It's the WEEKEND
The unusual ‘Unearthed’
Clark Institute swaps European paintings, sculptures for Far East antiquities
Half-human, half-lion, this is a frightening sharp-toothed beast with fi erce, bulging eyes and Medusa-like spikes on its head.
More than a dozen centuries ago, this “zhenmushou,” or tomb guardian, was buried with the body of an aristocrat in northern China. In 2009, the 2-foot-tall earthenware figure was discovered by archaeologists.
At the Clark Art Institute, for a few more months, dimmed lighting will protect this carved and painted monster, which dwelled in darkness beneath the earth for thousands of generations.
And this monster is not alone.
“You’ll see them throughout the show,” says Annette Juliano, a professor of Asian art history at Rutgers University and guest curator for “Unearthed: Recent Archaeological Discoveries
From Northern China.”
This summer and fall, as the museum honors the adventurous spirit of its founder, Sterling Clark, visitors are enticed to travel back in time and across the globe as they ponder the spiritual beliefs and burial practices of ancient China. GOING BACK IN TIME
As a Clark exhibit, the show is worlds away from its customary forays into European and American art.
Outside the museum, on the 140-acre campus, a giant construction crane looms in the distance as the Clark pushes forward on its expansion project. The Clark also has a major show of 70 of its French Impressionists paintings traveling the world. It’s in London now and next year it will visit Japan and China.
It’s a historic, ambitious and unusual year at the museum.
“The Clark has no track record showing things from antiquity; the Clark has no track record showing things from China,” Thomas J. Loughman, assistant deputy director, said at a recent press tour.
Inspired by Sterling Clark’s 1908-1909 expedition to northern China, “Unearthed” explores recent discoveries at ancient burial sites in the same provinces where Clark traveled.
Visitors can see and learn about 19 objects borrowed from Chinese museums that date from the fourth to the 10th centuries; from a cat-sized camel sculpture to an 11-foot-square houselike structure that is one of the largest and most impressive Chinese tombs ever found.
“Unearthed” opens with a huge wall map marked with Sterling Clark’s route and a wall-sized image from his expedition.
As we step into the exhibit, we become the explorers. With walls painted in dark colors, and archlike entrances into each room, there is a feeling of mysterious underground spaces. It’s a bit like Indiana Jones without the noise, the rats and the snakes. The first strange figures we meet are 4 feet tall. These are earthenware sculptures of a civil official and a military offi cial from the Tang Dynasty, attired in odd hats and green-and-orange-striped kimonos that have incredibly retained their color and detail.
Next there is a “stele,” a monumentlike carved stone slab depicting Buddha surrounded by patrons, guardians and devotees.
“It was quite vivid,” says Juliano, and may have been the centerpiece of a small temple.
“This is an exquisite piece,” she adds, pointing to a rare painting on the back of the piece.
In the next room, we encounter the tomb of Lou Rui (pronounced Lo Ray), a nomad leader.
“He was very powerful, but not a very nice person,” says Juliano.
On the walls, there are reproductions of paintings that were found in Rui’s tomb, and photographs of the dig site from 1979, when 850 objects were unearthed in Shanxi Province.
Deep inside the exhibit, we come upon the pièce de résistance, the mighty sarcophagus.
Made of 101 pieces of carved sandstone with four columns and roof of faux beams, the tomb mimics traditional Chinese architecture.
“It was done exactly as if it was made of wood,” says Juliano.
The back of the tomb is carved with scary faces to keep evil spirits away. According to custom, the front of a tomb always faces south, and according to a journalist who pulled a compass out of his pocket, is positioned that way at the Clark.
Inside the tomb, the body of Song Shaozu and his wife once rested on an intricately carved stone platform, and pieces of that platform are shown separately in a glass case.
Since its discovery in 2000, the tomb had been stored in pieces at Shanxi Museum.
“This is the first time it’s been totally reproduced since it was taken out of the earth,” says Juliano. The most recent artifacts, extracted in 2009 from a tomb in Gansu Province, are in the last room.
The professor stops before the Zhenmushou, the fi erce half-human beast.
“Why are they hybrids? The origins of these are not clear,” Juliano says.
“But there have always been animal guardians in the tombs.”