Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art
Christie's New York
"Exceptionally rare, this
pair of bronze lidded gui food-serving
vessels is art-historically important for its reliance solely on
vertical ribs as decoration, thereby introducing a new mode of
embellishment; the ribbed décor, combined with the elevation of the
vessel bowl on a tall, square base, signals the final break with the
stylistic legacy of the previous Shang dynasty and the establishment of
a distinctive Zhou-dynasty mode. As such, the pair joins a small group
of other socled gui vessels with rib décor produced in the
Middle Western Zhou period (c. 975–c. 875 BC), in the late tenth or
early ninth century BC. That these majestic vessels not only have
survived for nearly three thousand years but have remained together as
a pair signals their extraordinary importance and elevates them to the
status of revered treasures. Apart from their art-historical
importance, these gui vessels also have a very distinguished
provenance, having passed through the hands of esteemed art dealer
Giuseppe Eskenazi, London, and then through the acclaimed collection of
Bella and P.P. Chiu (of Hong Kong and San Francisco)....
"Bronze casting came fully into its own in China during the Shang dynasty (c. 1600 BC–c. 1046 BC) with the production of sacral vessels intended for use in funerary ceremonies. Those vessels include ones for food and wine as well as ones for water; those for food and wine, the types most frequently encountered, group themselves into storage and presentation vessels as well as heating, cooking, and serving vessels. A sacral vessel for serving offerings of cooked food, the gui first appeared during the Shang dynasty and continued well into the Zhou (c. 1046 BC–256 BC).
"Although standard vessel shapes and established decorative motifs both persisted after the fall of Shang, the people of Western Zhou (c. 1046 BC–771 BC) quickly introduced changes, perhaps reflecting differing religious beliefs and ceremonial practices; as a result, some vessel types disappeared, while others evolved, often becoming more elaborate and more imposing. In fact, although both food and wine vessels had been important during the Shang, many wine-vessel types were discontinued after the Zhou overthrew the Shang, so that food vessels came to predominate during the Zhou dynasty, presumably indicating that wine no longer played a major role in ceremonies and rituals. Except for its square socle, this gui food-serving vessel is conservative in shape, exhibiting the basic Shang interpretation of the vessel form. Through its transformation by the addition of the socle, however, this vessel reflects the new, post-Shang age in which it was produced....
"The standard Shang form of the gui continued into the Western Zhou, though modifications in both form and decoration soon ensued. The most obvious alteration to the form involved elevating the vessel, often by presenting it on an integrally cast square socle, as in the present vessels, but occasionally by setting it on four legs, as witnessed by the Zuo Bao Yi Gui, which was offered at Christie’s, New York, on 13 September 2018, lot 888. In rare instances, an entire group of vessels might be raised by placing them on a bronze altar table, known in Chinese as a jin, such as the example in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York....In the Metropolitan Museum altar set, all of the vessels are wine vessels; the smaller of the altar-set’s two bail-handled you vessels stands on an independently cast square base that sits on the altar table. Aesthetically, the elevation of the gui on a socle makes the vessel more imposing and imparts monumentality, solemnity, and even majesty. Even so, the reasons for raising the vessels remain unknown but could involve changes in religious needs or ceremonial requirements, for example, or perhaps a simple desire for greater visual impact.
"Favored throughout much of the Western Zhou period (c. 1046–771 BC), socled gui vessels declined in popularity during the last decades of the Middle Western Zhou period (c. 975–c. 875 BC). Even so, gui vessels continued to be important, but rather than resting on a square socle, they came to stand either on a circular footring or, more typically, on three short legs generally in the form of a stylized animal or bird, with a masklike face at the top and a clawed foot at the bottom, or occasionally, if rarely, in the form of a simple tab. Such gui vessels tended to be decorated with wide horizontal flutes rather than with vertical ribs.
