‘Mirroring China’s Past: Emperors and Their Bronzes” at the Art Institute of Chicago offers an unexpectedly engaging and layered journey. The show includes ceramics, paintings, jades and a sprinkling of other media, but its focus never wavers from magnificent ritual vessels made during the Shang (1600-1046 B.C.) and Zhou (1046-256 B.C.) periods. These make up almost half of the show’s 180-plus works, displayed in groupings that illustrate some of the beliefs they originally embodied along with the collecting they have since triggered, ambitions they have served, and artworks they have inspired.
Cast in sections and then assembled, the most ancient bronzes typically have sharp, angular lines and designs both intricate and bold, and from the sixth-century B.C. onward, metalworkers used the lost wax method to create sculpted elements. Every form had a specific function, from the wide-mouthed pitchers reserved for water to tall storage jars. Rounded cauldrons, for example, perch on three legs to allow a fire beneath. Tureens sit on stable, square bases. And the wing-like spout and handle on wine-warmers make for easy pouring—inspiring a 20th-century artist to add a rather incongruent bird-shaped lid.
Ever elegant and practical, a large food steamer could accommodate animal and even human sacrifices, while a container in the shape of a low-slung animal proves positively ingenious. It sports what look like antler buds and, on its rump, a masklike, backward-looking face whose nose protrudes like a short tail, visually completing the animal silhouette while providing a handy lever with which to flip open the lid. Known as taotie, these masks are almost ubiquitous—eyes made of simple bosses with notched pupils, long noses in 3-D or relief with, sometimes, the outline of an upper lip below. A particularly stunning example is a bucket from the Late Shang period with water-buffalo horns, leaf-shaped ears and swirls for nostrils.
Today, most are a shade of verdigris or darkened by wax coatings. But, when new, they shone in a range of copper and brass hues. So imagine these taotie and various animal-shaped containers all gleaming in the flickering light of lamps, shadows pooling in their recessed pupils—easy to see how during ritual offerings they were deemed living intermediaries between mortals and all-powerful ancestors. They were crucial actors in a performance intended to earn rulers a heavenly mandate and maintain cosmic harmony in the universe. A video presents a re-enactment along with an impressive 13-piece altar set borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
While some considered such bronzes dangerous—the Jurchens, who came to power in the 12th century, destroyed as many as they could—most rulers, officials and scholars prized them. We see Han artisans reprising ancient vessels; Song metalworkers creating faithful copies; Ming artists designing decorative and sometimes downright odd reinterpretations; painters immortalizing collectors and collectors themselves recording their treasures. In a wonderful pairing, the organizers have unfurled 20 feet of a 50-foot-long handscroll, “Collected Antiquities at Kezhai.” It belonged to Wu Dacheng (1835-1902), who sometime before 1892 had artists fill it with rubbings of bronzes he owned. Look carefully, and you can find the imprint of each of the 12 vessels displayed behind it.
We also see Song rulers initiating the systematic cataloging of bronzes and Qing emperor Qianlong reviving and extending this centuries later with a 40-volume catalog, “Ancient Mirror of Western Clarity.” The latter part of the title is the name of his palace, while the reference to mirrors carries the dual meaning of reflection—offering an image of the ancient as well as reflecting upon the artifact. In another set of pairings, three volumes are each open at a page depicting an object displayed nearby—including one that proved a later copy.
The Art Institute’s Tao Wang supplemented the museum’s own remarkable collection with loans from private collectors, the Shanghai Museum, the Palace Museum in Beijing and several U.S. institutions. With the help of assistant curator Lu Zhang, he has created eloquent displays. To illustrate Qianlong’s love of bronze mirrors, for example, he presents only a handful, focusing our attention instead on the elaborate framing and packaging each received.
His juxtapositions repeatedly hint at the lively exchange among media—from the Neolithic ceramic forms artists translated into metal at the start of China’s Bronze Age to the decorative Shang- and Zhou-inspired porcelains and cloisonné made during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) periods and the amusing riff on both antique bronzes and ceramics by contemporary artist Xu Zhen. In a final gesture, Mr. Wang separates this and other contemporary responses from early bronzes in an adjacent gallery with a glass partition—transparent but fogged.
—Ms. Lawrence writes about Asian and Islamic art for the Journal.