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updated 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT


Chinese funerary sculpture may not sound like the most thrilling subject in the world, but as scholars and collectors have known for a long time, it is a remarkable, visually vital art form even if death is its inspiration. Because of this touring exhibit of Chinese ceramic sculpture mounted at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we can examine treasures that have been excavated from graves and tombs in recent years.

There are indications that at least as far back as 8000 B.C. the Chinese preoccupation with life after death was taking physical shape in the artifacts they buried in graves to sustain their dead in the hereafter: sculptures of people and animals, monster-like tomb guardians, a model of a landowner's house and even of a winter rice paddy. One of the oldest and most exuberant pieces in the show, which covers the 6,000 years ending in 1644 A.D., is a painted earthenware duck from the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.), a piece of deceptive simplicity perhaps designed to keep the deceased in exuberant spirits. Wings outspread, beak open in mid-quack, it stands on webbed feet, poised to jump.

Three remarkable life-size Qin warriors and a horse threaten to gallop away with the show. They are among the terra-cotta warriors that were first discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well near the Yellow River in Shaanxi Province. The emperor Qin, who unified China during his brief reign (221-207 B.C.), had commissioned the sculpting of an army of 7,000 life-size warriors, cavalrymen, charioteers, archers, spearmen and horses for elaborate underground tombs near Xi'an. To people who have seen those figures in China—an astonishing array of anonymous dun-colored soldiers lined up in excavation pits—the few warriors in the Quest exhibit will appear curiously denatured and out of context. Still, they are an impressive sight. They were made from basic molds on ancient assembly lines, but no two faces are the same. Craftsmen paid meticulous attention to hairdos, facial expression and weaponry, attaching heads by hand to the pre-assembled bodies. (Members of the emperor Qin's army appeared in the United States before in a 1980-81 tour that focused on Bronze Age art.)

The Western Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 8) tomb figurines, which are less than 20 inches tall, hold their own against the large Qin figures. Two musicians and three warriors with shields reflect the quiet abstraction and two-dimensionality that was such an agreeable characteristic of Han art. Made of gray clay, a house with a courtyard (which looks something like a model for a stage set) is another fascinating example of Han period work. Perhaps intended to provide a sort of eternal stomping ground for the decedent whose tomb it rested in, the model boasts a gate house, main house, watchtower, storehouse, kitchen and latrine. While the farm dog, ears up, waits inside the guardhouse, a pig roots in the sty and chickens roost on the rooftop.

Funerary figurines reached aesthetic heights during the Tang period (A.D. 618-907), A Bactrian (two-humped) camel of colorful glazed earthenware is a reminder of the trade that flourished along the heavily trafficked silk route leading to the West. On its saddle, which is elaborately decorated with monster masks, it carries a pheasant, a rabbit and rolls of silk. Two statues of women are typical of Tang art. Both women have soft faces and are wearing elaborate hairdos. They wear elegant gowns that fall like a stream of fabric to the floor. Like the women, the 12 terra-cotta animals of the calendrical cycle, including a rat, horse, chicken and ox, have folded their arms and donned long gowns. With their wise animal heads gazing into infinity, they capture perfectly the spirit of the show.

The Quest for Eternity is not a blockbuster museum show with spectacular numbers of pieces or never-seen-before revelations. It is instead a quietly conceived exhibit offering plenty of rich visual substance and fuel for introspection. An excellent catalog, edited by Susan L. Caroselli, accompanies the show, which was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Overseas Archaeological Exhibition Corporation of the People's Republic of China. After its run ends May 24 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Quest for Eternity will stop at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (June 28-Sept. 6), Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Oct. 15-Jan. 3, 1988) and the Cleveland Museum of Art (Feb. 7-April 10,1988).

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