The Luboshez Gong
The celebrated collection of Captain S.N. Ferris Luboshez (1896-1984) has captivated collectors of Chinese art for nearly three decades, since it was offered for sale in New York in 1982. Captain Luboshez, raised in England by American parents, was taught the fundamentals of art appreciation by his father, a scientist, who thought the study of art was valuable regardless of his sons’ eventual occupations. While both Luboshez and his brother trained as scientists, and Captain Luboshez later as a barrister and lawyer, both became interested in Asian art.
At the outset of World War II, Luboshez entered the US Navy, eventually receiving a post in central intelligence. At the end of the war he was focused on China and Japan, receiving the position of general counsel to the office of the Foreign Liquidation Commission of the US Department of State, eventually headquartered in Shanghai. It was during this time, from 1945-1949, that Luboshez formed the substantial core of his collection. In Shanghai, and in travels to Beijing, he found a welcoming group of Chinese collectors and scholars, from whom he learned and eventually purchased works of art. He was recognized as a serious connoisseur with a discriminating eye at a time when foreigners were not generally included in such circles or offered works of art to purchase. From archaic jades and bronzes, to Tang-dynasty pottery figures, to Ming and Qing porcelains, the Luboshez Collection reflects one man’s discerning taste across a variety of media, forms and dynasties.
In 1949, when Captain Luboshez and his wife returned to the US, they settled outside of Washington D.C. and brought their collection with them. He designed his home in Maryland with specially fitted cases to display his pieces, as he believed that art should be lived with and enjoyed, not stored away. By the time Luboshez sold his pieces in 1982 he had lived with them for over 30 years, telling the Washington Post, “I don’t need the objects any more. They are embedded in my head.”
The Luboshez Ritual Gong Wine Vessel
by Robert D. Mowry
A covered wine vessel, the Luboshez gong from the Daniel Shapiro Collection ranks among the rarest of the bronze ritual vessels produced during China’s ancient Shang dynasty. The gong is arguably the most intriguingly shaped Shang vessel, as well. The exact function of the gong - sometimes pronounced guang - in ancient rituals remains unknown, though it likely was a wine-pouring vessel. Gong vessels first appeared late in the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–c. 1050 BC) and were produced in limited quantities for a relatively short period of time, particularly from the thirteenth through the eleventh centuries BC.
The Luboshez gong is cast in the form of two animals positioned back-to-back and presented in profile, a crouching tiger at the front and a standing owl at the rear. Gong vessels of this type are often characterized as metamorphic forms, as they join two disparate animals to create a single vessel. The body of the tiger rises diagonally up the front of the vessel, with its hind paws firmly planted at the base of the foot ring, its knees fully flexed and projecting into the container’s bulging front, its forepaws poised as if ready to reach outward and appearing just short of the spout’s leading edge. The tiger’s long, slender body continues onto the cover, the vessel spout and associated portion of the cover combining visually to serve as the tiger’s neck, the cover terminating in the tiger’s ferocious head.
The owl at the back stands upright, its feet firmly planted on the base of the footring. The rounded back end perfectly portrays the proud bird’s full breast and abdomen. Each wing begins with a coil that suggests a shoulder joint, the repeating surface patterns appropriately suggesting feathers. The coils unfurl to terminate in elongated triangles, similarly patterned, representing the bird’s wings clasped tightly to its body. The small motif that projects laterally behind each wing—a motif comprising three horizontally oriented, ‘L’ shapes - represents the owl’s short tail. Just as the tiger’s tail curves beneath the owl’s wing, the owl’s tail nearly touches the tiger’s back, visually linking the two animals and uniting the vessel’s front and back halves.
Five other gong vessels all virtually, though not quite, identical to the Luboshez example are known: one in the United States in the Grenville L. Winthrop (1864–1943) Collection at the Harvard Art Museums (1942.52.103) (Fig. 1);1 two in Japan, with one in the private collection of Tadashi Sengoku (Fig. 2),2 and the other in the Sumitomo Collection at the Sen-oku Hakuko Kan, Kyoto (Fig. 3);3 and two in China, both excavated in 1976 from the tomb of Lady Fu Hao at Anyang, Henan province.4 (Fig. 4) A principal wife of the Shang-dynasty king Wu Ding (r. c. 1250–c. 1192 BC), Lady Fu Hao was a powerful figure who gave birth to a royal prince and served as a military leader, apparently leading troops into battle. That gong vessels of this type were buried in her tomb - along with 2,000 other luxury items including some 468 bronzes—attests to the importance of such vessels. As they bear an inscription with her name,5 the pair of gong vessels found in her tomb are assumed to have been cast around 1200 BC, shortly after her death and specifically for burial in her tomb. The similarity in style and decoration indicates that all six vessels were made in the same place (presumably in Anyang, Henan province), at roughly the same time (late thirteenth to early twelfth century BC), and likely in the same workshop; even so, small differences distinguish one example from the next.
