Two Masterpieces of Yuan Art

In Medieval Europe, under the guild system, the term ‘masterpiece’ was used to describe the object that was made by the apprentice or journeyman to show off the skills to be judged a master craftsman. When the term was appropriated into the lexicon of fine art, it referred to the works of the artist that were the apogee of his oeuvre, or the best work of a period of artistic development. In the broader context of art history, both these meanings have been preserved, and works are judged masterpieces if they are technically the finest of their type and/or are judged to best represent important advances in its development.

We believe that for this year’s catalogue we have been lucky enough to locate two such pieces, each with an illustrious provenance, but with very different public histories; a lacquer table known, studied and published since 1973 and a bronze Avalokitesvera secreted in a private collection from the late 19th century until the early 1990’s.

Both pieces date from the Yuan dynasty, a period whose seminal nature in the history of Chinese material culture has only recently been appreciated. This was partially because of its short duration (around 100 years) and partially as it was a foreign dynasty, the first time when all of China was ruled by a race other than the Han Chinese. The tumultuous political history of the time resulted in sweeping changes in art, but also meant that many of the objects made were lost in the struggles for succession as well as the chaos that accompanied dynastic change.

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