Geneva Anderson digs into art

Marching On—Terra Cotta Warriors exhibition at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum closes Monday, May 27, 2013

Armored kneeling archer, Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE), China. Terracotta.  Excavated from Pit 2, Qin Shihuang tomb complex, 1977.  Qin Shihuang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, Shaanxi.

Armored kneeling archer, Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE), China. Terracotta. Excavated from Pit 2, Qin Shihuang tomb complex, 1977. Qin Shihuang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, Shaanxi.

Of course, ten Terra Cotta figures—eight warriors and two horses—are the stars of the Asian Art Museum’s breathtaking exhibition, China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy, which closes on Memorial, Monday, May 27, 2013.  All ten—the maximum allowable number to travel outside of China at any time—were hand-picked by the AAM’s director Jay Xu, who negotiated to get the finest for the unforgettable exhibition kicking off the Asian’s 10th year in its present Civic Center location.  Some of these warriors are so rare, they have never before travelled out of China but Xu, a Princeton-educated scholar of early Chinese art and archaeology (MA and PhD), has been cultivating relations there for decades.  He and his team at the Asian have put together an unforgettable show, utilizing the latest technologies to showcase these ancient figures as well as over 100 artifacts, many of which have never been displayed in the U.S. before.

First unearthed in Central China in 1974  by farmers searching for well water, these remarkable figures are representatives of the army amassed by China’s First Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BCE) some 2,200 years ago to guard him in the afterworld.   Though Qin Shi Huang lived to be just 49, he is a pivotal figure in Chinese history—responsible for unifying all of China under one powerful leader and creating a legacy of a centralized bureaucratic state that was carried on to successive dynasties over two millennia.  Born Zhao Zheng, he became the king of the western State of Qin at age 13.  Obsessed with the concept of immortality, he began to make plans for his immense burial complex at a young age while greatly expanding his power base in real terms.  By defeating or allying with the seven independent warring principalities that had battled among themselves for generations, he ended China’s brutal Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) and creating a vast kingdom. He then declared himself  First Emperor and undertook gigantic projects such as building and unifying sections of the Great Wall of China, building roads throughout China, standardizing Chinese writing, bureaucracy, weights, measurements and currency and building a capital in Xian.  It is near Xian, that he built his massive mausoleum guarded by the Terra Cotta warriors.   At 250,000 sq. ft., it’s the length of four football fields, and includes a replica of the imperial palace with stables, offices, an armory, an amusement park, a zoo, and an aviary filled with elegant bronze replicas of waterfowl.

At the Asian, the warriors are presented without glass barricades and at eye level in the Osher Gallery and viewers can examine them from multiple viewing angles.  What a treat to marvel at their distinct personalities, different uniforms, hairstyles and facial expressions in such an accessible and beautifully-lit environment, which is much more intimate than that in China.  The burial complex in China is so vast that visitors are restricted to gazing down upon it from several yards distance, preventing a close-up experience.  The few warriors that are available for closer inspection are behind glass.  At the Asian, with no barriers, all the rich details emerge and comparisons can be made between the finest examples of warriors of several ranks.  Of course, the museum has gone all out to make this as dramatic as possible.  The Osher Gallery is darkened and the ten figures are dramatically lit and arranged on two low-level platforms.  On the wall behind them a slide-show displays huge images from the vast excavation pit in China creating the impression that you are there amongst the legions of figures who were buried in battle formation.  Other displays provide information on the on-going excavations in China, and on how the armor and weapons were used.

One of the figures on display, an armored kneeling archer, retains traces of his original green pigment.   He is part of a crossbowman battle formation of both standing and kneeling archers but is the only one found so far with green pigment on his clothing and his face.  There are 2 theories—one is that it is camouflage and the other is that he is a necromancer, a person who can divine the outcome of a battle.  He is wearing a light coat with outside armor, and is kneeling on his right leg and bending his left leg.  He has very functional square-toed shoes with actual tread on the sole of his shoe for traction.

Another, a very rare standing general, one of nine unearthed from the tomb so far, is larger than all the other warriors and his garb reflects his rank.  This is the first time he has left China.  He wears a uniform adorned with fluid looking ribbons, an indication of his high status.  His cap would have had tail feathers from a pheasant, known the bravest bird around.   He seems poised for action and his hands once rested on a sword, now missing.  All the warriors have elaborate hair-dos but the general sports a moustache and muttonchops, an indication of authority.

The two horses, a chariot horse and a cavalry horse, both standing at about 13 or 14 hands in height,  have slightly different expressions on their faces imbuing them with a sense of personality.   The horse played an important role in the mythology of early China.  Closely associated with the dragon, both were thought capable of flight and of carrying their rider to the home of the immortals.  Throughout its history, China’s very survival relied on its equestrian prowess and these muscular horses, with flared nostrils and perked ears are on alert.   Separate display cases are devoted to  intricate horse fittings, some of these in solid gold.

The entire first floor of the museum is dedicated to the exhibit which also includes 110 other recovered items which explore the themes of Immortality, Innovation, Archaeology and Unification.   Particularly stunning are several life size bronze water birds discovered in 2001 from a pit thought to represent a royal park or sacred water garden.  All have a rich green patina that has built up over the centuries and the swan and crane are so realistic, they seem capable of bursting into flight at any moment.  Were these elegant creatures buried with Qin Shihuang because he loved them in life and wanted them by his side for all eternity?

The custom of producing sculptures as burial objects to substitute for human sacrifices began in the Shang and Zhou periods and flourished in the Qin (221-206 BC), Han and post-Han dynasties, all the way to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).  The belief was that objects used during one’s life on earth would continue to be used in the afterlife.  Now, 40 plus years after its original discovery, excavation is still quite active with new finds being announced on a regular basis.  Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb has yet to be opened but, according to Jay Xu, there are no current plans to do that.

We’ve come to rely on excellent scholarship from the Asian, but this exhibition, presented in partnership with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau, the Shaanxi Cultural Promotions and the People’s Republic of China, presents the 8th wonder of the ancient world as it’s never been seen before.

Best times to visit: weekday afternoons or Thursday evenings after 5 p.m. when it costs just $10.  Worse time—weekend.  The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street (at Civic Center Plaza), San Francisco.  Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $20 Adults; $16 seniors, students; $8 youth 13-17 and free to 12 and under.   On weekends, admission is $2 more.  Parking: The Asian Art Museum does not have a parking facility, but it is served by the following parking facilities—all within walking distance of the museum: Civic Center Plaza Garage is the closest and most reasonably priced has 840 spaces. From Van Ness, turn left on McAllister.  Entrance is on McAllister, between Polk and Larkin Streets. Info:

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May 20, 2013 Posted by | Art, Asian Art Museum | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment