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Nomadic Art of the Eastern Eurasian Steppes: The Eugene V. Thaw and Other Notable New York Collections

Bunker, Emma C., with contributions by James C. Y. Watt and Zhixin Sun (2002)

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Nomadic Art of the Eastern Eurasian Steppes: The Eugene V. Thaw and Other Notable New York Collections

This exhibition presents the dynamic art of the nomads who roamed the Eastern Eurasian steppes during the first millennium B.C. and influenced the art of the sedentary cultures that came in contact with them. Dating from the tenth century B.C. to the second century A.D., the objects on view—in bronze, gold, silver and jade—include horse harnesses and chariot fittings, belt ornaments, garment plaques, weapons, and vessels. While the majority of these works are from the Mongolian steppes and North China, a small number are from Central Asia, Siberia, and from as far away as Eastern Europe. The works are drawn largely from the collection of Eugene V. Thaw, a recent gift to the Museum, and also include selections from other private collections and the Metropolitan Museum's holdings.

In the early part of the first millennium B.C. the inhabitants of the vast Eurasian steppes began to practice a new form of economy known as pastoral nomadism that was based on livestock herding and involved frequent seasonal migrations. The economic success that the nomads had achieved by the fifth century B.C. brought about the efflorescence of a distinctive artistic style that was characterized by its extensive use of animal motifs. The animals, both wild and domestic, are represented either realistically or in varying degrees of stylization, creating a rich decorative vocabulary of imagery. Among principal examples in the exhibition are a bronze belt plaque depicting a fierce wolf attacking a doe, and a gold belt buckle inlaid with semiprecious stones showing a bear biting the shoulder of an ibex.

The exhibition is organized according to the functions of the objects and draws the viewers' attention to each work's aesthetic appeal. It also aims to illustrate the nomads' contributions to the art of their settled neighbors in urban centers. The bold and dynamic images of the "animal style" art that the nomads created remained a vital source of inspiration in the decorative arts of the Eurasian continent.