Sunday, November 21, 2010

Art Institute of Chicago : Ancient Chinese Bronzes from the Shouyang Studio

Ancient Chinese Bronzes from the Shouyang Studio:
The Katherine and George Fan Collection
at the Art Institute of Chicago
through Jan. 2

Chinese art history begins with the Tang Dynasty (618-907) – or, at least that’s what you might conclude after seeing the plethora of colorful ceramics and monumental Buddhist sculpture in American art museums. Or perhaps a few charming tomb figures would take you back to the Han (206 BCE – 220 CE ). But it was in the previous millennium that the language, customs, and ideals of Chinese civilization really came together, and the surviving visual art of that period mostly consists of the kind of ceremonial bronze vessels that a Hong Kong engineer, George Fan, has collected and is now showing at the Art Institute.

Mr. Fan says that his interests have been primarily historical, focused on the inscriptions that determine so much of what can be known about the political history of Central China. The aesthetic qualities of these objects were tangential, and only a few pieces are as thrilling as the best work in the A.I.C.’s permanent collection that was assembled in the early 20th C., back when China was in turmoil and so many national treasures came onto the international market. But still, his collection is large enough to assign separate areas to several historical periods (early Shang, late Shang, early Zhou, Warring States, Jin, Qin, Spring and Autumn, etc). And many of the pieces reward close examination of their intensely designed surfaces, which all seem to express the powerful yang hexagrams of the I-Ching (which was also developed throughout this era). Especially engaging are the tall Shang goblets that might well have served as weapons after some partying warlords had quaffed the contents.

The historical significance of many of these objects has led to their designation as gifts to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage of China’s current dynasty, the Peoples’ Republic. But Mr. Fan has been a collector, not an archeologist, and with no indication of provenance, the origins of these pieces is problematic. Even if un-altered and authentic, they still have been excavated by treasure hunters not scientists, so their relationship to specific sites, and the other objects found there, has been lost forever. Archeological looting remains a huge industry and international problem, and art museums only exacerbate it by singling out individual collectors like Mr. and Mrs. Fan for high praise and status.

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