Rhinoceros horn carvings featured at Museum of Art
Rhinoceros horn carving is a gem in the rich repertoire of Chinese art. Its great value is not only on the scarcity of the material, but also on the participation of scholars of Ming Dynasty in the production resulting in the blending of techniques and styles with bamboo, wood, metal and jade carvings, which gave rise to a host of innovative themes and design of horn carving. Nowadays, the protection of rhinoceroses stops the supply of material to horn carving. And according to a tentative statistics, there are now only less than four thousand extant examples of rhinoceros horn carving that can be found, making this work of art valued high in the heart of the collectors.
To foster the appreciation of rhinoceros horn carving, the Hong Kong Museum of Art (Museum of Art) has selected over a hundred items of rhinoceros horn carving of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties from the Museum and private collections and have them featured in an exhibition entitled "The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving". The exhibition allows the visitors to have a glimpse of the precious legacy of Chinese art.
In China, rhinoceros horns have been rare treasures since ancient times. They may be used as medicine, or carved into objects of high artistic value. Despite numerous textual references, no rhinoceros horn carvings have yet been unearthed from archaeological excavations. Most of the extant examples date from the Ming and Qing dynasties.
From early to mid-Ming, rhinoceros horn vessels were produced by the imperial workshop and reserved exclusively for the court. Works of this period are either plain or decorated with simple motifs, typified by minimal workmanship. During the Yongle period (1403-1424), the maritime expeditions of Eunuch Admiral Zheng He promoted maritime trade, which in turn brought about a rapid development of the decorative arts. More horns were imported and private workshops were then allowed to participate in the industry.
Henceforth, the choice of themes and decorative motifs were enriched and diversified due to the influence from different techniques and styles of different media, including those of bamboo and ivory carvings. With the increasing participation of scholars, themes of scholarly taste appeared. Popular genres included landscapes, bird and flower, pastoral gatherings, auspicious subjects and anecdotes from literature.
Works of the early Qing adopted the Ming motifs but experimented with a larger variety of forms. They also demonstrate advancement in workmanship. In the Yongzheng and Qianlong periods (1723-1795), archaic motifs derived from ancient bronzes became popular under the antiquarian vogue. The works of this period were superbly carved with intricate design, elaborate motifs and with such refinement that even the inconspicuous area would be finished with perfection. They demonstrate the technical mastery of the craftsmen. However, the exceptional standard was not maintained in the late Qing period when the weakening of the nation drove the art of rhinoceros horn carving to a decline.
When it comes to the quality of raw material, rhinoceros horns were graded by its chromatic mutations and configurations in ancient times. "Tongxi", for instance, is known for its superior quality. The cross-section of a "tongxi" horn shows a yellowish-beige interior that gradually turns black towards the core. In terms of type-form, the majority of the rhinoceros horns are carved into vessels, the most common kind being the libation cup. This is because the form of the libation cup coincides with the natural tapering form of the horn, making the best use of this very rare material. A second reason is based on the common belief that the cup may exude antidotal and mind-pacifying medicinal properties of the rhinoceros horn into the liquid it contains.
Prior to the Qin (221-207 BC) period, rhinoceroses inhabited a vast area ranging from the North China Plain to the lower reaches of the River Changjiang. However, due to climatic changes and excessive hunting, rhinoceroses became extinct in China and provision of rhinoceros horns depended mainly on foreign tributes or imports from Asia and Africa.
Rhinoceroses are scarce animals with an alarmingly low birth rate. An international convention - the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora was enacted by the United Nations in 1973 to protect this endangered species. In Hong Kong, there is an ordinance, the Animal and Plants (Protection of Endangered Species) Ordinance, set up to enforce the convention. Under these measures, works of rhinoceros horn carving in legal possession are absolute rarities.
Running from January 17, "The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving" is an integral part of the Museum of Art's on-going series of "Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth: Gems of Antiquities Collections in Hong Kong". The series feature over one thousand artistic objects selected from eminent private collections and supplemented with the Museum collection. Exhibits on display are grouped according to media in five galleries namely lacquer, bamboo, and wood; ceramics; bronzes; jade and gold, and the latest display - rhinoceros horn carvings. The exhibition series enable the visitors to appreciate Chinese culture and Chinese antiquities of the highest quality.
The Museum of Art is located at 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui. It opens from 10 am to 6 pm daily and closes on Thursdays, except public holidays and the first two days of the Chinese New Year. On Chinese New Year's Eve, the Museum of Art will close at 5 pm. Admission fee is $10 and half-price concession is applicable to full-time students, senior citizens and people with disabilities. Admission is free on Wednesdays.
For enquiries, please call 2721 0116 or visit the Museum of Art's website at http://www.lcsd.gov.hk/hkma
End/Thursday, January 16, 2003