The Huntington is displaying 87 pieces in "Ancient Chinese Bronze… (The Huntington Library )
A tiny Chinese lady, fashioned of terra cotta more than 2,000 years ago, holds a powder puff while looking into a round, hand-held mirror. Two other elegant women, painted on a scroll a few centuries later, also pay close attention to their appearance. One is having her hair done in front of a large mirror on a stand. The other meets the gaze of viewers in a mirrored reflection of her face.
The two works of art, displayed on opposite sides of the hallway leading to "Ancient Chinese Bronze Mirrors From the Lloyd Cotsen Collection" — an exhibition at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino — introduce the familiar aspect of the show: mirrors as looking glasses.
What's on view in the gallery is far more complicated. With their reflective sides turned to the back and their intricately decorated surfaces facing viewers, the mirrors are more than aids to feminine beauty. They can be cosmological charts, time capsules, guides to religious beliefs or keys to value systems and social order, as Suzanne Cahill, a history professor at UC San Diego and author of the Cotsen collection catalog, pointed out in a recent lecture at the Huntington.
That's a lot to ask of 87 diminutive artistic wonders, measuring about 21/2 inches to 13 inches in diameter and displayed in a single gallery. But the bronzes, which span about 3,000 years, offer intriguing glimpses of Chinese lives, beliefs, tastes and traditions. Usually cast in a circular shape with a central, perforated knob that could be attached to a tassel — used as a handle or tied to a garment — the mirrors vary widely in style, technique and iconography.
For Huntington curator June Li, figuring out how to exhibit the works was a challenge because they are not familiar to a general audience and they demand close inspection.
"Mirrors are kind of esoteric," she said. "It's almost like looking at coins; they might seem to be all the same. We needed some explanation for each object, so that people would be moved to look at them. The catalog and new research really helped to shape what we wanted to say about the mirrors, what they were used for, how they came into China, what they meant. Artworks are of value when they have meaning that's accessible to people."
Viewers learn, for example, that squares at the heart of the compositions represent the Earth; surrounding areas are celestial spheres. Flower-like clusters of circles depict constellations. Long, flowing shapes are the holy mountains of Taoist lore, thought to connect the human realm with the heavens and the underworld. Lacy patterns may be composed of symbolic flora and fauna.
Inscriptions, when translated, also offer clues to the significance of the mirrors. A boldly patterned piece framed by 16 arcs bears wishes for "noble status and blessings," "pleasure without incident," plentiful food and wine and "lordly delights."
The collection is being shown for the first time at the Huntington, where Cotsen — a Los Angeles businessman best known as the former head of Neutrogena Corp. — is a member of the board of overseers. The next, and final, stop will be the Shanghai Museum, where he has decided to donate his cache of mirrors.
Reached by telephone at his office, Cotsen said he didn't seriously consider giving the collection to the Huntington, which has an expansive Chinese garden but little Chinese art.
"I looked at other places in the United States, places that had collections or a program that fit," he said. "But I thought, with some chutzpah, maybe we could set an example by returning these cultural objects to the country they came from." Though "not a purist," he said that his long-time interest in archaeology had sensitized him to cultural patrimony issues. UCLA renamed its Institute of Archaeology the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology in 2000 in honor of his support.
An eclectic collector who views himself as a custodian or conservator rather than the owner of the objects he buys, Cotsen has given a large holding of folk art to the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M.; Japanese baskets to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco; and illustrated children's books to the library at Princeton University.
"My interest in Chinese material developed out of my taking a course in Chinese art at Princeton," Cotsen said. "I liked it so much, I took it twice and not because I failed the first time." He bought his first bronze mirrors at an auction in Hong Kong in 1951 while serving in the U.S. Navy. "They attracted me because they were available on the market and relatively obtainable, even with my then-low income," he said. "And they represented a high-quality point of achievement in bronze casting."