“Ancient Chinese Jades and Bronzes” Opens at the Freer Gallery

Ewer with birds, snakes, and humans
Ewer with birds, snakes, and humans, China, Middle Yangzi River Valley, ca 1100–1050 BCE. Bronze Freer Sacler

After spending more than a decade in storage, a group of Chinese jade and bronze works have been reinstalled in two newly renovated galleries at the Freer Gallery of Art. The exhibit, "Ancient Chinese Jades and Bronzes," marks the first phase of the museum's plan to overhaul each of their Chinese art galleries.

"People don't come to the gallery to read a book, they come to look at art," said curator Keith Wilson at a media preview last week. With the mass of information available on the Internet, Wilson says his intent with the new galleries was to create a simple display that let the objects tell their own stories. This way, the works would be more likely to provoke an emotional response in the viewer.

The galleries are undeniably simple, with tranquil, muted sage walls and almost no text to be found. There is ample room to admire the works up close or from afar. The first is dedicated to jades from the neolithic Liangzhu culture (ca. 3300-2250 BC). Most pieces are suspended in clear glass cases. The jade swords, bi (ceremonial discs), and intricately hewn jewelry seem to float, well-lit, as if in mid-air. The second largest jade work in the world (about three feet long) stands out, as do a group of four bi that are the only such objects in existence to bear finely etched bird pictographs.

The second gallery contains the bronze works, mostly from the bronze foundries at Anyang, capital of the late Shang dynasty (1300-1050 BC) and early Western Zhou dynasty (1050-900 BC). Mostly ceremonial food and wine vessels, the bronze objects sit in the middle of the floor so that visitors can walk around them and get a 360-degree view. The animal mask, or taotie, is a mythical creature with bulging eyes, horns and snout (right) that appears on many of these pieces. "I think mythical animals were very popular because when you have vessels of a variety of shapes and sizes, mythical creatures can be stretched vertically and horizontally to fill whatever shape and size area you want to decorate," says Wilson. With vessels ranging from pocket-sized wine containers to 50 pound trough-like food holders, this creates a cohesion among the Bronze Age pieces that Wilson says may not have existed otherwise.

Most of the objects in the exhibit were used in ceremonies aimed at communing with the dead. Many were excavated from Chinese tombs. "I think it's difficult for us to put ourselves in a neolithic bronze age setting and think about the world the way they did," says Wilson. "They were invoking those ancestors and offering them food as if they were there. So I think if you begin to consider that kind of context, it shows that it was necessary to keep this balance between the spirit world and the human world. If you didn't, there may be hell to pay. Maybe your grandmother would come back and give you a toothache."

"Ancient Chinese Jades and Bronzes" is on view indefinitely at the Freer Gallery. In two years, the Gallery says they plan to replace the objects in the bronze gallery with a selection of works from the later Bronze Age.

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