CHINA’S LOST CIVILIZATION
The figure that greets all viewers walking into the ancient Chinese exhibit, at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, is monumentally tall and post-thin from the Bronze Age in southwestern China. The face is something never seen before. A stylized mask that is riveting- simple and powerful: clear lines define the eyes, nose and mouth. Arms held out as holding something, now fingers and thumb in perfect circle are wrapped around an empty space. The joints of the hands are evident and each finger is rendered separately. This is not a cartoon generalization of hands but in contrast to the highly stylized face these sophisticated huge hands are more natural. Perhaps the figure was holding an elephant tusk since elephant tusks are found in the pit. We can only guess at the reason why. This figure is wearing an embellished tunic that delicately flares to the hem below the knee. Standing flatfooted and solid on a pedestal that is engraved, embellished and carved with stylized shapes that are reminiscent of bird and beak, the foot of the base curls up with a lyrical finish.
The resonance between the organic gesture of life and the stylizations with softened geometry is distinctive, enthralling.
Entering the gallery we are embraced by the semi-darkness, comfortable but cool in temperature and warmed by music. Lights are focused to allow the clarity, dimension and in some cases cast shadow to define the forms. The impact is a nonverbal invitation to relax and join the mystery that surrounds these mesmerizing objects. There are ample places to sit in reverie. This is a place for those who seek out mysteries that almost go beyond the reach of word. No one has seen faces like these. There was no writing, no handy way to understand them, archeologists are still in search.
To describe we can make some observations: a mask like face, both bold and delicate. The figure seems to be based on a square post. The ears standing out from the head—is hearing is emphasized with these stylized ears? The mouth is wide and narrow, slightly open, it stretches across and around the face and in some the lips are gently curved up at the corners. Are they smiling? The eye socket as a protruding almond shape that tilts up at the corner. A line across the face marking a cheekbone again and again-- that line appears on a face that’s smiling. Are they smiling at us? The gentle chin stands out from the neck with an indication of a square jaw, perhaps an echo of the structure of the post underneath or some other intent?
The only standing figure in the exhibit is tall, dignified, to see this figure is to look up, tall and yet higher on a pedestal. If this is meant to be admired or intimidating in its power, I am admiring and am in awe. These figures and masks are powerful and there is something modern about their simplicity: Picasso- known to steal ideas from any studio he entered-would steal them.
But maybe others found their designs worth emulating: the imagination of an art historian could go into action here- a look at the ancient Scythians metalwork and there are similarities with some of the objects. The Scythians were nomads who roamed the Eurasian steppes and Central Asia at their peak they dominated Central China. They were a few hundred years after the Sanxingdui, but around the same time as the Jinsha peoples.
We enter here and are invited in comfort to sit and ponder about the possibilities of what these objects might have been understood to be— Gods or idols, performing rituals for peacekeeping—good weather, water, or warriors calling troops to battle? And what we might see them to be: an extension of the love of things Chinese as we love the echo of the delicacy of designs reminiscent in later Chinese art, or curves of design found in yet other civilizations.
The bold mask like face with eyeballs that are posts, as if posts were the act of staring, capture abstraction in the object and then live in the viewer’s memory as only iconic images are able to do.
Finding these objects was much like finding archeology all over the globe-- A chance meeting, a chance digging. There is a hole somewhere something dropped in it. The farmer digging a drainage ditch came upon some jade in this area as far back as 1929. And there were wars and politics to digress from their uncovering. There was exploration in the 1950’s and 1960’s and finally in the 1980’s an international professional archeological dig came into places that were further southwest in China than things were ever found and found these, upsetting the status quo and story about what happened where and when, giving archeologists new objects and new mysteries to uncover. We may join them here. The exhibit continues through September 7.