A menagerie of small bronze animals – bears, lions, rams, deer, and other creatures, both real and imaginary – takes up residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum this season in the special exhibition, A Bronze Menagerie: Mat Weights of Early China (October 5, 2006–January 14, 2007).
The exhibition is the first devoted to ancient Chinese mat weights. New research indicates that these objects had practical functions in the daily lives of wealthy individuals in ancient China, and played important roles in tombs. Made in sets of four, animal mat weights were used to hold down seating and game mats, and the beautifully crafted and highly decorated objects were also buried with their owners. A Bronze Menagerie: Mat Weights of Early China considers these various meanings, as well as the artistic achievement, of these fascinating and whimsical animal sculptures.
A Bronze Menagerie: Mat Weights of Early China is comprised of 31 objects – made up of 15 sets, including three complete sets of four – from China’s Warring States Period and Han Dynasty (475 BC–AD 220) and drawn from museums and collections in the United States and abroad. The sculptures depict a variety of animal types and different forms of decoration, ranging from plain to gilded bronze to intricate inlaid patterns of silver, gold and gemstones – and including a rare set of four mat weights carved in milky agate tinged with red. The decorative qualities and precious material of mat weights conveyed the social status of their owners, and represent the height of craftsmanship during the Han dynasty.
A highlight of the exhibition is a pair of large bronze bears in the Gardner Museum’s permanent collection – the largest known examples of mat weights and among the first to be acquired by a museum. Isabella Stewart Gardner bought her bears in 1914 from a dealer in Paris with the advice of Bernard Berenson, a friend and connoisseur who had earlier helped her build the museum’s collection of Italian paintings. Isabella Gardner to Berenson in 1914: “The bears have come and are darlings – to live with, and delight in.” The exhibition presents Isabella Gardner’s bears alongside two bears from the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Saint Louis Museum of Art, providing the first opportunity to study the four bears together. Bears were associated with power and bravery in the Han Dynasty; the imperial hunting park contained bears and a variety of other animals. The naturalism and powerful modeling of the bears are also unexpected in ancient Chinese art.
A Bronze Menagerie: Mat Weights of Early China reflects the Gardner Museum’s commitment to intimately scaled, scholarly exhibitions inspired by the collection and the legacy of Isabella Gardner. The exhibition is co-curated by Alan Chong, Curator of the Collection at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and Michelle C. Wang, a doctoral candidate in the History of Art and Architecture Department at Harvard University. A fully illustrated catalogue, written by several scholars in the field, will be distributed by University of Pittsburgh Press.
[From an Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Press Kit]
Chinese, Western Han Dynasty, ca. 206 BC – AD 9
Bronze with remains of gilding, 15.5 cm
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston