The ancient Chinese valued jade and bronze highly, creating everything from ceremonial pieces for burials to hair clips and decorative swords.
Some of the best-preserved pieces are part of the permanent exhibit in two recently renovated galleries at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art. With light, neutral colors and an emphasis on natural lighting, the galleries are a part of the first phase of a three-year plan to redo each of the Freer’s six spaces.
All of the pieces in the exhibit have been in storage for more than a decade. But now visitors can catch a glimpse of a past that combines mythology with craftsmanship, said Keith Wilson, the Freer’s associate director.
In the first gallery, the ancient bronzes come from the beginning of the Bronze Age, dating from 1500 to 900 B.C. Selecting the pieces was difficult, Wilson said, as the Freer has one of the largest collections of ancient Chinese bronze in the world.
The creations show the remarkable ingenuity of the ancient culture because the extraction of copper and tin from mines to make bronze took considerable skill, Wilson said.
On display are 40 pieces from the late Shang and early Zhou dynasties. They include food and wine containers as well as ritual vessels for ancestor worship. The bronze casting transforms as the pieces move through time, with the earlier ones appearing more roughly made than the later ones, which are much more detailed with inscriptions and figures.
A collection of four ewers — made for pouring wine — sit in one display case, grouped together because they combine various animal forms. The Chinese used both imaginary and realistic animals to create small zoos. At first glance, the bronzes appear to represent simple animal forms, but a closer examination reveals engravings of other animals, including elephants, tigers, fish and snakes, creating an elaborate pattern. Wilson said these were likely used for ceremonial purposes because bronze was hard to come by.
Another inscribed vessel, which stands on four legs and has a greenish tone, sits toward the back of the gallery. While it looks like a sink, it’s actually a commemorative piece, one example of what the Chinese would do when they wanted to record important events. This particular vessel was created to celebrate a gift of a horse, Wilson said.
In 2012, the gallery plans to switch out these early bronze castings with pieces from the later Bronze Age.
Just next door sits the jade gallery, which features 80 works, several coming from the Liangzhu dynasty (3300 to 2250 B.C.). Many of the pieces were acquired by Charles Lang Freer, founder of the gallery. Called “the fairest of stones” in ancient Chinese poetry, jade was used for ornamentation and ceremonial purposes, as the material was too delicate for practical use.
Jade discs in the middle of the gallery catch the eye because of their sheer size. They are simple, smooth circles, save for the round holes in the middle and a few inscriptions in each that possibly demonstrated ownership. Despite their resemblance to jewelry pendants, their actual use is unknown. Wilson guessed that the ancient jades were a part of burial ceremonies since they were frequently found in tombs. Beyond that, their use remains a mystery to Chinese art experts today.
A mask of a man’s face smiling on the right side of the gallery also has a bit of mystery about it. Believed to be used as an ornament, the mask was purchased by the gallery in 1953 with little information. Since then, it has been dated to the 12th or 11th century B.C. Also, the material of the mask is unlike other pieces of jade in the gallery, as it has a different physical construction.
The creation of this permanent exhibit has been Wilson’s primary focus since he joined the Freer in 2006.
“It’s art for art’s sake,” Wilson said. “These world-class masterworks can focus on the key moments in Chinese art history.”