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: A Catalogue of the Chinese Bronzes in the Alfred F. Pillsbury Collection: End of a Chapter


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
With the publication of the Catalogue of the Chinese Bronzes in the Alfred F. Pillsbury Collection one chapter in the building of the museum’s collections has come to an end. The bronzes themselves, intended by Mr. Pillsbury from the beginning to become a keystone of the original collections, represent the triumphant attainment of an ideal which absorbed his interest during the last twenty years of his life. Beginning his collection in 1929, when ancient Chinese bronzes were still little known and appreciated in this country, Mr. Pillsbury was fortunately able to assemble a group of rare quality and distinction before the flow of bronzes from China ceased. For him this occurred during the winter before his death in 1950. His final contribution to a wider understanding of the Chinese bronze art was the catalogue of his collection which, in his mind, was to serve as a means of making additional material available to scholars in all parts of the world. As Mr. Pillsbury remarked in his foreword to the text, the catalogue coincided with and marked the closing of his career as a collector. In view of the difficulty of securing pieces of the caliber which he demanded, he brought his activities in this field to an end. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that other Chinese bronzes will be added to the museum’s collection, but Mr. Pillsbury envisaged the catalogue as the final step in his own contribution. Unhappily, he did not live to see the handsome volume that will make his bronzes known to an audience larger than any that has viewed them in the Art Institute. He had seen the manuscript written by Dr. Bernhard Karlgren, whose services in this capacity he desired above all others, and he was enormously pleased with it from all points of view.Dr. Karlgren’s discussion of these famous ritual vessels and animals is stimulating and enlightening, for his observations and theories cover many aspects of an art that still presents perplexing problems. It will come as no surprise to those familiar with his previous studies that the work throughout displays a profound knowledge of the subject and reflects, at the same time, the flexibility and open-mindedness essential to the never-ending search for truth in various areas of human endeavor. Like other scholars in the field, Dr. Karlgren realized that many questions with regard to the bronzes cannot be satisfactorily solved until extensive excavations of various sites have been scientifically carried out. Thus far only An-yang, the last capital of the Shang-Yin dynasty, has been so excavated. But since the findings are not yet officially available—and probably will not now be available for an indefinite time—many of the conclusions regarding the bronzes are necessarily speculative.Dr. Karlgren, however, does not believe that fruitful work on the subject must cease pending further excavations. Working from hundreds of photographs and from an extensive group of bronze vessels, he has isolated a series of vessel types, styles of decoration, and decor motifs peculiar to the four major bronze periods of the pre-Christian era. The results of his studies, published regularly in the Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm, have established an invaluable body of material for the identification and classification of early Chinese bronzes. Many of the conclusions reached during the course of his investigations are presented in his discussion of the Pillsbury bronzes.Since the purpose of the catalogue is specific, the discussion is largely confined to the individual pieces. Within this framework, however, Dr. Karlgren gives a vivid picture of the bronze art of ancient China. He takes it for granted that the reader is aware of the fact that the various vessels, usually cast to commemorate a special occasion or achievement, were used in sacrificial rites; that they were nor necessarily contemporaneous with the graves in which they were found; that their decoration, zoömorphic in origin, is undoubtedly closely allied with the religion of the ancient Chinese. Such information is part of the general knowledge concerning Chinese bronzes; it is Dr. Karlgren’s theories and conclusions with regard to special aspects of the vessels and the civilization they represent that contribute to the value of his catalogue of the Pillsbury bronzes.One of the first points he makes is that the earliest historical Chinese dynasty, variously called Shang or Yin but most commonly known in this country as Shang, was better known to its conquerors, the Chou, as Yin. He arrives at this conclusion by a comparison of the frequency with which the two names occur in the earliest existing Chinese texts: the Shï king and Shu king of Early Chou. In the former both terms are used almost equally often; in the latter, however, the term Yin occurs much more frequently. Added to this evidence is the fact that Confucius, who claimed the kings of the first historical dynasty as his ancestors, invariably referred to that dynasty as Yin. Dr. Karlgren therefore rejects the name Shang for the dynasty, its kings, and its bronzes, and uses the name Yin instead. This practice, while it marks no departure from his earlier studies—where he has always shown a preference for the term Yin—does introduce a change into the Chinese bronze terminology generally in use in this country.Of greater importance is the revised chronology presented in the remarks preceding the discussion of the bronzes. Dr. Karlgren has always maintained that a chronological scheme based on historical periods rather than on stylistic periods, which display definite developments in the bronze art, is unsatisfactory and false. He points out that the style periods of the bronzes do in fact correspond closely to historical developments. Thus the first period, when the bronze art was already at its apogee and displayed a variety and refinement of vessel types and decoration never again to be equaled, is naturally the Yin (Shang), now dated by Dr. Karlgren as about 1525 to 1028 B.C. instead of from 1766 to 1122. The relatively short period which followed the conquest of the Yin by the Chou may reasonably be called Early Chou, for while it does not introduce any great change in the bronze art, one or two minor innovations become evident. There is, moreover, a subtle but indefinable change in the character of the bronzes which indicates that something new, if not inspired, has been added to the old order. The dates of the Early Chou period, formerly given as about 1122 to 950 B.C., are now fixed as from about 1027 to 900 B.C.The Middle Chou period, originally dated from about 950 to about 771 B.C., has been lengthened to cover the years from 900 to about 600 B.C.