Like many important Shang ritual bronzes, the Luboshez gong includes a short inscription which appears on the vessel floor but not on the cover. Describing four footprints around a sanctuary enclosing a ce (i.e., an album or book), the inscription has been interpreted as the ancestor of the modern character wei. (The material and content of such an “album” or “book” remain unknown.) To date, the inscription has not been associated with a particular person; even so, a Shang bronze wine vessel now in the collection of the Musée Cernuschi, Paris, includes the same inscription,6 suggesting that the Luboshez gong and the Cernuschi vessel might originally have been part of a set of ritual bronzes, now dispersed.
Though differing in overall appearance, gong vessels in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (43.25.4) and of the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (F1938.5a-b), are clearly related in style and motif to the six in the Luboshez group and reveal that Shang bronze casters experimented with different approaches to combining tiger and owl in a single vessel. Now missing its cover, the Metropolitan Museum gong has the owl standing at the front of the vessel and the crouching tiger at the rear, the top of the handle issuing from the tiger’s gaping mouth. By contrast, the tiger head and owl face on the Freer gong7 appear solely as cover decoration and do not connect or relate to decorative elements on the vessel itself.8 Rather than describing two different animals, one at the front and another at the rear, the Freer gong assumes the form of a single water bird whose head is at the back and whose long neck serves as the vessel’s handle. The bird’s wings, which extend back from a coil suggesting the shoulder joint, enliven the vessel’s sides, while the feathers of its tail sweep upward to embellish the underside of the spout. Because the tiger head and owl face lack visually supporting bodies on the vessel, the overall decorative scheme is less well integrated than those of the Luboshez group.
The ferocious tiger head at the front of the Luboshez gong finds counterparts in those of marble sculptures found in Shang royal tombs. A marble sculpture representing a “Kneeling Anthropomorphic Figure with Tiger Head” excavated in 1928 from Xibeigang Tomb M1001 at Anyang 1001 is virtually identical in style and appearance.9 (The marble figure is now in the collection of the Museum of the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan). The squared head, flat muzzle, thick lips, bared teeth and fangs, bulging eyes, and high-relief, planar horns on the bronze and marble pieces so closely resemble each other that one could have served as the model for the other; more likely, however, each descends from a now-lost model or prototype. The ferocious head on the Luboshez gong also shows kinship to the heads on small jade sculptures of the period, such as the yellow nephrite figure representing a “Kneeling Anthropomorphic Figure with Tiger Head” excavated in 1997 in Shanxi province and now in the collection of the Shanxi Museum, Taiyuan.10
The origin of the gong remains unclear, as antecedents, if any, have yet to be identified among Neolithic ceramics and early Shang bronzes. It has been claimed that “classic gong vessels,” as represented by the Luboshez group, trace their origin to the rare bronze covered boat-shaped vessels that are also termed gong, such as the famous elongated alligator- or crocodile-like example in the collection of the Shanxi Museum, Taiyuan.11 Although its decorative style is related to that of the Luboshez and related gong vessels, the Shanxi Museum piece seems an unlikely ancestor, given its very different shape; perhaps it represents a different interpretation of the gong, or perhaps it is a related but functionally different vessel type.
Gong vessels with taotie decoration first appeared at Anyang about the same time as the gong of the Luboshez group. Also dating to the late thirteenth or early twelfth century BC, a gong in the collection of Alfred Fisk Pillsbury (1869–1950) at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is among the earliest of those emblazoned with a taotie mask (50.46.104a,b).12
Gong vessels with taotie décor became the most popular over time, supplanting those with tiger-and-owl décor. Thus, the gong vessels in the Luboshez group, which arguably claim the most dynamic decoration of all gong vessels, are the rarest type and likely represent an initial, experimental phase in the evolution of the gong. Virtually all Shang-dynasty gong vessels produced in the late Anyang period, in the twelfth and eleventh centuries BC, are decorated with taotie masks that rise in relief above the leiwen ground. As witnessed by a vessel in the Guennol Collection of Alastair Bradley Martin (1915 - 2010) at the Brooklyn Museum (72.163a-b), their covers are cast with the heads of owls and ferocious animals, but those heads do not relate in any way to the taotie masks or other creatures depicted on the vessel itself.13
Several gong vessels reflect an attempt to hybridize the two variant decorative schemes.14 A gong in the collection of the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL (52.7a-b), for example, has its surfaces divided into compartments but lacks the taotie masks generally associated with such compartmentalized surfaces.15 An elongated creature, presumably a tiger, rises from the footring and through the front compartments to connect with the ferocious animal head at the front of the cover, while dragons occupy the compartments at the back.
