Nothing like this has
ever been found in all
the vast panorama of
early Chinese art.
Director, Art Gallery of
New South Wales
China reveals another
dimension to its
amazing and distant past in a remarkable exhibition of Bronze Masks from the
Sacrificial Pits of the Ancient Shu Kingdom. In Australia for the first time, Masks
of Mystery will only be seen at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
In July 1986, while digging for earth to make bricks at Sanxingdui, a village in
Sichuan in southwest China (part of the ancient Shu Kingdom), the workers of
a local brick factory discovered by accident two pits dating from the Bronze
Age, over 3,000 years ago. Buried inside the pits, beneath a layer of elephant
tusks and charred animal bones, were more than 1,000 objects in bronze,
gold, jade and pottery. What most astonished the world among the finds was a
group of over 100 bronze human and semi-human images.
All showed fantastic features with large dramatic eyes framed by bold outlines,
strongly curled nostrils and tight-lipped mouths. Some had long pupils
projecting from their eyes, or had faces covered with gold leaf.
Coming to the Art Gallery of New South Wales are some of the most
outstanding finds - the 2.6 metre high figure of a standing official or shaman;
the monumental and stunningly futuristic bronze mask with vast protruding
eyes that is nearly 1.5 metres wide; another 10 quasi-human face masks - one
with gilding; as well as ceremonial and symbolic bronzes and jades.
What is so extraordinary about these pieces is the manipulation of a kind of
realism; basically human in inspiration, these masks are nonetheless
manifestations of the imagination, said Mr Capon, Director of the Art Gallery of
New South Wales.
Sangxingdui is located about 40 kilometres north of the city of Chengdu, and
during the Shang dynasty (around 1600BCE to 1027BCE) the region was
part of the Kingdom of Shu. It is clear that the excavated pits were associated
with the burials of the rulers of this ancient kingdom; the power, imagination
and sheer artistry of these bronzes determines they must have been made for
the very highest levels of the hierarchy.
The Shang dynasty was centred in the Yellow River valley, the traditional
home of early Chinese civilisation. However, it was always known that the
spread and influence of early Chinese culture and even of the centralised
city-state of Shang, extended far beyond the confines of the Yellow River
Valley. These finds, in the southwest province of Sichuan, confirm that the
bronze culture of the Shang dynasty did indeed spread to more distant areas
of the empire.
They are sophisticated in their embrace of a symbolic role and in their
abstracted realism; they are technologically advanced and equal to the
finest of Shang bronze vessels from the traditional heartlands on the
north, and they are above all harbingers of a mysterious and ominous
future. Nothing like these has ever been found in all the vast panorama
of early Chinese art, said Mr Capon.