—the period marking the peak and decline of the Chou power. The vigorous and emphatic bronzes of this era reflect accurately the change which came over the political aspect of China once the Chou conquerors had firmly established themselves. The subsequent and final period of the great bronze art of China can most accurately, Dr. Karlgren believes, be identified as the period of the Huai style, which, from about 600 to about 222 B.C., played a predominant role in the style and decoration of Chinese bronzes. Emerging about 600 B.C., the Huai style reflects the spirit of change that came over the political scene following the collapse of absolute Chou power. Despite the fact that remnants of the Chou political system persisted in a decadent form during the period from roughly 600 to 256 B.C., Dr. Karlgren believes that the bronze style cannot accurately be called Late Chou because it represents a new and different spirit, graceful, airy, and elegant. The general outline of this chronological scheme is one that Dr. Karlgren has long championed. It is the revised dates and duration of the carious periods that give it a new aspect and, incidentally, make more logical and accurate the attribution of certain pieces on the borderline of Middle Chou and what has been generally designated as Late Chou.The bronzes reproduced in this Bulletin represent vessel types which Dr. Karlgren discusses at some length, as well as details of decoration and treatment which he finds interesting and significant. Of particular interest is his discussion of the names of certain vessels, among them those generally known as yu and kuang. For neither of these terms does he find any authority in early inscriptions. With regard to the yu, for example, the pictogram yu in early inscriptions depicts not the type that has been accepted as yu, but the asymmetrical flask of the Middle Chou and Huai styles which is known today in only a few examples of those periods. The vessel archaeologically known as yu, but which does not correspond to the pictogram yu in early inscriptions, is, on the other hand, definitely a Yin vessel persisting in Early Chou. A similar misconception exists with regard to the kuang, a name that is incorrect for the vessel to which it is commonly applied and which should, according to Dr. Karlgren, be abolished. This type, together with the Middle Chou vessel resembling a sauceboat, has been recorded as an ih in Po ku t’ u lu. Inasmuch as both vessels were pouring vessels, whether used for sacrificial or profane purposes, Dr. Karlgren finds the term suitable for the early tall, covered sacrificial vessel of Yin and Early Chou as well as for the long, low, uncovered profane—or sacrificial—vessel of Middle Chou. His comments on these and other puzzling vessel types are extremely interesting.Other matters to which Dr. Karlgren makes special reference in his discussion of the Pillsbury bronzes are the Yin practice of combining both a realistic and stylized treatment of birds and animals in one vessel, as in the crisply and magnificently executed ting with supporting animals; the derivation of the eyed-band with diagonals; the technical perfection of a unique Early Chou kuei; the origin of the motif square with crescents; the bodied t’ao t’ieh as a decor element; the unexpected appearance of the elephant in the decoration of two of the bronzes; the difference between a kuei and a sü; the t’ ao t’ieh as a proper mask; the variety of geometric designs derived from the dragon; the brilliant execution of certain Middle Chou bronzes; the significance of pear-shaped motifs on the bodies of recumbent animals on the Huai style ting inlaid with silver, and a variety of other subjects on which he discourses with ease and authority.The fact that such a book has been written and will be read for pleasure as well as for information is good news. In the field of science the relentless pursuit of knowledge which sets man apart from all other living creatures has reached frightening proportions with the solving of the riddle of atomic energy. Viewed soberly, it is necessarily viewed with apprehension. In the field of humanism and the arts, on the other hand, the pursuit of knowledge has had no such terrifying overtones; has had, rather, the beneficent result of enlightening man with regard to the spiritual and artistic achievements which have contributed almost from the dawn of time to human progress and which thus renew hope in the future through an understanding of the past. The one is objective and contributes chiefly to the physical, and only as corollary to the spiritual, welfare of the human race. The other is subjective and contributes chiefly to the spiritual, and only in a lesser degree to the physical, welfare of man. Of the two, the scientific and objective discoveries stand in the ascendant today. Concern for man’s physical welfare—for his survival, in fact—has become so dominant that his spiritual welfare is threatened with temporary extinction. It is therefore in a degree notable to come upon one more work that underlines the value of exact knowledge concerning the creative genius of an ancient people. Dr. Karlgren’s examination of the beautiful and exciting bronzes in the Pillsbury collection restores concern for the spiritual and humanistic values of man.Referenced Works of ArtFrontispiece. Wine vessel of the so-called yu type with elaborate decoration. Chinese, Yin, ca. 1525-1028 B.C.
  1. Wine vessel in the form of an owl with stylized plumage and realistic feet. Yin or Early Chou.
  2. Ting with supporting animals and band of realistic cicadas. Yin.
  3. Ritual vessel identified as the ih type. Yin.
  4. Unique Early Chou kuei.
  5. Casket-shaped vessel, so-called fang yi with confronted elephants in lower belt. Yin or Early Chou.
  6. Wine vessel of so-called tsun type. An unusual shape combining a square body with rounded rim. Yin or Early Chou.
  7. Wine vessel, so-called tsun, decorated with crested long-tailed birds. Early Chou.
  8. Vessel of sü type decorated with typical elements of the Middle Chou style.
  9. Covered ting inlaid with silver. A unique example of the Huai style.
  10. Deep kuei without handles. The bold decor is typical of the Yin style.
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Source: "A Catalogue of the Chinese Bronzes in the Alfred F. Pillsbury Collection: End of a Chapter,"
<i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 41, no. 24 (October, 1952): 126-136.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009