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: Recent Additions to the Alfred F. Pillsbury Collection of Chinese Bronzes


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The distinguished collection of Chinese bronzes lent to the Art Institute by Alfred F. Pillsbury has long constituted one of the most important exhibitions in the museum. In the time that has elapsed since the first examples appeared in the galleries it has also become one of the major attractions to a growing number of visitors, and the additions periodically made to it by Mr. Pillsbury have been noted with interest both by students of Chinese bronzes in various part of the world and by members of the community who have found in Chinese bronzes an exciting and beautiful form of art. The announcement of the addition of five examples of Shang and Chou bronze will therefore be welcomed in many quarters. Chosen with the discrimination which has marked the assembling of this collection from the beginning, the new group brings to the museum a series of variation on forms already represented. It includes one yu, one kuei, two tsun, and a bell of the to type. It is especially notable for the fact that the predominant decorative motif of four of the examples is the bird, an element hitherto present in only a minor role in the decoration of vessels in this collection. With the exception of one tsun, itself the figure of an owl, the newly acquired vessels display the bird as the major element of the décor. The bell also carries this motif, but to a less conspicuous degree.To the expert the chief interest of the group will lie in the fact that it represents rather rare types of well-known forms and a style of decoration that is less frequently encountered than some others. It will thus prove valuable in clarifying further the evolution of style in Chinese bronzes. To the casual audience, on the other hand, the interest of the group will lie in the individual appeal of the various members. It is through such individual appeal that any work of art must make its most important claim to attention and it is upon the intensity of the response it evokes that its existence as a work of art depends. In the long run its interest stems from the sum of its qualities and not from a minute analysis of the diverse elements which contribute to its personality. Especially in the alien field of Chinese bronzes does such analysis tend to become confusing to the casual observer, whose interest must be primarily captured by the general appearance of the bronze—by the vigor and beauty of its form, decoration, and patina; by the ingenuity with which the artist has disposed the elements of decoration; by the electric, and often menacing, quality that marks so many early bronzes.With regard to the purpose of the vessels it may be recalled that they were ceremonial objects cast for use in sacrifices made to ancestors, to Heaven and Earth and the forces of nature. They were the essential articles of worship, and the perfection of their design and workmanship testifies to the importance placed on the act of worshipping. They include vessels for wine, food, and cooking, each ingeniously shaped to serve its special purpose. The decoration, much of it zoomorphic, reflects the desire for protection by powerful spirits or the desire, equally strong, to propitiate those upon whose favor one's well-being depended.In the present group of bronzes, two important examples of vessels used in invoking protective spirits are the double owl yu and the tsun in the form of an owl. The former is a splendid example of a wine container representing two owls placed back to back. The squat body stands on four sturdy legs bearing coiled dragons. The dome lid, with a knob at the top, carries two owl masks with horns, the protruding beaks turned down, on a ground of squared spirals. The edges of cover and body are decorated with narrow bands of spirals. The bodies of the owls, with plumage fully developed on breast and wing sections, are decorated above each wing with a beaked, long-tailed bird on a spiral ground. Separating them on the long sides are tubular lugs bearing a horned mask. A similar mask, in flat relief but more clearly defined, is centered on the long side of the body. The lugs indicate that this is an early vessel on which a length of braided bamboo or rope served as a handle. The earliest bronze handles of such vessels were in the form of twisted rope and offer evidence that before bronze handles were introduced rope or some other pliable material was used. This fact, combined with the strong, simple contour of the yu, marks it as a product of the Shang period. Another owl yu of this type in the Pillsbury collection illustrates the deterioration of the design so boldly presented in this example. In the second yu only the legs and a suggestion of the wings remain to indicate the owl form. The body of the vessel is smooth except for the sweeping lines of the wings, and the owl masks on the cover are