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: The Alfred F. Pillsbury Collections at the Art Institute


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
When Alfred F. Pillsbury was appointed to the newly-created office of Chairman of the Board of Trustees of The Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts, following his resignation as President of the Board in October, his fellow-Trustees requested that some permanent record be made of his contribution to this community as a collector of works of art. Mr. Pillsbury's service to the city as a member, and for many years President, of the Park Board, as well as his enlightened interest in and contribution to the growth of the Art Institute, has long been known. The extent of his own activities as a collector is, on the other hand, known hardly at all. In recent years his ancient Chinese bronzes have become world famous, but the many other fields of oriental and near-eastern art in which interest has been aroused through him have received but limited recognition; less in Minneapolis, perhaps, than elsewhere, for loans from the Pillsbury collections have often been in demand by other museums throughout the country. It is in the hope of correcting this situation, and of awakening members and others in this region to the great debt owed to Mr. Pillsbury, that this issue of the Bulletin is devoted to a brief summary of the distinguished works of art he has shared so generously.It is a debt that is hard to liquidate, for no one is more modest in the role of collector than Mr. Pillsbury. In assembling the archaic jades, the Wei and T'ang tomb figurines and T'ang potteries, the monochrome porcelains, the Persian potteries, the Khmer Buddhist sculpture, and finally the great Chinese ritual bronzes, he has given himself up to a pleasure which is in no sense purely selfish since a great part of his enjoyment has come from sharing the fruits of his collection with others. His generous long-term loans to the Art Institute have made these beautiful—and, in this region, rarely encountered—objects available to all who care to look at them. In a way, also, they make Mr. Pillsbury the friend of everyone who knows his treasures because they reflect to an unusual degree the personality of the man who assembled them. It is no accident that they are of uniformly high quality; that they are subtle and understated; that they reveal a profound feeling for form and color; and that they are spiced by a sly humor which is the more effective for its infrequent intrusion. In assembling his own collections Mr. Pillsbury has given free rein to his personal tastes; a liberty he never permitted himself as President of the Society of Fine Arts. In doing so he has shown himself to be possessed of the qualities he admires so much in the works he has collected; qualities which, strangely enough, are to be found almost exclusively in the arts of the East: economy of expression, an intense awareness of form, and a something beneath the surface which lures the beholder to special, happy discoveries.Mr. Pillsbury's interest in oriental art began with a trip to the Orient following the first World War. He admits that he was captivated by the strange beauty of the things he saw there, and it is a tribute to his discrimination that the first objects he began seriously to collect were early Chinese jades. He started with jades of the Han period, but soon put these aside for the pendants and ornaments of Chou and, later, the austere symbols of rank, discs, weapons, and the enchanting animals of Shang. To the average eye these make no quick appeal. The lovely pale ivory of a chicken-bone jade dagger; the rare mottled blue of a sceptre; the watery, blue-flecked green of a symbol of rank, or the mat white of a graceful belt hook, are outside the experience of many Westerners in the field of jade. But they ripen with acquaintance, bringing new and unexpected pleasure. Added to the charm of color are those of form and texture, so that in the end the constant observer discovers in himself a small, fierce mania for these curious and beautiful objects. There are some three hundred of them in the collection which Mr. Pillsbury was building in the twenty years from 1918 to 1938.During this time, beginning about 1925 and ending in 1932, Mr. Pillsbury assembled three other collections: the T'ang potteries and Wei and T'ang tomb figurines, the Chinese monochrome porcelains, and the Persian potteries. The T'ang potteries include fine examples of glazed ware in a variety of forms: bowls in soft blue and white, a pale green iridescent bottle, a standing hound, head lifted, with a deep blue glaze, and a typical T'ang ewer with a blue and yellow glaze.The Wei and T'ang tomb potteries represent a more casual art, models made in large numbers for use in tombs and thus of more summary execution. Nevertheless, the camels, horses, animal figures representing signs of the zodiac, oxen, birds, court ladies, musicians, dancing girls, wrestlers, and guards have a special charm. These figurines, whose informal treatment results in an impressionistic rendering of form lacking in more sophisticated arts, were placed in tombs to accompany the deceased on his journey to the other world. They are almost always unglazed but frequently show traces of pigment: red, blue, green. Among the most engaging in Mr. Pillsbury's collection are a diminutive pair of wrestlers of the Wei period whose comic antics bring a smile to the most dour face, and a T'ang princess accompanied by a musician and a dancing girl.The monochrome porcelains of the K'ang Hsi, Yung Chêng, and Ch'ien Lung periods illustrate quite another, and very brilliant, achievement of Chinese ceramic art. This collection of some sixty pieces is notable for the two qualities Mr. Pillsbury admires above all others: form and color. Assembling it must have afforded him, as it affords all observers, a sensuous pleasure that is equalled, in his collections, only by the archaic jades. Among the most beautiful pieces are a peachbloom amphora, an imperial yellow gallipot, an apple green bottle, and a clair de lune amphora.The Persian potteries, also including about sixty pieces, introduce a different and beguiling note into the Pillsbury collections. Although it is not a large group it includes examples of almost all the well-known types: lustre painted ware from Ravy; under and over-glaze painted bowls from Ravy and Sava; an incised white-glaze bowl of the tenth century; black and blue painted bowls and plates from Kashan; a pale turquoise bowl decorated in gold relief, and many others. Like most Persian works of art, these potteries illustrate the meticulous fashion in which the potter suited the character and spirit of his design to his material. He never demanded more of a substance than it could give. Thus there is, in these bowls and plates and ewers, a happy marriage of design to material that enhances the medium, no matter how humble. The Persian potteries are pure delight—gay but restrained, cool and self-contained.The Khmer and Siamese sculptures, about fifteen large and twenty small pieces, which captured Mr. Pillsbury's interest about 1932, represent his only incursion into the field of pure sculpture. The remote, contemplative quality of these bronze and sandstone figures from Cambodia and Siam exercised a strong appeal to him; so strong, in fact, that two seated Buddhas and one head of a Bodhisattva are the only pieces of his large collection that he has kept in his home. They, too, are objects that are strange and sometimes forbidding to the western eye, but the observer who responds to them will often find them rewarding beyond all other works of art.Perhaps the transition from Khmer sculpture to the enigmatic bronze ritual vessels of China was the natural last step for Mr. Pillsbury to take in the course of his years of collecting. Certainly it has been the most satisfying to him and one which has revealed to the highest degree his taste and discrimination. The monumental conception, the miraculously controlled power, the mastery of design, and the flawless workmanship of these vessels represent the ultimate in Chinese art. In bringing them to Minneapolis; in sharing them at the Art Institute with visitors from all over the world, Mr. Pillsbury has bestowed the ultimate favor in his long and fruitful career as a collector.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Sandstone head of Bodhisattva. Khmer, about XII century. Collection of Alfred F. Pillsbury
  2. A group of jades of the Shang and Chou periods
  3. Terra cotta camel with rider, Wei, and blue-glazed hound, T'ang
  4. Princess with musician and dancing girl. T'ang tomb figurines
  5. A group of Persian bowls from Ravy and Sava, XII and XIII centuries
  6. Monochrome porcelains of the K'ang His and Yung Cheng periods
  7. Bronze ritual vessel of the Kuei type. Chinese, Shang
  8. Portrait of Alfred F. Pillsbury by Ivan Olinsky, 1946
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Source: "The Alfred F. Pillsbury Collections at the Art Institute," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 37, no. 33 (December, 1948): 170-176.
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Added to Site: March 10, 2009