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HOME : Chinese Art : Tang Dynasty : Tang Sculpture of a Camel
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Tang Sculpture of a Camel - DK.120 (LSO)
Origin: Shaanxi Province - Xi'an
Circa: 618 AD to 907 AD
Dimensions: 18.7" (47.5cm) high x 13" (33.0cm) wide
Collection: Chinese Art
Medium: Terracotta
Condition: Very Fine

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This charismatic ceramic figure of a camel was made during what many consider to be China’s Golden Age, the Tang Dynasty. It was designed to be interred with a deceased member of the aristocracy or burgeoning Middle Classes, to attend to his/her needs in the afterlife. Grave furnishings (mingqi) came in many different forms; well-known variants include “fat ladies”, demons, administrators and grooms. Perhaps the most charming, however, are the representations of animals, especially camels and horses. These were important creatures at the time, and only owned by those of considerable wealth and exalted rank.

This engaging sculpture represents a standing camel, unsaddled, and in what is evidently a playful mood, tossing his head and swishing his tail from side to side. The twin humps, the shape of the limbs and the body, and the plentiful hair, identify him as a Bactrian camel, which still roan across parts of Central Asia. The mouth and the eyes are open, the hairy poll atop the head and the “mane” on the back of the neck picked out in careful detail. The forelimb is clad with hair to the knee, and appears to have been trimmed to shape, implying that he is a domestic animal. This is confirmed by a close inspection of the back, which shows a strikingly rectilinear space between the humps (which are themselves unusually slim), which implies that a saddle was once fitted. This is further confirmed by the paint colouration on the right flank, which shows a vertical line where the posterior aspect of the saddle would have rested. The tail is also docked, which facilitated the attachment of harnesses. The ground is between yellow and orange in tone, with a well-developed irregular patina of age. The piece is in good condition, and stands upon an integral oblong base.

It was during the Tang Dynasty that China’s outstanding technological and aesthetic achievements opened to external influences, resulting in the introduction of numerous new forms of self-expression, coupled with internal innovation and considerable social freedom. The T’ang dynasty also saw the birth of the printed novel, significant musical and theatrical heritage and many of China’s best-known painters and artists. The Dynasty was created on the 18th of June, 618 AD, when the Li family seized power from the last crumbling remnants of the preceding Sui Dynasty. This political and regal regime was long-lived, and lasted for almost 300 years. The imperial aspirations of the preceding periods and early Tang leaders led to unprecedented wealth, resulting in considerable socioeconomic stability, the development of trade networks and vast urbanisation for China’s exploding population (estimated at around 50 million people in the 8th century AD). The Tang rulers took cues from earlier periods, maintaining many of their administrative structures and systems intact. Even when dynastic and governmental institutions withdrew from management of the empire towards the end of the period – their authority undermined by localised rebellions and regional governors known as jiedushi –the systems were so well- established that they continued to operate regardless.

The artworks created during this era are among China’s greatest cultural achievements. It was the greatest age for Chinese poetry and painting, and sculpture also developed (although there was a notable decline in Buddhist sculptures following repression of the faith by pro-Taoism administrations later in the regime). It is disarming to note that the eventual decline of imperial power, followed by the official end of the dynasty on the 4th of June 907, hardly affected the great artistic turnover.

During the Tang Dynasty, restrictions were placed on the number of objects that could be included in tombs, an amount determined by an individual's social rank. In spite of the limitations, a striking variety of tomb furnishings – known as mingqi – have been excavated. Entire retinues of ceramic figures – representing warriors, animals, entertainers, musicians, guardians and every other necessary category of assistant – were buried with the dead in order to provide for the afterlife. Warriors (lokapala) were put in place to defend the dead, with domestic servants and attendants, and officials to run his estate in the hereafter. Charming examples of animals such as the current piece are perhaps the most amusing and aesthetically-pleasing of the mingqi, however. This attractive sculpture is an eloquent reminder of China’s outstanding heritage, and a beautiful addition to any serious Chinese collection. - (DK.120 (LSO))


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