Arts & Events » Arts and Culture

Buried Over Two Millennia Ago, China’s Terracotta Soldiers Come to VMFA

by

comment

You may not know it, but Alex Nyerges, executive director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, began his career as an archaeologist.

It was a pursuit that took him around the world, including a visit to the mausoleum of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, some 25 years ago.

He doesn't mince words when describing the experience.

"I've seen pretty much all of the most important and memorable and legendary places in the world that archaeologists have dug over the last several centuries," he says. "Nothing, and I underline that, nothing compares to Emperor Qin's terracotta army."

Historians know Qin Shi Huang for unifying warring states in 221 B.C. among other achievements. When he died roughly a decade later, he was buried surrounded by an army of 8,000 terracotta soldiers, horse-drawn chariots, weapons and accouterments for his journey into the afterlife.

His mausoleum in Shaanxi Province, China, was hidden until 1974 when farmers accidentally unearthed pottery fragments. After discovering an army of figures buried in a single pit, archaeologists uncovered two additional pits a couple years later. Specialists continue to investigate the site, which was listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and recently yielded a stone armor pit and a pit of bronze water birds.

Beginning Nov. 18, "Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China" brings 10 warriors, each standing more than 6 feet tall, from Emperor Qin's army to the VMFA. They will stand alongside 120 other objects including arms, armor and ritual bronze vessels, as well as 40 objects that have never left China. Among the items is stone armor that archaeologists reassembled from nearly 700 fragments.

This is the first exhibition of ancient Chinese art and archaeology organized by the museum, and it's meant to provide a comprehensive look at the unification of China and the broader context, visual culture, and legacy of Emperor Qin and his people. The items that date from the Zhou dynasty through the Qin dynasty, or from 1046 to 206 B.C., are on loan from 14 museums and archaeological institutes across Shaanxi Province.

Co-curated by Li Jian, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter curator of East Asian art at the museum and Hou-mei Sung, curator of Asian art at the Cincinnati Art Museum, the exhibition travels to the Ohio city in April.

The exhibit continues the Virginia Museum's ongoing partnership with Chinese institutions that includes the exchange of collection items and staff. Nyerges hopes to renew this relationship, now in its final years, and build a consortium of American and Chinese museums that might collaborate. Nyerges suggests that future plans might include a survey exhibition of Chinese bronzes from the ancient tradition.

"Terracotta Army" was conceived in 2009 as the museum's expansion was coming to an end. Shortly after Li Jian was hired in 2007, she and Nyerges traveled to China to begin discussing an exhibition of the terracotta warriors with the Shaanxi Provincial Bureau of Cultural Heritage and the Terracotta Army Museum.

"[This] has been in development for over two years, since the closing of the exhibition 'Forbidden City: [Imperial Treasures from the Palace Museum, Beijing]' in early 2015," says Li Jian. It continues ideas that she explored in an earlier project, "Eternal China: Splendors from the First Dynasties," from 1998 at the Dayton Art Institute where she was then the curator of Asian art and Nyerges was its director.

In hope of fully communicating the rarity of the site, the museum is sending a 12-person team of staffers and journalists for a weeklong junket in January to Xi'an and Beijing. "Seeing the terracotta warriors in the museum, being able to put some texture, context, the setting, the aromas, the site, [and] the sounds really help to build a greater portfolio of information around the objects themselves," Nyerges explains.

Virginia audiences might already be somewhat familiar with the terracotta army. Portions have traveled to the United States several times, and the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia currently has an exhibition, "Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor," with another 10 warriors. Li Jian and Nyerges both point out that this exhibition offers fresh research and a new emphasis, mainly on aesthetic concerns, as the exhibition uses objects to present a compelling story about the first emperor who standardized laws, coinage and road systems.

"Among these objects are jade figures and objects from the royal tombs at Liangdaicun, a ritual mask used by nomadic groups, early Qin vessels, and a large selection of horse tack and chariot ornaments," Li Jian says.

Also, the museum has produced an exhibition catalog that will be distributed by Yale University Press and is hosting related media events, including eight life-size replicas of the warriors that will appear at popular destinations throughout the commonwealth.

Those stops are still being decided, says a communications official with the museum, but they expect locations throughout Northern, Central and Eastern Virginia, including Tyson's Corner and Main Street Station here in Richmond.
You may not know it, but Alex Nyerges, executive director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, began his career as an archaeologist.