replaced by monster masks having no relation to the owl.The tsun in the form of an owl, also of the Shang period, is a striking example of a rare form. Like that of the first double owl yu the silhouette is clean and uncluttered. The plump body of the bird, with its beautifully executed plumage, has a square tail which, with the clawed feet, serves as a support. The wings, indicated by curving lines of spirals and stylized feathers, display none of the accessory animals to be found on some tsun of this type. The only elaboration consists of shallow hooked flanges on breast, back, and tail.In connection with these two vessels it may be noted that the owl was the most important of all birds represented on early Chinese bronzes. It is also the only bird which can be unerringly identified. As a symbol of darkness, and thus also of power over darkness, it was interpreted as a protector of the dead. The fact that it also protected agriculture by eating or killing vermin added to its importance. In considering this attribute it is interesting to observe that the Pillsbury owl tsun may possibly represent the species known in Minnesota as the burrowing owl; a bird which is especially esteemed because it protects crops from destructive vermin.Birds of a more elaborate character are boldly represented on a kuei and an unusual round tsun of the Early Chou period. The body of the kuei is decorated with two large confronted birds, their heads turned back, framed in streaming plumes which emerge from crest, wing, and tail. These plumes are decorated at intervals with small, vaguely heart-shaped medallions in broad relief which recall the eyes in a peacock's tail. The handles, with pendant ends, terminate at the top with rams' heads set close to the body. A narrow band of eyed diagonals decorates the foot and an animal mask in relief appears below the neck on the long sides of the body. The treatment of the birds, with their flowing plumage, lends an air of stately movement to this vessel, whose decoration has a counterpart in a round tsun lent to the London Exhibition by the Chinese Government and designated by them as a "Phoenix tsun," and in a yu in the Sumitomo collection. The pale green patina with patches of sharper green and blue contributes further to the suggestion of brilliant plumage.The tsun presents an even richer example of the decorative style dominated by large birds. The suave lines of the vessel, the soft bluish-green patina, and the stately birds with broad, flat bands of plumage swirling slowly about them, have a mesmeric rhythmic quality reminiscent of Swineburne. In this example of the heads of the birds are not turned back, as is often the case—on a yu in the Victoria and Albert Museum, for example—and the neck band is filled with sinuous S-shaped dragons instead of birds. The foot carries a band of long-tailed birds, and the throat is decorated with four pairs of confronted birds in broad leaf-shaped panels. The vessel is a beautiful example of the relaxed Early Chou style with a sensuous quality rarely encountered in this medium. This tsun, and the kuei described above, were unearthed at Si-an Fu, also known as Chang-an, in Shensi Province during the war. Both carry inscriptions at the bottom, the kuei a lengthy one and the tsun a brief one.Livelier and far more tenuous birds decorate the borders of the fifth piece in this new group—a bell with a long narrow barrel topped by a tall handle. It has been identified as one of the to type despite the fact that it shows no trace of a clapper. Such bells are said to have been carried in the hand and rung on special occasions. However, the fact that the bell was meant to be held with the mouth up—although it is shown reversed—which is indicated by the position of the mask, seems to contradict this suggestion. An explanation will have to wait on time. In the meanwhile it offers a delightful example of late Chou bronze art, the graceful, nervous drawing of the border design offering a piquant contrast with the geometrical area below the mask.The five bronzes shown here are now on view with other examples in the Pillsbury Collection. An early visit to them is recommended, for they will lift the spirit and gladden the eye.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Wine vessel (Tsun) in the form of an owl. Shang. Collection of Alfred F. Pillsbury
  2. Wine vessel (Yu) in the form of a double owl. Shang. Collection of Alfred F. Pillsbury
  3. Food vessel (Kuei) with decoration of large birds. Early Chou. Collection of Alfred F. Pillsbury
  4. Wine vessel (Tsun) decorated with large birds. Early Chou. Collection of Alfred F. Pillsbury
  5. Bell of the To type. Late Chou. Collection of Alfred F. Pillsbury
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Source: "Recent Additions to the Alfred F. Pillsbury Collection of Chinese Bronzes," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 37, no. 14 (April, 1948): 66-71.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009