The world’s best collection of ancient Chinese bronzes and jades outside China returned to public view November 20, after more than a decade in storage, at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art.
These 100 magnificent jade carvings and bronze vessels are widely considered to be among the greatest treasures of Chinese art, according to the Freer. Indeed, they are “some of the oldest and most aesthetically and technically accomplished works of art ever created.”
These extraordinarily rare and exquisite works, dating back thousands of years, have been reinstalled in two brilliantly renovated galleries, highlighting the precious items to their best advantage.
This is the first phase of a three-year redesign project to reflect Charles Lang Freer’s “original conception of art for art’s sake,” a gallery spokeswoman told me.
Speaking of rare…
Three phenomenal jade disks, with extremely rare, needle-sized inscriptions, are among the “greatest pieces in the Freer collection,” explained Keith Wilson, Associate Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Curator of Ancient Chinese Art. Only eight of these objects have ever been found – four are in the Freer (one not displayed), and the other four are in China.
Similarly, four of the Freer’s examples of ceremonial jade jewelry, “incredibly rare and reserved for the highest realms of society”, are among less than a dozen such items ever found, Wilson told a press preview the day before the exhibit opened.
With only two exceptions, all jades on display had been bought by Freer, the gallery’s founder, who made his fortune in railroad car manufacturing.
The jade ceremonial weapons include the second-largest jade to survive, almost three-feet-long.
Jade weapons and tools were created only for “power symbols”. Although jade is so strong that steel cannot cut it, jade is quite brittle, and chips very easily, Wilson said. Some of the items are paper-thin, a masterful accomplishment thousands of years ago.
The jades vary from cream, tan, caramel, sea foam green, leaf green, greige, among other hues.
Moving on to the Freer’s ancient bronzes, one of the world’s finest bronze ritual basins has an elaborately carved dragon on the interior and exterior. The coiled beast has enormous eyes, horns, and ears. The basin, dating back to about 1300-1100 BCE, was used for ritual washing of hands as a sign of purification and respect.
Dragons and other mythical creatures are popular decorations for the bronzes, like a wine vessel with a bug-eyed, horned, snouted beast.
“Wine vessels were the margarita pitchers of the Bronze Age,” Wilson joked. “These are not quite Christmas china, but they’re special pieces for special times.”
The lid of a ritual ewer looks quite like Shrek. “That’s our nickname for it,” a Freer staffer confided.
These bronzes and jades are a small but stunning part of Freer’s Chinese collection, which epitomizes the classic periods of Chinese art history.
As a Chinese saying goes, “Gold has a value, but jade is invaluable.”
This free Freer exhibition, which continues indefinitely in Galleries 18 and 19, is invaluable.
For more info: The Freer Gallery of Art, www.si.asia.edu, Independence Avenue at 12th Street, SW, on the National Mall, Washington, DC. 202-633-1000. Free admission.