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: New Group of Chinese Bronzes Lent by Mr. Pillsbury


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Through the generosity of Alfred F. Pillsbury the Institute has been privileged to exhibit during an extended period a group of early Chinese bronzes that for quality and variety stands among the very few great collections of its kind in this country. Always of interest, particularly to students of Chinese art, this collection, by the recent addition of a group of Shang and Chou examples of bronze art, has become one of paramount importance in its field. Aside from the ceremonial vessels, of which many of the characteristic forms are now represented, and the birds and animals that give Mr. Pillsbury’s collection such an individual flavor, the visitor may now see in this exhibition a group of ceremonial swords, dagger hilts, and chariot fittings.Although it is by their initial impact that bronzes of this kind create their most lasting impression—no one who is confronted suddenly with their bold forms and vibrant decoration fails to experience it—it is only through continued acquaintance that one comes to realize the tremendous strength and invention of early Chinese bronzes, and begins to see that there are definite differences not only in the technique and decoration, but in the feel of the bronze art of the Shang and Chou periods.The following brief summary of these differences, based on Dr. Karlgren’s invaluable analysis in Yin and Chou in Chinese Bronzes, is made in the hope that it will heighten appreciation of the current enlarged exhibition of Chinese bronzes.Of them all, it is the ceremonial vessels that make the greatest appeal. This may be partly due to the fact that their purpose is still a mystery to us, but more than anything else it emanates from the vessels themselves. On their surface all the deities of the early Chinese pantheon war or slumber, stalk forth or lie in wait. For the moment it is impossible to do more than guess at what this decoration means. The most generally accepted theory is that it is based on a religion whose attributes were those of nature—a force that could be benign, but that might also be terrifying and fiercely destructive: of hope, of livelihood, of life itself.The emphasis upon the destructive aspect of this force, awesome but superbly controlled, together with the free and vigorous contours, give the bronzes of Shang an early Chou and incredible vitality and intensity. The dragon, associated at once with revivifying rains and tumultuous floods, is held in leash as he paces across and around these food, or wine, or cooking vessels; the thunder in the intricately spiraled background is stilled; and the monster, whose mask is so typical of this period, is temporarily satisfied. But one senses in them the power of disaster. They are imponderable and disquieting.In this spirit the bronzes of the Shang people were created. They are the richest in invention, the most varied and technically perfect of all the early bronzes, and for all we know, though our reason balks at the idea, they came thus perfect into existence, for there is yet no actual evidence of any initial, stumbling period in the history of Chinese bronze art. It begins at its apogee.The attribution of a large group of bronzes to the Shang period was made possible through recent excavations at An Yang, the old capital of the Shang people. Using examples of this period as a point of departure, Dr. Karlgren has, by a study of inscriptions and a comparison of elements and forms, evolved a new chronology of Chinese bronzes. The Shang (Shang-Yin, Yin) period is dated from 1766-1122 B.C.; the early Chou (Yin-Chou) from 1122-947 B.C.; the middle Chou from 946 to about 770 B.C.; and the late Chou (Huai) from 770-206 B.C. This swallows the Ch’in period, formerly dated from 221-206 B.C., and dispenses with the periods of the Spring and Autumn Annals (722-481 B.C.) and the Warring States (about 481-221 B.C.). The classification of all late Chou bronzes as Huai is an enveloping one, and will quite probably be broken up as time goes on. In the meanwhile, Dr. Karlgren’s isolation of the several types is illuminating and useful.In the Shang period he lists a number of elements as distinctive. The types of vessels included are: the square ting, li-ting, yu, ku and tsun, yi, tsue (chueh) and kia (chia), and the kuang. Two very familiar forms, the round ting and kuei, are not included because they persist in later periods. Accessory and decorative elements distinctive in Shang bronzes include: cylinder legs, supporting animals, lid knobs, bottle horns, spikes, segmented flanges, free animal heads, the t’ao t’ieh (monster mask), the common bird, gaping, vertical, trunked, winged, and feathered dragons, snakes, cicadas, rising and hanging blades (evolved from the cicada), leg blades, the animal triple band, scaled animals, spiral filling, spirals on figures, the spiral band, compounded lozenges, interlocked T’s, the circle band, whorl circles, vertical ribs, T scores, and a square with crescent corners.It will be observed that the Shang scheme was a rich and decorative one. And when one adds, to the variety of form and decoration above, the variety of techniques practiced by the Shangs, one has a bronze art already intricate and perfect in its earliest known stage.The Shang bronzes in Mr. Pillsbury’s collection display many of the elements listed above. The chia and kuei shown on pages 109 and 107 illustrate some of these. The chia is a fine example from An Yang, executed in the flat relief that produces an almost smooth surface. It is decorated with three bands of decoration. The upper one is filled with rising blades; the second displays the winged dragon on a spiral background; and the main one carries four t’ao t’ieh masks on a spiral ground. The lower two areas are divided by a shallow unscored flange. The legs are of the blade form, and the ears rising from the rim are of the button type decorated with rising blades. Under the buffalo handle, decorated with large spiral forms, is the figure of a standing man. This piece has a soft green patina with patches of red and darker green.The Shang kuei illustrated is distinguished for its bold and primitive form and its unusual decoration. Like the chia above it has three fields of decoration vertically. These back-to-back dragons, with heads turned back, are an unusual but not unheard of type of Shang bronzes, and they are one of the few early elements that assume any importance in the middle Chou scheme of decoration. The décor of this entire piece appears on a spiral background, and the ox-like handles are adorned with larger spiral forms. Executed in higher and crisper relief than the chia, and almost entirely lacking in the colored patination that distinguishes most bronzes in western collections, this kuei is a fine illustration of the variation to be found in Shang bronzes.The early Chou (Yin-Chou) style is a continuation of the Shang with a few new elements. It is a more exuberant style than the Shang, but in essence it is the same. Its innovations were the bent ear (handle), such as is seen in the late Chou ting illustrated on the back cover, hook projections, derived from the Shang flanges and illustrated in the tsun in Mr. Pillsbury’s collection, the tail-raising bird, and the p’an, a flat pan-like vessel.No early Chou bronzes are illustrated in this Bulletin, but they may be studied in the exhibition, and the visitor will observe in them a more explosive spirit than one associates with Shang bronzes. The elements that characterize the Shang style are losing something of their control, and with it will go that sense of awe and mystery and somewhat terrifying strangeness.With the beginning of middle Chou (946-c.770 B.C.) there is an inexplicable change in the bronze art of China. All of the distinctive Shang elements listed above disappear, and a new series of vessels—bold, handsome, and functional, comes into being. Dr. Karlgren lists the middle Chou types as follows: the chung bell, the arched li cauldron, the fu, a tray-like vessel, the ih, a sauceboat type, the su, an oval, usually covered, form, and the shallow ting. Accessory and decorative elements are curved legs, fin flanges, footed kuei, spiral horns, grooves, vertical stripes, the scale band, the wavy line, the broad figured band (made up of conventionalized figures), vertical scales, and the back-to-back dragon.Three vessels in Mr. Pillsbury’s collection, an ih and a pair of su, are superb illustrations of the middle Chou style. The ih is decorated with a broad figured band of S-forms, and two bands of vertical scales. Ox-like heads appear on the front feet and at the upper end of the handle.The su vessels are decorated with grooves, scales, and, around the shallow rim of the top and base, the wavy line so typical of middle Chou decoration. The handles are simple and practical, and the vessels themselves sound and straightforward. They have a beautiful soft green patina with patches of sharp blue, and their covers are decorated with two intricately coiled dragons.These are the outstanding middle Chou pieces in the collection, and it will be seen that while they exhibit a poverty of design as compared with the earlier bronzes, they are yet handsome, if no longer awe-inspiring examples of Chinese bronze art. One knows where he is with these forms and motives, and there is something reassuring about them.With the beginning of the late Chou (Huai) period about 770 B.C., there is another change in the style of Chinese bronze art. It displays a mixture of Shang, middle Chou, and new elements, and is a refined, highly sophisticated and somewhat fancy style. It revived certain Shang elements abolished by the middle Chou: free animal heads, t’ao-t’ieh (modified), snakes, cicadas, rising and hanging blades, scaled animals, spiral filling, interlocked T’s, and the whorl circle. Of middle Chou elements it retained: the chung, fu, ih, and curved legs. New elements introduced were the squat ting, interlaced ornaments, hooks (a crowded pattern made up of comma-shaped forms), the plait and rope patterns, bosses, dots, rings on lids, the spiral circle, and a series of geometrical patterns.This style is abundantly illustrated in the Pillsbury Collection. The chung on the cover of this Bulletin is decorated with bands of intricately interlaced snakes and alternating bands of small bosses, and the tigers forming the handle are adorned with dot filling. Further examples of interlacing are to be seen on a squat covered ting and on the lei formerly in the Seligman Collection.The rarest example in this group is the ting inlaid with silver, illustrated on the back cover. The belly of the vessel is decorated with a series of heart-shaped motives derived from the Shang hanging blade, and the band about the rim with one of the best of the many late Chou geometrical patterns. The cover bears three pairs of sinuous dragons grouped about a whorl circle in the middle. They are refined and delicate dragons, immensely decorative, but they are far removed in time and spirit from the prowling beasts of the Shang period. Their endless contortions are amusing and absorbing, but never threatening. They mark the termination of the long and rich development of bronze art in China, and one is grateful to then for doing it with such grace. To know these bronzes, to feel their power and beauty, is to experience the true greatness of Chinese art.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Bronze Bell (chung). Chinese, Late Chou (Huai) period
    Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury
  2. Bronze Food Vessel (kuei) of the Shang period, 1766-1122 B.C.
    Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury
  3. Bronze Ceremonial Vessel (chia) from An Yang
    Showing typical Shang decoration
  4. Water Ewer (ih) of the middle Chou period, 946-770 B.C.
    Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury
  5. Covered Food Vessel (su) of the middle Chou period
    A superb example of middle Chou form and decoration
  6. Bronze Vessel (ting) inlaid with silver
    A rare example of the late Chou (Huai) period
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Source: "New Group of Chinese Bronzes Lent by Mr. Pillsbury," <i>The Minneapolis Instiute of Arts Bulletin</i> 28, no. 22 (June, 1939): 106-112.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009