Published: January 25, 2002
The Art Of Reflection
The first exhibition of Chinese bronze mirrors to be shown in New York City will be on view at China Institute Gallery from February 7 through June 2. “Circles of Reflection: The Carter Collection of Chinese Bronze Mirrors,” from The Cleveland Museum of Art, features more than 90 bronze mirrors dating from the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), a span of roughly 2,500 years. Ju-hsi Chou, curator of Chinese art at the Cleveland Museum, organized the exhibition. A fully illustrated catalog is available.
The mirrors were given to the Cleveland Museum by Martha Limback Carter and her husband, Thomas Lynn Carter of Madison, Wisc., over a period of four years from 1995 to 1999 to honor Sherman E. Lee, world-re-nowned Asian art expert and director of the museum from 1958 to 1983. As a result, The Cleveland Museum of Art has one of the finest collections of Chinese bronze mirrors outside Asia.
The mirrors in the exhibition range from “pocket” size to about 15 inches in diameter, each with one polished side and one decorative side. Almost all have perforated knobs in the center of their decorated side through which ribbons were strung to hold the mirrors. Most are circular. A number of the mirrors are inscribed with the phrase “Suitable for your sons and grandsons,” indicating that they were considered family heirlooms. Others have been found in tombs to accompany their owners to the afterlife.
Notes Willow Hai Chang, director of China Institute Gallery, “It is amazing that this little commodity rdf_Description, the bronze mirror, has been used throughout dynasties. The design, patterns, and calligraphy give us insight into its usage. The more one looks into the mirrors, the more life it reflects.”
Chinese bronze mirrors are often quite ornate. For example, the mirror featured on the cover of the catalog (#38), from the Eastern Han dynasty in the late Second Century, shows deities and animals surrounded by rings of squares and semicircles. Dr Chou notes, “Despite the plentitude of mythical figures depicted in high relief on this very rare and beautiful mirror, the mirrorsmith refused to relent. Even at the mirror’s border, he decided to include a narrow pictorial band filled with winged dragons, a chariot, a tiger with rider, elegant paired birds, a giant tortoise, and other creatures and figures that revolve in an endless chase.”
A central figure is playing an ancient Chinese musical instrument, the qin, (pronounced “chin”), known for its mysterious power to harmonize the soul. The mirror is also inscribed with the mirrorsmith’s writings: I made this bright mirror,/By refining three metals./It is fitting for the immortals, distant from the worldlings,/And for those who are in command of the virtues the Way.
He continues: May you live long as metal and stone./May you reach the height of dukedom./Even the master be given to live a long life.”
One of the earliest mirrors in the collection is from the Warring States Period. “Mirror with Four T’s (#2)” is endowed with a lustrous antique black lacquer patina, and was exquisitely cast according to Chou. The “Four T’s” motif indicates mountains. Similar mirrors have been found in burial sites in the Hunan province and others to indicate that this mirror design was immensely popular during its time and beyond.
“Lobed Mirror (#67)” from the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.) features a pair of phoenixes, a lotus blossom and perhaps imperial traditions. It is thought that the calligraphy on the mirror refers to Emperor Ming’s “Festival of a Thousand Autumns,” which he established on his birthday. On that day, the emperor bestowed “mirrors of a thousand autumns” on his consorts and officials as tokens of his affection.
“Mirror with Handle (#92)” from the Qing dynasty, circa 1800, may have been used not for its original purpose, but for ritualistic use during the marriage ceremony, with the “double happiness” calligraphy as its main decoration. The five bats on the mirror signify the onset of good fortune.
The study of Chinese bronze mirrors is imbued with a curious mystery: How well could the ancient people who used the mirrors see their own reflections? Some remarkable information is in evidence. From the Warring States period onward, the mirrormakers appeared to have shared knowledge of the best alloy formula that could induce a luminous, reflective surface.
It is also known that highly polished bronze gave way to silvered glass mirrors in the Qing dynasty during the Eighteenth Century, which would have certainly enhanced the viewer’s image. It is not known, however, exactly what kind of image could be glimpsed by viewer. The surfaces all have evidence of patina so that the quality of their original polished surface will never be known.
The basic form of the mirror as a cast metal object with a highly polished reflective surface and a back with relief decoration has actually remained unchanged throughout most of China’s history. The mirrors in the Carter collection were cast either in preformed clay molds or in molds created by the lost-wax method. The clay molds were created in the shape of the mirror and then molten bronze was poured into them. Or, the mold was made with was, encased in clay and then fired. As a result, the wax melted and created a void in the ceramic in which to pour the molten bronze.
In conjunction with the exhibition, China Institute Gallery will offer a series of education programs, including gallery talks, group tours, lectures and a short course. Call 212-744-8181 for information.
China Institute Gallery 125 East 65th Street, between Park and Lexington, is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 am to 5 pm; Tuesday and Thursday to 8 pm; Saturday 10 am to 5 pm and Sunday 1 to 5 pm.
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