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: Chinese Bronzes Added to Pillsbury Collection


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
New lustre has been given the Alfred F. Pillsbury collection of Chinese bronzes, already notable for its quality and scope, through the addition of six bronzes of the Shang and late Chou periods. Since its inception this collection had been remarkable for its peculiarly personal character, and for the manner in which it reflects Mr. Pillsbury’s taste. That character is in no way lessened by the fact that the most recent additions lean to late rather than to the early examples in which the collection is so rich. In his desire to assemble as representative a group of Chinese bronzes as possible, Mr. Pillsbury has not allowed personal preference to bar examples that illustrate other aspects of this art, whether or not they conform to his own idea of what is most appealing in Chinese bronzes. Thus the latest additions reveal, in the preponderance of late Chou pieces, in the large size of two of the examples, and in the inclusion of a human figure, some slight departure from the previous trend. In quality, however, as well as in the presence of two of the animals for which the Pillsbury collection is famous, the new group maintains admirably the special character that has always distinguished this collection. Aficionados of Chinese bronzes will find much to delight them in the new pieces now on display with the collection that Mr. Pillsbury has so generously shared with other lovers of this exciting and beautiful art.The new group includes a large chia of the Shang period, a large bell of the tueh type, a hu inlaid with silver and gold, a fantastic animal, a standing buffalo, and the kneeling figure of a man, all of the late Chou period.The chia is a handsome example of the Shang style, with a vigorous treatment of form and décor. The vessel, measuring ten and a half inches over all, stands on four blade legs decorated with spirals and vertical, confronted dragons. The four sides of the rectangular body carry monster masks formed of confronted dragons of which the hindquarters of those on the long sides are fully developed. Above this main area is a narrow border of gaping dragons moving stealthily around the vessel. This band is edged with rising blades filled with spirals. The handle of one side of the body is finished with a ram’s head where it joins the neck, and the two uprights emerging from the rim on the short ends terminate in roof-like caps decorated with rising blades and spirals. The decoration is in low relief, with shallow flanges dividing the main areas on three sides, and the patina is a soft grey-green. There is an inscription of one character in the bottom. This chia is a powerful and striking piece that provides an interesting comparison with a smaller example in the same style acquired by Mr. Pillsbury in 1938. It has, partly because of its size and proportion, tremendous style—even a slight swagger—that is unusually arresting.The bell in this recent group introduces the tueh type hitherto missing. It, too, is a large piece, measuring twenty-three inches. The decoration of two bands of interlaced dragons flanked by bands of plain bosses in high relief is characteristic. The wide, shaped band at the bottom carries a monster mask whose horns are gripped by winged, bird-headed dragons that twist and twine their length through the flanking area. The dot filling around the heads and feet, and the striations indicating feathers on the wings, are familiar late Chou elements in the décor. The tall handle is decorated with bands of interlaced dragons similar to those on the body of the bell, and is finished at the base with a tiger that braces its feet against the handle as it turns back on itself to bite its tail. The top of the bell carries two pair of confronted dragons with sinuous, twisted bodies. The patina is brownish-green with patches of blue, This bell is a particularly interesting addition to the collection inasmuch as it introduces a second important type. It provides, moreover, a worthy companion for Mr. Pillsbury’s large chung.The hu which has come into the Pillsbury collection is a famous piece, one of the inlaid bronzes found in Chin Ts’un that have provoked a reappraisal of the entire question of inlaid bronzes. Not many years ago bronzes of this type were thought to be no older than Han. With the publication of Tombs of Old Lo-Yang by Bishop White, however, it became apparent that bronzes inlaid with gold and silver certainly pre-dated the Han period. In an extensive examination of the material at hand Professor J. G. Anderson gave evidence, in The Goldsmith in Ancient China, published in the Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in 1935, that bronzes inlaid with gold and silver began to be made in some quantity during the late Chou (Huai) period. One of the points of departure in Professor Anderson’s study was a large bronze bowl included in Bishop White’s disclosure of finds from the Lo-Yang tombs. The body of the bowl is decorated in low relief with the fine spirals, hooks, and volutes that are among the most characteristic elements of the late Chou style. The two narrow upper borders are decorated with a geometric pattern of diagonal bands, volutes, and triangles inlaid with gold and copper. That this geometric pattern is late Chou in origin is proved by its appearance on the handles of the famous Piao bells, dated 550 B.C.The inlaid hu now in the Pillsbury collection is one of the most celebrated and best-preserved pieces of its kind. It is about ten inches high and, with the exception of three narrow bands, is entirely decorated with the patterns of volute and triangle, diagonal and volute, quadruple volute, and T-figure set forth by Professor Anderson as the decorative elements most frequently encountered in inlaid bronzes. The two upper bands of the body are inlaid with silver in a design of diagonals and volutes into which the T-figure is incorporated at intervals at both the top and bottom of the band. The lower band carries a pattern of large heart-shaped forms from which spring involved volute and T-figures. This same heart-shaped motive, which may be the late Chou interpretation of the Shang blade, occurs also on the covered ting inlaid with silver acquired by Mr. Pillsbury in 1939. The foot and lower neckbands of the hu carry a variation of the quadruple volute in silver, and the top neckband the volute and triangle inlaid with both gold and silver. Two movable ring handles, decorated with running volutes inlaid with silver, are attached to the shoulders of the vessel by silver monster masks. It appears, from such examination as has been made, that the inlay of this vessel was accomplished by means of thin sheets of silver and gold cut to conform to the areas of the design. The patina is brown with pronounced areas of green and, in the lower body and foot bands, of red. It is a beautiful example of late Chou bronze art—a star of first magnitude.The first animal in this group takes one, but not ignobly, from the sublime to the enchantingly absurd. The amusing little creature on page 64 is of very doubtful parentage. However, his hooves indicate that there was a horse somewhere in his background. His eight inches of mock ferocity would not deceive a child, but it does add to his charm. The haunches are decorated with large scrolls and spirals, and the fetlocks are indicated by spirals filled with dots and striations. The ears, too, are dot filled, and the outsize eyebrows topping the turquoise eyes repeat the striated pattern of the front fetlock. Turquoise inlay appears also one the shoulders, and the little creature wears, jauntily enough, a necklace of shells. His tail, to complete his fantastic character, is formed of a snake.The buffalo is quite a different matter. It is a clumsy beast, reminiscent in its naturalistic treatment of Mr. Pillsbury’s reclining buffalo. The squat body is covered with large scrolls. The horns lie flat to the head, and on the square, stupid face is an expression that recalls Leconte de Lisle’s “songe intérieure qu’ils n’achèvent jamais.” There is something quite moving in the naïve and awkward character of this beast which, judging from the socket on the back, was designed to serve as some sort of support. A similar buffalo, but with the head turned to the right, was at one time in the Stoclet collection. A third was in a Danish collection, and a fourth belonged to Mr. Loo.The kneeling figure of a man, reproduced on page 65, is the first bronze of its kind to appear in the Pillsbury collection. It is an impressive figure, eleven and a half inches high, clothed in Mongolian dress that swathes the lower part of the body completely. The face is broad with strongly modeled features and the head is covered with a flat cap secured by a band passing under the chin. Apparently this represents an attendant of some kind. The position of the figure, with a sup held out in both hands, indicates an offering to someone of importance. The spirit of devotion is marvelously realized, from the expression of the face to the modeling of the body, which is executed with a primitive vigor that places this piece, despite its small size, in the class of true sculpture. This bronze, formerly in the Eumorfopoulos collection, has been attributed to the late Chou period.Looking at these examples of Chinese bronze art, so widely varies in their appeal, the observer cannot help but be impressed anew by the achievements of the Chinese during the early periods of their civilization. Chinese bronzes are not for everyone, but for those who love them there could be no more magnificent group than that the Art Institute is privileged to show through the generosity of Mr. Pillsbury.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Large bronze Chia with decoration of dragons and monster masks
    Chinese, Shang (1766-1122 B.C.). Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury
  2. Large bronze bell (Tueh). Chinese, late Chou
    A recent addition to the Alfred F. Pillsbury Collection
  3. Bronze vessel decorated with geometric designs inlaid in silver and gold. Chinese, late Chou period. Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury
  4. Fantastic animal decorated with scrolls and turquoise inlay on head and haunches. Chinese, late Chou period. Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury
  5. Kneeling figure wearing Mongolian dress
    Chinese, late Chou. Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury
  6. Standing bronze buffalo with a pattern of large scrolls on the body
    Chinese, late Chou period. Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury
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Source: "Chinese Bronzes Added to Pillsbury Collection," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 34, no. 18 (May, 1945): 60-66.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009