It was a pursuit that took him around the world, including a visit to the mausoleum of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, some 25 years ago.

He doesn't mince words when describing the experience.

"I've seen pretty much all of the most important and memorable and legendary places in the world that archaeologists have dug over the last several centuries," he says. "Nothing, and I underline that, nothing compares to Emperor Qin's terracotta army."

Historians know Qin Shi Huang for unifying warring states in 221 B.C. among other achievements. When he died roughly a decade later, he was buried surrounded by an army of 8,000 terracotta soldiers, horse-drawn chariots, weapons and accouterments for his journey into the afterlife.

His mausoleum in Shaanxi Province, China, was hidden until 1974 when farmers accidentally unearthed pottery fragments. After discovering an army of figures buried in a single pit, archaeologists uncovered two additional pits a couple years later. Specialists continue to investigate the site, which was listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and recently yielded a stone armor pit and a pit of bronze water birds.

Beginning Nov. 18, "Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China" brings 10 warriors, each standing more than 6 feet tall, from Emperor Qin's army to the VMFA. They will stand alongside 120 other objects including arms, armor and ritual bronze vessels, as well as 40 objects that have never left China. Among the items is stone armor that archaeologists reassembled from nearly 700 fragments.

This is the first exhibition of ancient Chinese art and archaeology organized by the museum, and it's meant to provide a comprehensive look at the unification of China and the broader context, visual culture, and legacy of Emperor Qin and his people. The items that date from the Zhou dynasty through the Qin dynasty, or from 1046 to 206 B.C., are on loan from 14 museums and archaeological institutes across Shaanxi Province.

Co-curated by Li Jian, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter curator of East Asian art at the museum and Hou-mei Sung, curator of Asian art at the Cincinnati Art Museum, the exhibition travels to the Ohio city in April.

The exhibit continues the Virginia Museum's ongoing partnership with Chinese institutions that includes the exchange of collection items and staff. Nyerges hopes to renew this relationship, now in its final years, and build a consortium of American and Chinese museums that might collaborate. Nyerges suggests that future plans might include a survey exhibition of Chinese bronzes from the ancient tradition.

"Terracotta Army" was conceived in 2009 as the museum's expansion was coming to an end. Shortly after Li Jian was hired in 2007, she and Nyerges traveled to China to begin discussing an exhibition of the terracotta warriors with the Shaanxi Provincial Bureau of Cultural Heritage and the Terracotta Army Museum.

"[This] has been in development for over two years, since the closing of the exhibition 'Forbidden City: [Imperial Treasures from the Palace Museum, Beijing]' in early 2015," says Li Jian. It continues ideas that she explored in an earlier project, "Eternal China: Splendors from the First Dynasties," from 1998 at the Dayton Art Institute where she was then the curator of Asian art and Nyerges was its director.

In hope of fully communicating the rarity of the site, the museum is sending a 12-person team of staffers and journalists for a weeklong junket in January to Xi'an and Beijing. "Seeing the terracotta warriors in the museum, being able to put some texture, context, the setting, the aromas, the site, [and] the sounds really help to build a greater portfolio of information around the objects themselves," Nyerges explains.

Virginia audiences might already be somewhat familiar with the terracotta army. Portions have traveled to the United States several times, and the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia currently has an exhibition, "Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor," with another 10 warriors. Li Jian and Nyerges both point out that this exhibition offers fresh research and a new emphasis, mainly on aesthetic concerns, as the exhibition uses objects to present a compelling story about the first emperor who standardized laws, coinage and road systems.

"Among these objects are jade figures and objects from the royal tombs at Liangdaicun, a ritual mask used by nomadic groups, early Qin vessels, and a large selection of horse tack and chariot ornaments," Li Jian says.

Also, the museum has produced an exhibition catalog that will be distributed by Yale University Press and is hosting related media events, including eight life-size replicas of the warriors that will appear at popular destinations throughout the commonwealth.

Those stops are still being decided, says a communications official with the museum, but they expect locations throughout Northern, Central and Eastern Virginia, including Tyson's Corner and Main Street Station here in Richmond. S

"Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China" is on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' from Nov. 18 through March 11. For information, including related events, see vmfa.museum.

"Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China" is on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' from Nov. 18 through March 11. For information, including related events, see vmfa.museum.

Add a comment