to Herlee G. Creel in his Birth of China, they applied themselves enthusiastically to the task of appropriating Shang culture, and tried, in many ways, to make themselves as much like the conquered race as possible. They not only recognized the superiority of Shang culture, but insisted upon it, and felt both proud and capable of taking it over and carrying it on to even greater heights. Certainly they must have viewed with wonder many of the refinements of Shang civilization, wallowing in the delights offered by it, and keeping the Shank craftsmen, now slaves, busy fulfilling their various needs. But when the spirit of a race dies the spark that animated the creative genus of that race also dies, as may be observed in parallel situations in our own time. Thus in one sense the Chous destroyed the culture they so ardently admired by their eagerness to perpetuate it.That this outcome was not an immediate consequence of the conquest is evidenced by certain bronzes attributed to the early Chou period, of which Mr. Pillsbury's tsun may be one. The décor is bold and lively, the casting superb. Four rising blades, ornamented with vertical dragons, and the body and base carry large monster masks divided vertically by broad pierced and segmented flanges. The bronzes dark and clean, with a slight patination of blue, red, and grey-green. The inscription under the base has not been translated.In sharp contrast with this boldly handsome vessel is the yu, which must date from the very early years of the Chou dynasty. It has a suave and graceful character that is accentuated by the band of crouching deer around the throat and cover, and by the soft grey-green water patina with its spots of red rust. The handle, finished with realistic ram's heads, is decorated with a band of stylized cicadas in thin relief. A bovine head in relief appears in the throat band on each side of the vessel.The provenance of this yu, once thought to have been the Chang-sha region, is not known. Altogether it is something of a puzzle, which the lengthy inscription, appearing in both the bottom and cover, may yet satisfactorily clear up. The yu is recorded in the Catalogue Hsi Ching Ku Chien, pp. 9, 10, 11, 12, in Volume 15. There is some indication, in two seals accompanying the inscription, that it passed from the imperial treasure store of Ch'ien Lung to a certain Pan Tsu-yin, a famous mid-nineteenth century collector of ancient bronzes, after the Opium War between China and Great Britain. This speculation, not completely substantiated, may prove false. In the meanwhile, the vessel presents an interesting problem to the student of Chinese art. It is an ingratiating piece, of an extremely rare type insofar as the décor is concerned, and one that strikes an interesting note in Mr. Pillsbury's collection.The p'an, dating from the Middle Chou period, represents the type of bronze created by the Chous after they had thrown off the influence of the Shang culture. It is bold and forceful, with the rapacious quality that reflects the gangster spirit of Middle Chou bronzes. The characteristic broad figured band of the period, which decorates the base and bowl, is forthright and uninspired, but the animals forming the handles are modelled with strength and imagination. Both the crouching buffalo, reminiscent in spirit and pose of Mr. Pillsbury's buffalo in the round, and the horned beasts striding up the body of the p'an to bite the rim, are superbly done. The impression of ruthlessness they convey is extraordinarily acute, and sends one's imagination down fearsome byways.With the close of the Middle Chou period a new spirit began to manifest itself in Chinese bronze art. Delicate, all-over tracery replaced the coarse, somewhat heavy-handed decorative scheme of the Middle Chou, and elements borrowed from the Shangs were employed with an unprecedented lightness of touch. Dragons become playful and the t'ao t'ieh is transformed from the awe-inspiring creature of the Shangs to an amiable monster who only pretends to be ferocious. A number of the Middle Chou vessel types were preserved, but new ones were also introduced. Among the innovations was the chien basin, illustrated by the beautiful example acquired by Mr. Pillsbury in January. This piece, and its companion now in the Freer Gallery, must surely express the late Chou (Huai) style at its peak. The vessel may be dated about 479 B.C., and the inscription states that “This admirable basin belongs to the Chun-tsu [gentleman] of Chih.” Chun-tsu was the word which Confucius used to describe his ideal man.The simple form of the basin, with its uniform light green patina, provides a splendid foil for the rich and beautifully designed bands encircling the body. These are composed of enlaced dragons, so disposed that the heads face alternately up and down, and are separated from each other by a narrow braided band in lower relief. Projecting from the central dragon band, and terminating close to the rim in fantastic, horned animal heads, are four handles, two of them completed with loose rings. The whole is executed with a mastery and elegance that border on the exquisite, inappropriate as such a term may sound in conjunction with ancient Chinese bronzes. It has no longer the mysterious and disturbing quality of Shang pieces. It speaks a language closer to our own experience, and is without a doubt one of the loveliest pieces of bronze ever to have come out of China. Upon seeing it, one experiences the desire to stroke it, following with his finger tips its intricate and bewildering curves.Indeed, this sensation may be just the one that maker wished to arouse, for James M. Menzies states, in the Catalogue of An Exhibition of Chinese Bronzes held at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1940, that one of the words in the inscription, here translated “admirable,” has also the meaning of something to be fondled and to be enjoyed for the sake of its beauty. If such were the intention behind it, another message is transmitted, through the medium of ritual bronzes, from ancient China to the contemporary world: that beauty is something to be cherished for its own sake. The form of beauty is a subject of endless and fascinating discussion, but the fact of beauty, by whatever devious route one reaches it, is universally accepted as a means of enriching life. To lovers of ancient Chinese art such enrichment can be found in no greater degree than that offered by the Pillsbury Collection of Chinese bronzes.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Bronze Wine Vessel of the Tsun Group from an Yang Chinese, Shang period. Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury.
  2. Chinese Bronze Vessel of the Tsun Group. Late Shang or early Chou period. Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury.
  3. Bronze Wine Vessel of the Yu Group. Chinese, early Chou period. Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury.
  4. Bronze P'an. In form and decoration this vessel is characteristic of middle Chou bronze art. Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury.
  5. Bronze Basin of the Chien Type. A superb example of late Chou bronze art. Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury.
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Source: "Chinese Bronzes Added to Pillsbury Collection," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 30, no. 14 (April, 1941): 66-71.
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Added to Site: March 10, 2009