A reflection of China's ancient past at the Huntington

A tiny leopard frozen in mid-leap. A stalking hunter. Twining leaves, coiled dragons, interlaced serpents, swooping birds and “swirling cloud scrolls” that represent “the vital energy, or qi, of everything in the universe”:

These are some of the stunning designs to be found in “Ancient Chinese Bronze Mirrors From the Lloyd Cotsen Collection,” a major exhibition at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

Running through May 14 and organized by Huntington Curator June Li, the first-time exhibition features 87 bronze mirrors — diminutive treasures that span 3,000 years of ancient Chinese history, from the Qijia Culture (2100-1700 BC) to the Jin Dynasty of the 12th and 13th century.

These cast bronze mirrors with once-glossy polished faces are not on display merely as objects of cosmetic use and self-reflection. In fact, the star attractions are the backs of the mirrors. Even green or blue with the patina of age, the intricately decorated surfaces are alive with inscriptions, abstract and symbolic designs, mythical beings, deities, flora and fauna.

Some are lacquered and painted, others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl, glass and precious stones. Some are gilded, silvered or crafted with hammered gold.

Their use and décor can be interpreted as sacred, magical and protective as well as pragmatic. The evolution of their designs and metallurgy offers scholars a key to historical, cultural and technological changes that took place in ancient China over thousands of years.

The trade routes of the Silk Road, for instance, brought Western influences to China’s indigenous motifs and its highly developed bronze technology. Foreigners, recognizable by their clothing and facial features, began to figure into the designs. Grapevines became a popular motif.

The delicately crafted mirrors — mostly circular in shape, some square, others elaborately lobed — were the province of the wealthy, their value underscored by the fact that they were presented as diplomatic gifts and entombed with their owners.

“Bronze was a very valuable commodity,” said Huntington Curatorial Assistant Michelle Bailey. “All the mirrors you see in the exhibition would have been quite expensive. Even the smallest were owned by the elites in early China.”

Fragments of embroidered silk cloth on display demonstrate how closely textile and mirror designs were related. Finely patterned background designs in bronze appear to echo the weave of textiles, a subtlety that can be discerned because the display cases allow visitors an intimate view of these exquisite little works of art.

“The cases were custom made for the exhibition,” Bailey said, “and they’re built so that you can get close to them. We also have interior lighting in the cases as well as exterior lighting to give visitors a chance to see the sculptural quality in the designs.”

And careful scrutiny is rewarded as tiny details emerge. Look carefully at the “Moon Mirror with Birds and Dragon” from the Tang Dynasty and within the mirror’s circle shape you’ll see a little moon inhabited by a rabbit stirring a pot under a leafy cinnamon tree. The pot contains “perhaps the elixir of life,” says the display label, and the rabbit “is an endearing allusion to popular legends of immortality.”

In a nearby case, a fragment of silk embroidered with a “Cloud Scroll and Rabbit in the Moon” further demonstrates the popularity of this motif.

Many of the mirrors bear inscriptions offering good wishes to the owners or pertaining to the artisans themselves. One maker’s translated inscription is a masterpiece of self-promotion:

“The Shangfang workshop made this mirror/Which is truly great and well crafted/On its surface are the immortals/Who do not know old age/When thirsty, they drink from jade springs/And when hungry they eat jujubes/Floating, they roam the world/And ramble everywhere within the surrounding seas/What pleasure!”

These eloquent remnants of a distant past (plus a few modern copies displayed for contrast) were collected by Lloyd Cotsen, a Los Angeles-based businessman, philanthropist and noted eclectic art collector, who began accumulating them while serving in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War.

After their stay at the Huntington, the mirrors will go to the Shanghai Museum, designated as the collection’s new permanent home by Cotsen, who has previously donated other of his varied collections to such institutions as the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and Princeton University.

UCLA professor of Chinese archaeology and art history Lothar von Falkenhausen edited the impressive, companion two-volume book, “The Lloyd Cotsen Study Collection of Chinese Bronze Mirrors.” Volume one, the collection’s hardcover catalog, was authored by UC San Diego history professor Suzanne E. Cahill.

Part of the mirrors’ hold on viewers, Cahill writes, “comes from uniting contradictory elements in meaning as well as design: religious and secular concerns, the individual and the cosmos, the transient and the eternal, time and space, the living and the dead.”

Related free lectures will be held at 7:30 p.m. in Friends’ Hall by von Falkenhausen (Feb. 7) and fellow UCLA art history professor David Scott (April 19).

LYNNE HEFFLEY is a frequent contributor to Marquee.


What: “Ancient Chinese Bronze Mirrors From the Lloyd Cotsen Collection.”

Where: Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino.

When: Through May 14. Noon to 4:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday-Friday, 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday and Monday holidays.

Admission: $15 adults, $12 seniors, $10 students, $6 youth.

Contact and info: (626) 405-2100 and www.huntington.org.

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