An army for the emperor

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November 19, 2012 // UPDATED 5:48 pm - December 27, 2012
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

WHITTIER — Nearly 2,800 people saw “China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy” in its first two days at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts — double the opening-weekend attendance for this summer’s Rembrandt exhibition, a blockbuster that sold more than 100,000 tickets during its three-month run.

If the MIA has another hit on its hands, it’s not hard to see why. The 2,200-year-old, life-size terracotta figures of generals and infantrymen, horses and charioteers tell a fascinating story of ancient art and modern archeology, the kind that spills out of National Geographic magazine in double gatefold spreads.

The terracotta warriors visited Minneapolis once before. In 1985, the MIA exhibited sculptures of a general and a horse excavated from the vast tomb complex of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang, who died in 210 B.C. They were just two pieces from an entire army meant to project the emperor’s earthly power into the afterlife.

Ten of the terracotta sculptures made the trip from China this time around, including a kneeling archer figure that is notable for retaining traces of pigment on his face, hands and body armor. Together, they represent “the best group to travel to the West,” said curator Liu Yang, head of the MIA’s Department of Asian Art.

An artistic revolution

During a brief but pivotal moment more than two millennia ago, the Qin Dynasty forged the template for imperial China, binding seven warring states into one empire and establishing a centralized bureaucracy that future rulers would inherit. Legacy enough, certainly, but Qin Shihuang’s legend grew when, in 1974, the first bits of his terracotta army were pulled from beneath a farmer’s field in Shaanxi province in northeastern China.

Farmers digging a well nearly a mile from the low, pyramid-shaped mound that marks the first emperor’s tomb accidentally pierced the ceiling of a pit, uncovering shards of pottery and even a few full-sized figures. Since then, Chinese archaeologists have discovered two more pits and more than 7,000 terracotta figures in total — each with realistic, individualized features.

Yang said that’s what makes the terracotta army so remarkable and so much more than an archeological curiosity. A landmark in the evolution of Chinese art, they signify a shift from idealized figures and symbolism toward realism.

“The human figure sculpture on this scale is a revolution,” Yang said.

The sculptures are essentially modular: heads, limbs and torsos were mass-produced as individual pieces, then assembled. But artists provided the finishing touch, carving the fine details of the facial features so that no two warriors are identical.

A world recreated

Yang said there was evidence of fire and even looting in some of the pits. It could have been rebels breaking into the pits in the aftermath of the short-lived Qin Dynasty, which did not long outlast Qin Shihuang.

Many of the figures were found in pieces and have been painstakingly restored. Much of the paint that once decorated the sculptures, though, is lost.

The kneeling archer at the MIA is an exception. He is depicted dressed for battle, in body armor made of leather squares held together with rivets. Flecks of red pigment cling to the red string holding his topknot in place, and there are traces of blue paint left on his billowing sleeves.

His pink hands curl around a bow that has long since burned-up or decomposed, and his face, curiously, is painted green. A craftsman’s joke? Considering the harsh penalty, Yang is doubtful, suggesting the archer may have been a battlefield shaman.

A general figure, by comparison, is thick-bodied and imposing. Even his facial features are not as fine as the archer’s, and his expression is both watchful and solemn.

Qin Shihuang never completed the elaborate palace he began building during his lifetime, but he seems to have anticipated almost every need of an emperor in the spirit world. They don’t appear at the MIA, but archaeologists have uncovered terracotta acrobats.

Four life-size bronze water birds did make the trip to Minneapolis, and even now, pockmarked with corrosion, they are stunningly lifelike. A crane stalks on two skinny legs, hunting for fish.

It is a beautiful object and representative of a world, it seems, China’s first emperor could not bear to leave behind.