The gong vessel fell from favor and gradually disappeared from the repertoire of ritual vessels soon after the Zhou conquest in the mid-eleventh century BC. Tradition asserts that the new Zhou ruler believed that excessive wine drinking by the Shang had led to decadence and failure to maintain proper observance of sacred rituals—and thus to the fall of the dynasty in that context, he claimed that ancestral spirits had shifted their mandate to the Zhou and required more sober ritual practices to be observed for the Zhou to maintain the “mandate of heaven.” Therefore the use of wine was reduced while meat and cereals were emphasized as more righteous offerings. As a result, the gong and other wine vessels were gradually abandoned while new kinds of ritual vessels for food were developed during the Western Zhou period.
Robert D. Mowry
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus,
Harvard Art Museums, and
Senior Consultant, Christie’s
1 See: James Cuno et al., Harvard’s Art Museums: 100 Years of Collecting, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Art Museums, and New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.), 1996, pp. 52-53.
2 Tadashi Sengoku, Chugoku Ocho no Iki [The Best of Dynastic China], (Himeji, Japan: Hokuseisha), 2004, pp. 9-11, cat. no. 1.
3 See: Sen-oku Hakukokan, ed., Sen-oku Hakko: Chu¯goku kodo¯ki hen [Ancient Chinese Bronzes in the Sen-oku Hakko Collection: The Sumitomo Collection], (Kyoto: Sen-oku Hakkokan), 2002, no. 106.
4 See: Jessica Rawson, ed., Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties, (London: British Museum, and New York: G. Braziller), 1996, p. 102, fig. 45-1, and cat. no. 45. Also see: Zhongguo shehui kexue yuan kaogu yanjiusuo bianzhu [Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences], ed., Yinxu Fuhao Mu [Tomb of Lady Hao at Yinxu in Anyang], 1st edition (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe: Xinhua shudian Beijing faxing suo faxing), 1980.
5 See: Jessica Rawson, ed., Mysteries of Ancient China, p. 102, fig. 45-2.
6 See: Vadime Elisseeff, Bronzes archaïques chinois au Musée Cernuschi [Archaic Chinese Bronzes in the Cernuschi Museum], (Paris: L’Asiathèque), 1977, vol. 1, p. 134, no. 48.
7 See: Maxwell Hearn, “The Arts of Ancient China,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 32, no. 2, 1973/1974, no. 11.
8 See: John Alexander Pope et al., The Freer Chinese Bronzes, vol. 1, (Washington, DC: Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution), (Oriental Studies Series, vol. 1, no. 7) 1967, p. 243, no. 43.
9 See: National Palace Museum, ed., King Wu Ding and Lady Hao: Art and Culture of the Late Shang Dynasty, 1st ed., (Taipei: National Palace Museum), 2012, pp. 230-231, no. IV-3.
10 See: “A Western Zhou Tomb at Taiqinggong, Luyi County, Henan”, Kaogu, 2000, no. 9, color pl. II-4.
11 See: Daniel Shapiro et al., Ancient Chinese Bronzes: A Personal Appreciation, (London: Rasika/Sylph Editions), 2014, p. 18.
12 See: Bernhard Karlgren, A Catalogue of the Chinese Bronzes in the Alfred F. Pillsbury Collection, (Minneapolis: Published for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts by the University of Minnesota Press), 1952, pp. 89-93, no. 31.
13 See: Amy Poster, Journey Through Asia: Masterpieces in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, (Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum of Art), 2003, pp. 44-45, no. 1.
14 For a discussion of this phenomenon, see: Robert W. Bagley, Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, (Washington, DC: The Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, and Cambridge, MA: The Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University), 1987, pp. 412-415.
15 See: John Finlay, The Chinese Collection: Selected Works from the Norton Museum of Art, (West Palm Beach, FL: Norton Museum of Art), 2003, pp. 76-77, no. 1.