It’s easy to overlook the importance of material in an age defined by the virtual, yet the permanence of bronze outlives any historical boundaries. For a different perspective on art in Nanjing this month, herein three bronzes from radically different areas and eras, yet equally worth celebrating.
Bronze Ox Lamp
In the left-hand gallery as you walk into the Nanjing Museum is a bronze ox-shaped lamp that epitomises the expert craftsmanship of the ancient Chinese. Head bowed with its horns facing upwards engaged for battle, the curvaceous creature is accentuated by meandering patterns inlaid in silver.
The oil lamp which sits on the ox’s back has a pipe from the top which connects it to the beast’s head, gathering soot and dust down into its belly filled with water. It’s environmentally friendly before that was even a thing. Non-polluting lamps of this kind would not appear in the West for over a millennium to come.
The lamp was excavated from a Han tomb. Death, it was believed, simply meant leaving the earthly world but the soul would go on to live in the tomb. As well as valuable and sentimental possessions, the deceased needed practical objects too.
We can tell the occupant of this tomb was wealthy and important from the expensive materials used in this bronze lamp.
Bronze Statue of Sun Yatsen
Perhaps the most iconic statue in Nanjing is the bronze Sun Yat-sen, “Father of the Nation”, who stands high on a plinth at the crossroads of Xinjiekou. In his left hand a long cane reaches to the floor while his right arm pulls back his coat to reveal a waistcoat with a tall-buttoned neck and folding collar. This style was introduced by Dr Sun as a kind of national dress in a marked departure from the preceding Manchu attire.
Originally known as the “Zhongshan Suit”, after the president’s Chinese name, Sun Zhongshan, it ironically morphed into the iconic and ubiquitous “Mao Suit”, worn much like a uniform during the Cultural Revolution as a symbol of proletarian unity. Despite being surrounded by skyscrapers, the statue is by no means engulfed. Its pride of place in the centre of Nanjing is both physical and in spirit.
Salvador Dali’s Bronze Poseidon
Arms stretched backwards as if beginning an exaggerated sun salutation, Dali’s sculpture of Poseidon greets and gazes at the students of Nanjing University of the Arts. It is the only Dali sculpture owned by a university in China and was donated by the collector Huang Jianhua for the university’s centenary in 2012.
Perhaps better known for his melting clocks and lobster telephones, the sculpture is testament to the versatility of the great 20th century Spanish artist who dabbled in everything from fashion to theatre, industrial design and film.
Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, is but one of the mythological creatures found in the works of Dali, a man constructed his artistic identity drawing on Greek mythology. The statue is a familiar companion to art students and a rare bronze treasure in Nanjing.