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: Three Chinese Bronzes Added to Pillsbury Collection


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Additions to the Alfred F. Pillsbury Collection of Chinese Ritual Bronzes, which has constituted the star attraction in the oriental galleries for almost two decades, are invariably noted with interest by those who have observed the growth of this celebrated collection. The recent appearance of three fine early vessels will therefore be greeted with enthusiasm in many quarters. Like every other piece acquired by Mr. Pillsbury, these new arrivals reflect the personal and discriminating taste that makes this collection unique among all others. They do something else; they introduce certain variations in form or décor that contribute to the wide-ranging interest and value of the Pillsbury bronzes. Although several examples of each of the newly-acquired pieces—a kuei, a ting, and a yu—are to be found in the collection, those now exhibited for the first time present certain elements that have either not been represented at all or are found in somewhat different guises.This desire to broaden the picture of the bronze art represented in his collection is a constant characteristic of Mr. Pillsbury as a collector. Despite the fact that he prefers bronzes of the early to those of later periods, he has not hesitated to acquire an outstanding group of Middle Chou vessels and brilliant examples of the late period that Dr. Bernhard Karlgren designates as Huai. The variation in form, décor, and technique, so marked in Shang times, was likewise taken into account in forming the collection. Thus the preponderance of vessels of this and the Early Chou periods is due not alone to personal preference, but also to the fact that bronzes of the early period display a variety and perfection never again to be achieved. As occasion offered, both vessel types and décor themes have been illustrated by further additions to the collection. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Pillsbury bronzes have made a major contribution to the understanding and appreciation of the Chinese bronze art. Mr. Pillsbury’s generosity in sharing his collection, both in the flesh and through photographs, has been of utmost value to scholars and amateurs everywhere.The earliest vessel in the new group is a handsome kuei of the Shang period. This, the sixth of the type to enter the collection, adds a fresh note by reason of the fact that it has no handles. It is a strong, vigorous piece decorated in the dynamic animal style used with such virtuosity by the first Shang bronze makers. The body, that rises with a slightly flaring contour from a base in two stages, is deeper than that found on the more usual type of kuei with two handles. A bold, bodied t’ao-t’ie on a ground of squared spirals occupies the central zone, which is divided into four panels by heavy scored flanges. In the band above, beaked dragons pace across a spiral ground interrupted on two sides by an animal mask with C-shaped horns and on the third and fourth sides by flanges. The band at the foot, divided into four panels by flanges corresponding to those on the middle section, carries four trunked dragons.The main element of the decoration, the bodied t’ao-t’ie, is typical of the early Shang style as isolated by Dr. Bernhard Karlgren in his scholarly New Studies in Chinese Bronzes. Here it is executed in rather bold relief, dominating completely the spiral ground that in some examples impinges on the main motif. A good instance of the spirals in conflict with the principal theme is to be seen on Mr. Pillsbury’s shallow kuei with rams’ heads on the handles which is distinguished from other known vessels of its type by the curious dragons with long, hooked trunks that appear to be feathered. The base of this vessel is adorned with yet another variant of this popular décor motif; an elongated and strangely lethargic turning dragon.These dragons—in fact all dragons except the vertical types that often flank the bodied t’ao-t’ie—belong to a group of neutral décor elements established by Dr. Karlgren after a study of over twelve hundred vessels. He discovered these elements to be assimilated impartially either with a group isolated as representing the first Shang style or with one representing a later Shang style. The neutral elements also occur alone in some instances. He also discovered, in the course of his analysis, that the elements of the first style are almost never combined with those of the later style. It becomes apparent, therefore, that two separate styles existed during the Shang dynasty. Proceeding on this basis, four of the kuei in the Pillsbury Collection are seen to belong to the early period. Each carries a bodied t’ao-t’ie as the principal decorative theme, two of them on spiral grounds and two on plain grounds, and each makes use of the dragon—beaked, trunked, winged, or turning—in the upper and lower bands. Only one departs slightly from this scheme; it replaces the dragon of the upper band by a graceful long-tailed bird.The remaining two kuei in the Pillsbury Collection are of the Early Chou period. And here it might be pointed out that this designation is not meant to imply a new style brought in with the conquest of the Shang by the Chou people. Almost two hundred years were to elapse before the Chou imposed their own virile style on Chinese ritual bronzes. Two innovations can be attributed to them; hooked flanges and bent handles. The former are seen on Mr. Pillsbury’s Early Chou kuie with elephant heads at the tops of the handles. This handsome piece varies from others in the collection in having a deep, square base. The flanges, that in a Shang piece would have been less flamboyant, are hooked instead of being scored as in the Shang examples above. Apart form the innovations of hooked flanges and bent ears, the early Chou made no additions to the Shang repertory of decorative and accessory elements. It seems fairly certain that they did, however, introduce one new vessel type—the p’an—which is represented by an Early and a Middle Chou example in the Pillsbury Collection. For the rest, they borrowed from their predecessors, sometimes using elements of the early style and sometimes eschewing those for the elements of the later style. An example of a late element is to be seen on one of the most unusual pieces in Mr. Pillsbury’s collection; the swelling kuei decorated on the body with two pairs of confronted, crested, long-tailed birds reminiscent of peacocks. This fluid and peculiarly beautiful motif is accompanied, in the foot belt, by the rigidly drawn late element known as the eyed band with diagonals.Representing, probably, an extremely dissolved dragon, this element was one of the most popular border designs of the later Shang style, which veered toward the geometric. It is seen in its evolutionary stage in a shallow ting with animal supports that must be counted among the most arresting pieces in