Exhibitions/ Treasures from a Lost Civilization

Treasures from a Lost Civilization: Ancient Chinese Art from Sichuan

March 6–June 16, 2002
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

This major traveling exhibition of recently excavated ancient Chinese art from Sichuan Province, in southwestern China, features 128 spectacular works—including a bronze sculpture more than eight feet tall and a large-scale mask from the twelfth century B.C. It explores the art and material culture of ancient Sichuan and illustrates the fundamental changes that archaeology has brought to the understanding of the history of Chinese art.

In the summer of 1986, the discovery of an ancient city at Sanxingdui, a small village located forty kilometers northeast of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, shook the world of Chinese archaeology. While digging up clay for making bricks, workmen came upon two rectangular pits, which together yielded hundreds of bronze, gold, jade, stone, and pottery artifacts, along with elephant tusks. Most of the objects had been broken and/or burned and then deposited in the pits in a particular order. The function of the objects and the reason for their burial, around 1200 B.C., are still unknown. The common features of the two pits, however, suggest that they represent two ritual performances in which offerings were first broken or burned and then buried.

The first and largest section of the exhibition focuses on the Sanxingdui culture—a Bronze Age culture named after the archaeological site—and features a selection of more than sixty works that date from about the twelfth century B.C. One of the most impressive of these objects is a very tall bronze sculpture, Figure on Pedestal—the only large figure found in either of the two pits. With compelling facial features—massive eyebrows above bulging eyes, a broad nose, and a square jaw—and with disproportionately large hands, this life-size statue rises on its tall pedestal more than eight feet. Of the many bronze masks excavated from the pits, six spectacular pieces are being shown in the exhibition, including an enormous bronze work called Mask with Protruding Pupils. Its size (more than four feet in width) and the large pupils of its eyes qualify this piece as one of the most unusual among the Sanxingdui finds. Another striking find is a thirteen-foot-tall bronze tree with ornaments, portions of which are on display.

The second section of the exhibition is devoted to objects found in Sichuan tombs created in the Zhou period. Among the highlights are: a flamboyant bronze vessel from the late eleventh to early tenth century B.C.; the bronze blade of a weapon with exuberant ornamentation from the first half of the first millennium B.C.; and an elaborately decorated chime of fourteen bells from the fourth century B. C., the largest known example of its kind.

The final section of the exhibition comprises works from the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220), a period that witnessed dramatic changes in the conception of the spirit world and the afterlife. Tombs were viewed as microcosms of the universe, where the deceased were fed, waited upon, entertained, and could live happily ever after. The belief in eternal prosperity and everlasting life is represented vividly in the exhibition by diverse ceramic images of architecture, horse carriages, farmers, servants, guards, and entertainers, as well as molded bricks depicting hunting, fishing, harvesting, wine making, salt production, and feasting and entertaining activities.

In Sichuan, images of feasting and entertainment were characteristically depicted with a lively expressiveness that is rarely seen elsewhere in the art of the ancient world. Two such works are the three-dimensional ceramic sculptures of entertainers called Figure of a Squatting Drummer and Figure of a Standing Drummer, dating to the first or second century A.D. Drummers such as those depicted specialized in a kind of part-spoken, part-sung storytelling, and Han tomb figures like these were especially popular and abundant. Their comical—almost caricatural—postures express vividly the artistic determination to capture the most fleeting gestures or facial expressions.

Among the notable works in this final section is a molded brick from the second century A.D., Brick with Chariot and Horseman Crossing a Bridge, which conveys a strong sense of action and realism. Another work in this format from the same period is Brick Depicting an Erotic Scene, one of the earliest known examples of erotic art in China.

The exhibition was organized by the Seattle Art Museum in collaboration with The Bureau of Cultural Relics, Sichuan Province of the People's Republic of China. The Boeing Company provided the leadership grant for the exhibition with major support from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. Additional funding provided by the National Endowment for the Arts. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

In New York, the exhibition is made possible in part by The Dillon Fund.