the taotie mask
was the decorative motif most frequently encountered on bronze ritual
vessels from the Shang dynasty, other motifs were popular as well,
including long- and short-tailed birds, kui dragons, and even
snakes. Apart from those 'representational' motifs, a variety of
abstract, non-representational, geometric motifs also appear on Shang
bronzes, from interlocking T-forms T to zig-zag, or chevron, patterns
and diamond-and-boss patterns, to yet others. Long forgotten, the
meaning of such decorative schemes, if any, has been lost to the mists
of time for both representational and geometric types—including that of
the vertical ribs on the present gui vessels—though
speculation about their meanings abounds. Many such motifs continued
into the Western Zhou, the “representational” motifs often showing a
distinct evolution, the abstract motifs generally remaining more
traditional and conservative, even if presented in slightly new
combinations and contexts....
socled gui vessels with ribbed décor are virtually identical
to the present vessels: a socled gui of
unknown whereabouts but illustrated in Hayashi Minao’s invaluable 1984
compendium of Shang and Zhou bronzes, and the previously mentioned Shi
Xie Gui in the Shanghai Museum. Except for its inscription and missing
cover, the Shi Xie Gui, which eminent bronze scholar Chen Peifen has
dated to c. 900 to c. 885 BC, is otherwise identical to the present
"Just as the socled gui fell from favor during the late Western Zhou period (c. 875–771 BC), so did vertical ribs virtually disappear from the repertory of decorative motifs. The new style of gui vessel, popular through the late Western Zhou period and beyond, had the bowl resting either on a circular footring or on three short legs and sporting decoration of horizontal flutes around both bowl and cover, as exemplified by the Shi Song Gui in the collection of the Shanghai Museum (45688) and two such gui in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1975.66.1a, b and 1988.20.3a, b)....
"Bronze vessels sometimes were made in pairs, and often in sets, during the Shang and Zhou dynasties, the vessels linked by inscription, style, benefactor (i.e., the one who commissioned the vessel or set), or beneficiary (i.e., the person in whose ceremonies the vessel was to be used). Even so, because many vessels have been lost and because many sets have been dispersed, entire sets of vessels—or even just pairs—seldom appear together today. Formerly exhibited at the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT, a pair of Middle Western Zhou covered gui vessels—known as the Lu Hou Gui—sold at Sotheby’s, New York, on 18–19 March 2014 (lot 108); each standing on four slender legs rather than on a square socle, the two vessels in the Lu Hou Gui pair are roughly contemporaneous with the present vessels. A pair of Middle Western Zhou gui vessels with ribbed decoration, related to the present pair, sold at Sotheby’s, London, on 25 March 1947 (lot 83). Arguably the most famous pair of covered gui vessels in the United States, however, is that from the distinguished collection of Frederick M. Mayer (1899–1974), of New York, which was sold at Christie’s, London, on 24–25 June 1974 (lot 219); dating to the Spring and Autumn period (771–476 BC), likely to the sixth century BC, those imposing vessels have dramatic, dragon-form handles and covers whose large, openwork handles suggest blossoms. One gui from the Mayer pair was acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art (1974.73); the other gui, which was acquired by Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, is now in the collection of The Asia Society, New York (1979.103). Though we refer to them as a pair, it is possible that the present gui once were part of a larger group of vessels, a group that perhaps even included the previously mentioned the Shi Xie Gui in the Shanghai Museum, which is the same size as the present vessels and, except for its inscription and missing cover, is otherwise identical to them—though, this, of course, is merely conjecture, as there is no evidence to suggest that the Shi Xie Gui was originally directly associated with the present vessels....
"Visually compelling and
strikingly beautiful bronzes with bold decoration, exquisite patina,
and distinguished provenance, these gui vessels are
art-historically important for their reinterpretation of the
traditional gui form
through the elevation of the bowl on a square socle and through the
perfection of abstract, ribbed décor. This new interpretation signals
the final break with the stylistic legacy of the previous Shang dynasty
and the establishment of a distinctive Zhou-dynasty mode. In fact,
these gui vessels are major monuments in the history of
Western Zhou bronzes."