Inspirations from Chinese Ritual Bronzes:


The magnificence of the bronzes of Shang and Zhou periods (1600-1046 BCE and 1046-256 BCE) have not only captured Chinese audiences for centuries, but the Western world as well, and especially now through recent archaeological excavations.  In ancient times, bronzes were crucial in ritual ceremonies, and the ability to control the challenging aspects of their production solidified the status of the ruler, who had the power and resources to create such technologically advanced products for that time period.  Many of these archaic bronzes were buried in royal tombs, however over time, examples floated out through looting. Often exposure to these archaic bronzes was primarily through books and records, but their existence piqued the interest of subsequent generations from the Tang and Song to Ming dynasties.

During the Qing dynasty, the Qianlong emperor developed a nostalgia for the past.  His taste for antiquities led to the production of vessels inspired by the various ancient unique bronze forms as well as their archaistic motifs.  As an artistic twist, the Imperial porcelain kilns produced trompe-l’oeil pieces which ‘fool the eyes’ to imitate the style of the archaic bronzes. Besides the ones that imitated bronzes, looser interpretations followed depicting archaic forms in combination with various colors of glazes and were popular as well.


Chinese cloisonne enameled archaistic covered urn with studio marked ‘Laotianli zhi’ to be offered at Auction Sep. 2017

Even into the late Qing and Republic periods, creating archaic bronze forms and motifs was still significant to the repertoire of the artisans. One of the most striking decorative motifs of Shang and Zhou ritual bronzes that has been passed down through the ages, is the taotie, a mythical creature with a mask-like face bearing bulging eyes, horns and fangs.  However such ancient symbolisms were re-focused through the ages to suit the taste of the current time period.  An example is a Chinese cloisonné enameled urn produced by the Beijing studio Laotianli in the late 19th/early 20th century.  Instead of the ferocious features found on archaic bronzes, the ones on the shoulder and lid of this urn can be seen as caricatures in comparison.  The ability to play with colors in this medium also creates a pop of visual contrast, while archaic bronzes were limited to more defined patterns and textures.  The tapering body is decorated with lappet bands featuring stylized mythical zoomorphs. The side edges bear notched flanges, which in ancient bronzes was an artistic solution to handle and hide the seams – a result of the mold construction.

Ritual bronzes were no longer limited to the imperial family. The nostalgia for the ancient past can be experienced by people regarding the physical forms of their own bronzes and those found in museums and at auction.  The symbolisms and forms have evolved over time, but the ancient bronzes continue to bring great inspiration.