A few days in Xi'an pt.3 Tang sculpture from the Shaanxi History Museum

As a vessel maker I am interested in defining spaces that would otherwise be formless. By manipulating the line between internal volume and external silhouette, vessels can catch the deep in-breath of life just before the exhalation of decay. Nature provides examples of this bulging state of fullness in the forms of ripe fruit and blooms. It was a bit of a surprise that my favorite objects to display this fullness where not the vessels. In a museum full of pots I couldn't take my eyes off the Tang Dynasty sculptures. Their smoothly modeled forms and bright colors kept drawing my attention.

The sculptures pictured in this post represent areas of power within Tang society. The camel is a symbol of financial power that came from trade. The court women are symbols of social power derived from beauty and status. The figure of the heavenly god is a symbol of spiritual power gained through ritual. The horse is a symbol for military power. (The Tang were experts in horse breeding and were the first to intermix the Arabian breed to create a stronger faster war horse. This was a major leap in technology that created military success. Click here for an article about the importance of horses in Chinese culture.) In a little less than three hundred years the Tang dynasty made major strides in many areas of cultural development included these areas of power.

Beyond their cultural importance these sculptures are great examples of skill. From a technical standpoint it is impressive to see the mass of the horse's body elevated over four thin ceramic legs. It must have been a huge challenge to get this four foot tall sculpture into a kiln. Looking at surface treatments the figure of the heavenly god is an excellent example of texture and color complementing an active form. On the other end of the spectrum the smooth facial features of the court woman show a more restrained approach to surface. The curve and the light red blush of the court woman's cheeks softens the ceramic surface in a subtle stylization of feminine beauty. The variety of surfaces and modeling quality of these sculptures shows the commanding range of skill that the Tang sculptors possessed.

If your in Xi'an the history museum is well worth an afternoon visit. Two to three hours will be enough to look through the main collection. Tickets are handed out in the morning and mid afternoon so come prepared and don't get stuck waiting in line. I will be posting more images of pots and sculpture from the museum on my Facebook page in the next few weeks. (Please click here to visit.)

This is the last installment of a travel series on the Northern Chinese City of Xi'an. The first two installments can be viewed by clicking the following links 

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