Statement from Lloyd Cotsen Regarding Disposition of His Collection of Ancient Chinese Bronze Mirrors
PRESS RELEASE • STATEMENT FROM STEVEN S. KOBLIK • STATEMENT FROM LLOYD COTSEN •
STATEMENT FROM KELUN CHEN • EXHIBITION
Nov. 10, 2011
I was first led to acquire objects by curiosity, when as a 10-year-old child, I gathered matchbooks from the sidewalk, tabletops, and hotels—anywhere that I could find them. This led to more organized pursuits. In my teens I collected stamps and baseball cards. During my naval tour of duty in Asia, I was captivated by the culture and landscape of Japan. The elegance and simplicity of form that I found, in both the artworks and in everyday objects, touched something in me. Subsequently, as an adult, I discovered that I could learn from objects by spending time with them.
All of my collections are unified by my interest in learning about how people express themselves. I am fascinated by the ingenuity of people from all periods in history and all places, and the wide range of creativity that we can find throughout the world.
I purchased my first set of Chinese bronze mirrors in Hong Kong while serving in the Navy from 1950 to 1951. They held a particular appeal, as objects made of gold were far too expensive. I had placed a bid at an auction, and found out only after I returned to the United States that I was successful in acquiring four mirrors (the other key bidder was the Swedish government on behalf of Gustaf VI Adolf, the King of Sweden).
As a young man, I found that part of the attraction of these Chinese mirrors was their compact size. Notwithstanding their beauty and the high level of technological skill they represent, they were also easy to pack in a suitcase or place in a pocket. My interest in China, however, had begun much earlier, when I took an undergraduate course in Chinese art history with Professor George Rowley at Princeton University. In fact, I was so intrigued, that I took the class twice. At that time, few people in the West were studying China and the East, affording me the opportunity to explore a relatively unresearched area. Chinese art was unfamiliar to me, yet undeniably impressive by any aesthetic standard. Once I had acquired a few mirrors, from my perspective they came to exemplify Chinese aesthetics. Although at Princeton I was majoring in architecture and archaeology, and working actively at ancient Greek sites, my interest was piqued by Chinese art because it contrasted so strongly with Western art and architecture. To my Western eye, China had a mystical aura.
As a collector, I have come to feel that the Chinese have a greater variety of artistic style than the other contemporary Asian cultures. The ancient Chinese were playful and humorous. The designs and motifs decorating these mirrors are exotic and fascinating, challenging me to understand them and the objects that they adorn. The influence of Chinese astrology and the importance of the sun and moon in Chinese folklore and mythology are embodied in the mirrors, making them wonderfully enigmatic and intriguing to my Western eye.
Furthermore, detailed research into my bronze mirror collection has brought forth a great many questions posed by these enigmatic objects. What are the clues that tell us where they come from? Who used them? Who made them and why? What was their significance to the individuals who held them? Did they come from Mongolia or Western China? Where were the copper, tin, and lead mined? I hope that visitors to the Huntington exhibition, viewing my mirror collection, will hold both tantalizing clues and provide some answers as well.
One conspicuous piece of evidence is captured by the pottery tomb figure gazing into a mirror she holds in her left hand. The Han Dynasty cosmetic set also points toward the use of the mirrors as a vanity item. The prevalence of astrological and mythological design patterns indicates a religious use for the mirrors. The designs of later mirrors attest to the impact of trade and interaction with the Middle East and to the significance of the Silk Road for Chinese art and culture. The development of mirror design reflects not just the history of China; these designs reveal a constantly changing set of aesthetics in ancient China and also tell personal stories of the individuals who owned them. To study and share information about the mirrors is to see beyond the surface; the mirrors say much more than meets the eye.
I have been told that I have a tactile relationship with art. I like to feel a mirror’s weight and the sensation of rubbing my fingers across its cast pattern. My appreciation of textiles is also related to this enjoyment of the sensory experience. Having collected textiles for many years, one of the topics I find most intriguing is the juxtaposition between the development of textile design and that of the mirrors. The presence of textile patterns within the mirror designs is fascinating to me. In fact, I see the mirrors in much the same way that I see textiles—as flat objects that have been re-inflated into relief. I am drawn most strongly to older mirrors—those dating to the Zhou Dynasty, particularly the Warring States period, a time of one of the greatest intellectual ferments in Chinese history. (There are practically no pre-Warring States-period Zhou mirrors.) The designs cast on these mirrors flow like stenography recording a sacred geometry or other encrypted wisdom. These motifs flow around the face of the mirror, intertwining in a complex dance that illustrates both the refined aesthetics and high level of technological skill of the Chinese craftsmen at that time.
I am also attracted to rare types of mirrors. One example is the Tang Dynasty mirror inlaid with glass. Here the inlay is a clue to its mystery; glass may very well have been as valuable as gemstones because of its rarity in China at that time. The glass had probably reached China by way of the Silk Road, perhaps from Persia.
Included in this collection are mirrors that are copies of original, earlier mirrors that can be learning objects for students. My idea was that one can learn from copies as well as from the originals.
I am most interested in artistic genres that have not yet been exhaustively researched and, therefore, retain some mystery. As a Westerner, I believe that I have a different perspective on these objects than what a Chinese admirer might possess. Knowing that people from disparate cultural backgrounds will perceive actions, art, food, and other social phenomenon in a variety of ways, has led me to question how we are taught and what we choose to teach about other cultures. My primary motivation when assembling any collection is to create a study opportunity—a group of objects that has scholarship potential. I have never believed in acquiring art and then leaving those objects without research and publications. Eventually, all of my collections will be donated to existing institutions, but along the way I can also—through the Cotsen Foundation for Academic Research—support scholars and graduate students who share these interests. For this particular study collection, the hope is to determine how and when the mirrors came into play in the greater picture of Chinese art and where they fit in its development.
In this particular instance, we have chosen to donate the collection back to China, and to the Shanghai Museum as one of its major cultural institutions. The Shanghai Museum is a splendid institution by world standards, and its commitment to public education particularly impresses me. They are prepared to produce programs from which people can learn about the objects and the artistic setting. Since I have always bought with an eye toward learning, both for myself and for the people who will study my collections, I remain dedicated to public education and appreciate the Shanghai Museum’s efforts to expand the horizons for its visitors. In addition, I have come to feel very strongly that glorious historic objects like these bronze mirrors ought to ultimately reside in the same geographical area from which they derive and where they were first created. In this manner, we complete a magical circle of artistic origination, scholarly investigation, and public enjoyment.