In the West, Asian art is given short shrift in intro to art history texts. H. W. Janson’s History of Artconsigned the arts of the East to a seven-page Postscript: “The Meeting of East and West,” omitting Indian Asian, Japanese, and Chinese art as well as pre-Columbian “because their indigenous artistic traditions are no longer alive today, and because these styles did not, generally speaking have a significant influence on the West.” However, he did include Egypt, the ancient Near East, and Islam.1
The exhibition “Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China” at the Cincinnati Art Museum takes a small step toward acknowledging China’s contribution to the history of art. It focuses on the short-lived Qin dynasty—221-206 B.C., which emerged after its king, Ying Zheng (259-210 B.C.), conquered the independent states of Chu, Wei, Zhao, Han, Yan, and Qi, and created China’s first centralized government. In 221 B.C., he declared himself the First Emperor of China or Qin Shihuang. He established a national currency, universal system of writing, and standardized weights and measures. He also called for a national network of roads and what became the Great Wall of China.
When Ying Zheng was crowned king of Qin in 246 B.C., at the age of 13, he ordered the construction of his mausoleum at the base of Mount Li. The massive complex was to ensure his immortality. It is an epic recreation of his court with 8,000 figures and objects needed in the afterlife. It took 38 years to build and was completed only two years before his death in 210 B.C.
Qui Shihuang’s mausoleum was discovered in 1974 when farmers were digging a well and stumbled on fragments of the earthenware figures.
In the massive site, 38-square miles or about half the size of Cincinnati, three pits, each replicating a part of a royal compound, have been excavated. In Pit 1 there are 6,000 figures of armored and unarmored infantry, high- and middle-ranking offices, armored charioteers, 200 horses, and 50 war chariots. The arrangement may show a traditional Qin battle formation.
In Pit 2 almost a thousand figures (cavalrymen with their steeds, standing and kneeling archers, charioteers, armored infantrymen, and high-ranking officers), 450 horses, and 89 war chariots were found, suggesting it was to represent an army barracks.
It is believed that Pit 3 was meant to replicate the Emperor’s headquarters. There is a chariot with four horses, a reconstruction of which greets visitors to the Museum and hints at the treasures in the exhibition. There are also 68 figures, primarily armored infantrymen and high-ranking officers in this pit.
On view in Gallery 233 are nine life-size figures portraying members of Qin Shihuang’s court, everyone from a high-ranking general to a lowly Stable Attendant. Although the statues were originally vividly, even gaudily, painted in purple, red, green, blue, brown, orange, yellow, white, and black, the colors have disappeared due to time and water damage. The figures now appear almost ghostly as they are returned to the natural color of the fired clay. (It’s well to remember that ancient Greek statues were also painted.)
The figures demonstrate a tour-de-force of execution. They were molded in sections and assembled before being fired. Although the parts were mass-produced, no figure is identical.
The Armored General (221-206 B.C.), the highest-ranking personage excavated from the army pits, exudes dignity and power as he stands immobile. His overlapping hands rested on a now missing sword. He was responsible for leading his troops into battle, a duty symbolized by the outstretched index finger of his right hand.
The figures seem arrested in time, but there is implied movement. This is most clearly seen in the various poses of the archers. A standing archer’s left leg is bent slightly at the knee; it’s positioned forward and bears the weight of his body. He aims down as if cocking his crossbow 2, which was likely wood that has rotted away.
The Kneeling Archeris waiting for the moment when he will lift the bow, insert a bolt (shorter and heavier than an arrow and without feathers), aim, and let the lethal missile fly.
In addition to the extraordinary figures, the show of 120 pieces also includes a myriad of objects, dating from 770 (predating the Qin dynasty) to 206 B.C. that record the daily lives of Qin royalty, aristocrats, commoners, and neighboring nomads, excavated from the emperor’s mausoleum and other aristocratic and nomadic tombs. There are bronzes and
works in gold, silver, and jade;
jewelry; and clay.
Roof-tile ends shielded eaves from wind and rain by fitting onto a half-cylindrical roof tiles.
You have to be motivated to spend time in this gallery with its visual overload with multiple examples of types of artifacts, such as coins, bolts, jewelry, and ceramic roof-tile ends on view.
What caught my eye were the bells, the most impressive being a cast-bronze Ritual Bell with a Looped Handle (7thB.C., the Spring and Autumn period [770-476 B.C.]). About 18” high, it is decorated with dragons, serpents, and phoenixes, and inscriptions record Qin history and convey valuable information about rituals, music, writing script, and bronze-casting techniques of the era. The bell would have been played at ceremonial court events. When hit with a wooden mallet in the middle and lower right rim produced different tones. A recording of its sound plays softly, a very nice touch.
Something else captured my attention. It appeared to be a mid-20th-century abstract clay sculpture. It turned out to be a conglomeration of misfired roof tiles, all fused together, and dating from the period of Warring States, 475-221 B.C. I found it amazing that whoever unearthed this found it worthy of preservation.
I think that the title of the exhibition–“Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China”—sounds a little dry and suggests that its primary appeal would be to military historians. It’s fortunate that a replica of Chariot No. 1 with Horses welcomes visitors to the Museum as it hints at the visual treasures to be found upstairs in galleries 232 and 233.
–Karen S. Chambers
1 H. W. Janson, History of Art: A Survey of the Major Visual Arts from the Dawn of History to the Present Day.” New York, Eleventh Printing, May 1967, Harry N. Abrams. P.546.
2 The crossbow was invented in China in the 5thcentury B.C. and was a great advancement in projectile weaponry and needed much less skill to use than a regular bow. “It (crossbow) was simple, cheap, and physically undemanding enough to be operated by large numbers of conscriptsoldiers, thus enabling virtually any nation to field a potent force of ranged crossbowmen with little expense beyond the cost of the weapons themselves.” “Facts and interesting information about Medieval Weapons, Armor and arms, specifically, the Crossbow”. medieval-life-and-times.info.
“Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China,” Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45202. Phone: 513-721-ARTS (2787); www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 am-5 pm; Thursday 11 am-8 pm. Ticketed exhibition: general public, $16; children (6-17), $8; children under 5, free; college students with valid ID, $8; seniors, $8; free Thursday, 5 pm-8 pm. Open through August 12, 2018.