Exhibit Opening, March 30th 2006
About the Exhibit
Select pieces from the Asian Art Collection were featured in Schmucker Art Gallery's exhibition Unveiling the Past: Hidden Treasures of the Gettysburg College Asian Art Collection, March 31 - April 21, 2006 with an encore in the summer from July 7 – August 20, 2006. The exhibit was curated by Cuc Nguyen, Karen Drickamer, and Molly S. Hutton.
Gettysburg College’s Asian Art Collection:
Intangible Emblems of the Past
From the early twentieth century, Gettysburg College has been a fertile ground of various Asian art forms. Its Asian Art Collection engenders an exceptional and affluent conglomeration of unique aesthetic brew from nature, the land, and the peoples of Asia.
Asia constituted sophisticated cultures that ranked among the most complex of the ancient world. The majority of art objects in this collection are from China. Its cultural influence was blended and reblended with other peripheral regional traditions, particularly evident in classic Korea and Japan. The present exhibition explores four dimensions of ancient Asian civilizations:
- The emergence of early cultural niches along major rivers.
- Asian main religious/philosophical ethics—Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism— manifested through ritual art.
- Asian concepts of nature.
- Aesthetic interactions between China, Korea, and Japan.
Broadly defined, the term “Asian Art” is generally applied to material objects belonging to the indigenous art traditions of Asia, created prior to the European initiation, which occurred as early as in the 2500 BCE in some regions. In the past, artifacts were reserved in the most obscure places in the imperial or aristocratic households; such treasures were prohibited or hardly exposed to the eye of commoners.
For the ancient Asians, art went far beyond the level of mere aesthetics. Elaborating on centuries of knowledge and concepts acquired by the profound confluence of the three mainstream religious and philosophical principles: Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, Asian art was a window to the cosmos, a graphic portrayal of the vision of their world. Buried objects, for example, played an important part in Chinese religious and social attitudes from early periods. The association between spiritual, intellectual, and aesthetic concepts was conveyed in particular through the symbolic use of precious materials and colors. Yet, despite its intricacy, Asian art tended to concentrate on iconographic and iconological significances and less on lavish material and meticulous details*.
Japanese art and vintage kuro tomesode
The Asian sensitivity of nature was perpetually flexible. Art was a window to the cosmos. The Asian view of their world as a microcosm of the cosmos could be met through the manifestation of art objects made for the aristocrats and élite. The Chinese believed nature/cosmos was composed of five different elements; each was essential to survival. Attractive as this idea may be, there is firm evidence that these elements played a crucial symbolic role in every day life as well as in art, for it signified their concepts of longevity and immortality to a higher level.
Chinese art is overwhelmingly iconographical; imagery is used either as a representation or as a reference to myth, ritual, or other cultural aspects. Inspired from nature, most artifacts in this exhibition, whether in organic and geometric forms, are small metaphors made from semi-precious stones, ivory, clay, metal, mineral, plant, faience, glass, ceramic, and wood. Jade, in particular, was revered by the ancient Chinese not only as a precious stone but as a symbol or immortality. The power of these works of art was believed to reside in their shapes, colors, and the materials from which they were made. It confers divine status and everlasting life, while the colors are associated with nature, by extension, with the idea of the chi. These art objects can be classified according to their contexts as:
- Art in the Tomb, in hoards (from the Neolithic, Bronze Age to the first Empires): art objects found buried with the dead from the Han to early Tang dynasty.
- Art at the Court (from the tang to the late Qing):
- used to distinguished and identified members of social classes of lineage royal clans.
- Serving as monuments to specific events such as rise to rulership, conquest, or the events of note to the state of group.
- Used as emblems of scholars’ office or status within a dynasty and culture.
- Art in the Temples, art of the sacred (from the first century C.E. to the Qing dynasty): religious art forms or quasi-religious themes depicting original myths or cosmological perceptions.
- Art of the Élite (from the Tang to the Qing): calligraphic writings depicted in the art of the traditional scholars.
- Art in the Market-Place (from the Song and Yuan dynasties to the Western influx): items of bodily adornment and household decoration. Art objects with ancient Chinese motifs are still being made many centuries afterwards.
The intent of craftsmanship generally depended on the social status of an individual, but the customs and fashions of conventional beliefs of different periods were of superior importance. Therefore, some art forms and medium rationally changed over time: for instance, the motifs and use of bronze and jade from the pre-dynastic era until after the Spring and Autumn Annals interlude (approximately 2500 BCE to 475 BCE) provisionally yielded to the considerable substitute of clay in the Qin and Han dynasties.
Other changes were afoot after the Western advent to China, for the early Ming period witnessed the reduction of authentic artifacts; virtually the “every day life” items were increasingly common in later periods. The outflow indicates that these changes were not really due to the well-defined function of the conventional art patronage, but rather to shifting economic circumstances. Such deviating connotation in art strongly suggests that at some point, religious beliefs and customs changed from what they had been before to a new representation and concentration on what was deemed absolutely necessary.
In the last several decades, Gettysburg College’s Asian Art Collection was intangible and invisible to the vast majority of the Gettysburg College Community in particular and the public in general. The iconography and iconology of these objects as well as these societies may somewhat be irrelevant to our lives, precisely because they existed (until colonial times) outside the European/Euro-American cultural stream. This exhibition introduces and redefines the entire range of this hidden treasure. It enlightens the colorful cultural matrices where these works of art were created.
Representative objects from the Gettysburg College Asian Art Collection are often on display in the Special Collections Reading Room on the fourth floor of Musselman Library.
* Iconography: symbolic and artistic representation, especially the conventional meanings attached to an art object.
Iconology: the historical analysis and interpretive study of symbols and their contextual significance.
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