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The Art Institute of Chicago Explores the Ancient Bronzes Coveted and Collected by China’s Emperors

For Immediate Release
Friday, January 5, 2018

CHICAGOMirroring China’s Past: Emperors and Their Bronzes, running February 25 through May 13, 2018, features more than 180 exquisite objects once collected by Chinese emperors and prominent scholars, to bring to life the fascinating artistic tradition and historical context of ancient bronzes. In this, the first exhibition of its kind, visitors will explore these bronzes from ancient China and their deep and rich social and cultural histories: evolving from every day use for cooking, drinking, and serving food; to embodying a spirituality that played an essential role in religion and ritual, as well as to powerful symbols of divine omens for dynastic rulers. They also played a role in forming social relationships among the elites.  Behind each bronze is a fascinating story waiting to be discovered. Drawing from the museum’s own holdings, private collections, and US museums, Mirroring China’s Past will also introduce visitors to objects on loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing and the Shanghai Museum.  

Tao Wang, Pritzker Chair of Asian Art at the Art Institute and the exhibition’s curator, elaborates on the significance Chinese emperors bestowed on the discovery of bronzes,  “For the emperor-collectors, ancient bronzes were more than a collection piece, they were perceived as the Mandate of Heaven—an embodiment or symbol of moral and political authority. Their collecting activity would not be considered as that of a mere individual, but to a large degree as the representation of state power.” 

For example, Huizong (r. 1100–25) of the Song dynasty (960–1279) and Qianlong (r. 1735–96), the mighty emperor of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), were well known for personally collecting ancient bronzes, sponsoring the creation of a great number of reproductions, and initiating ambitious cataloguing projects of the palace assets. Indeed, emperors frequently demanded that government offices pursue antiquities in the name of the state and often received them as tribute. For the emperors, collecting ancient art, in particular ritual bronzes, had a political and cultural function, and such activity was often used as an instrument of cultural policy.

In addition to the extraordinary bronzes, the exhibition will also feature  volumes of the original catalogue Emperor Qianlong commissioned in the 18th century as well as a 55 feet long scroll of rubbings of bronzes and paintings and other mediums illustrating rich creative correspondences between bronzes and artworks of the time.  The exhibition also includes several works by contemporary artists, which demonstrate the significant role ancient bronzes still held in today’s society.


Lead support is generously provided by Debra and Leon Black.

Major support is provided by the Fred Eychaner Fund, The Chauncey and Marion D. McCormick Family Foundation, and The MacLean Foundation.

Additional funding is contributed by Jianming Lv, Terry and William Carey, Honghong Chen, Giuseppe Eskenazi and Daniel Eskenazi, Winnie and Michael Feng, Virginia B. Sonnenschein and the Sonnenschein Exhibition Endowment Fund for Asian and Ancient Art, Robert Tsao and Vivian Chen, and Charles H. Mottier and Philip J. Vidal.

Annual support for Art Institute exhibitions is provided by the Exhibitions Trust: an anonymous donor; Neil Bluhm and the Bluhm Family Charitable Foundation; Jay Franke and David Herro; Kenneth Griffin; Caryn and King Harris, The Harris Family Foundation; Liz and Eric Lefkofsky; Robert M. and Diane v.S. Levy; Ann and Samuel M. Mencoff; Usha and Lakshmi N. Mittal; Sylvia Neil and Dan Fischel; Thomas and Margot Pritzker; Anne and Chris Reyes; Betsy Bergman Rosenfield and Andrew M. Rosenfield; Cari and Michael J. Sacks; and the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Foundation.

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