the Pillsbury Collection. The central band of naturalistic cicadas, flanked by the eyed diagonal bands that may represent the first step away from the S dragon of the neutral group, places it in the earlier period. The crispness of the design offers an interesting contrast to the elegant turning dragons that constitute the only décor on the rectangular ting recently acquired by Mr. Pillsbury. This vessel, with a uniform greyed-green patina, is a beautiful example of the most common of all Chinese vessels. It is the twelfth ting to enter the Pillsbury Collection and the third of the rectangular type now represented. In point of time it probably falls midway between the other two of this form, for the body décor consists only of one of the neutral décor elements, the turning dragon, here executed with greatest suavity. The vigorous masks at the tops of the straight legs, the ears rising directly from the rim, and the scored flanges are typical of the Shang style.A strong example of the early Shang style is seen in the heavy rectangular ting with a bodied t’ao-t’ie on a spiral ground as the principal motif. Above, a pair of lively beaked dragons stride toward each other on a spiral ground. The upright ears, like those on the new ting, are decorated with ridged lines on the outer side, but the masks on the legs are somewhat different in character and the flanges simpler in outline. The same upright ears and heavy flanges, here uninterrupted, appear on the third ting in the rectangular form, but the body décor is entirely different. The field of interlocking T’s—a favorite motif of the later style—is surrounded on three sides by three rows of round bosses in high relief. The upper band is decorated with confronted long-tailed birds on a spiral ground, and the straight legs with the elongated triangular motifs known as hanging blades.These blades, elaborated with spirals or filled with vertical dragons or naturalistic cicadas, are found in various positions on Shang bronzes. They appear in the last form as the body décor of a round ting of the early period; an unspectacular but pleasing vessel, with an upper band of purposeful beaked dragons. As time went on, this important border motif underwent many changes. The extreme stylization that began to occur in Shang times is illustrated in a small, heavily corroded ting decorated only with a band of dragons around the neck. The dragon character is still preserved, but the arrangement of the curled tail and turned-in beak suggests the dissolution that was to come. A further, and much more advanced change appears in a strange vessel of the ting family with a heating compartment supported by three figures part human and part animal. The neck band of this vessel offers a good example of the animal triple band; an element of the late style that occurs on other vessel types in the Pillsbury Collection. With the coming of the Middle Chou style, the dragon, as a dragon, disappeared. It was not until late Chou times that it again became an important decorative motif. By that time, however, it was quite another animal; sinuous and engaging, drunk with its own incredible grace. This late dragon, bewilderingly interlaced with its fellows, constitutes the décor on three covered ting of the late period of Chinese bronze art.The individual and perfectly clear-cut character of the dragons that fill the borders of countless Shang and Early Chou bronzes is a source of unfailing interest. They are almost always lively; sometimes in a playful but more often in a menacing fashion, and they invariably create a mood that is not infrequently related to that experienced with music; during the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the first ominous stirrings of Ravel’s Choreographic Waltz, for example. The ones occupying the upper band of a li-ting decorated with a bold t’ao-t’ie above each leg are winged, but they are not concerned with anything so airy as the heavens; they are bent upon some earthly mischief.Of almost equal importance with the dragon on Shang bronzes was the bird. Splendid examples of this neutral element occur on the yu just acquired by Mr. Pillsbury. This handsome vessel, whose spectacular character is enhanced by the grey-green patina overlaid with patches of sharper green, is a vigorous example of the later Shang style. With the exception of the vertical ribs around the shoulder and on the cover—an innovation of late Shang bronze makers now seen for the first time in the Pillsbury Collection—the decorative elements belong to the neutral group. And it will be noted that with the exception of the neck band and the handle, the bird has ousted the dragon. It appears with a short, falling tail in the pairs of confronted birds on the spiral ground of the lower body; with a long, curving tail on the foot and the edge of the cover; and with a long, hooked tail on the lower band of the cover. These birds, executed in rather sharp relief, are just as positive in character as the beaked dragons confronting each other in the neck band. A fine, clear example of the jawed dragon decorates the handle of this brilliant and exciting piece.This same broad form of the vessel commonly—and apparently loosely—called yu is represented in three of the other ten yu vessels in the Pillsbury Collection. One is characteristic of the early style, with bold t’ao-t’ie decorating the principal surface and cover, and winged dragons appearing on the neck and foot bands and the lower edge of the cover. An interesting variation here is the plain ground. The tendency toward large undecorated areas that became one of the distinguishing features of the later Shang style is manifested in a blackish bronze yu adorned only with three bands of delicately drawn dragons turning in a rather narrow space. A further restriction of the decorated area is to be found in the unusual Early Chou yu that carries, on neck and cover, only narrow bands of reclining deer.The variety displayed by Shang bronze makers in creating vessels of the yu type becomes apparent in the remaining examples in the Pillsbury Collection. Together with the other early vessels in the collection they present an almost complete array of the elements that, used with imagination and unparalleled skill, made the early bronze art of China one of the most exciting and beautiful of all the arts.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Bronze ritual vessel of the yu type. Chinese, Shang
    Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury
  2. Food vessel, kuei, without handles. Chinese, Shang
    Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury
  3. Cooking vessel, ting, with dragon décor. Chinese, Shang
    Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury
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Source: "Three Chinese Bronzes Added to Pillsbury Collection," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 39, no. 9 (March, 1950): 42-47.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009