About half a year ago, Stephen Little (curator and head, Chinese and Korean Art) and I both arrived to the museum. Our first mission was to bring LACMA’s collection of Chinese art back on display. As of this past weekend, approximately forty objects are now on view. The reinstalled gallery is designed to tell the history of art in China, with each dynasty distinguished by examples that reflect the aesthetics, technology, and ideology of their time period. To achieve this goal, nothing is more illuminating than our best-known pieces.
One of the most celebrated early Chinese artworks from LACMA’s collection is a cauldron called ding from the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC). This ding is from a set that would include more vessels of different shapes and sizes. Called mingqi in Chinese, meaning “spirit objects,” such sets were used during burial rituals and ceremonies conducted for ancestors, and demonstrate the importance of ancestral worship in the early times of Chinese civilization.
Equally famous is a seated Buddha carved of marble. The Buddha has been part of LACMA’s Chinese art display since the 1940s as a long-term loan, until officially entering the museum’s permanent collection in 2007. With a serene face and gracefully proportioned body, the Buddha exemplifies the highest achievement of Buddhist art in China.
While showcasing these masterpieces of different time periods and medium, I also wanted to convey the continuity of art making in China. Chinese culture has always valued and revered history and tradition. Imitating the past is considered the necessary first step of learning and is a source for creativity. Archaism is a reoccurring theme over centuries.
On display is a longquan-ware vase in the shape of a cong, not far different from a jade cong of the Neolithic period. Cong refers to the geometric shape that combines a circle and a square. The circle symbolizes heaven and the square symbolizes earth in early civilization. Together they present the dual-system of yin and yang that is still important in Chinese philosophy and ideology today.
A jade disk from the middle Ming dynasty (1368–1644) is decorated with dragons on one side and raised bosses with spirals on the other. Its design—the donut-like shape and the raised spirals—is also inspired by a Neolithic piece.
We are very glad to have LACMA’s outstanding Chinese collection back in the galleries. More treasures will be put on display in the rotations in the coming months.
Christina Yu Yu, Assistant Curator, Chinese Art