Robert Bagley Lecture: “The Painted Pottery of Gansu Province: Prehistoric Art in Comparative Perspective”

Robert Bagley
“The Painted Pottery of Gansu Province: Prehistoric Art in Comparative Perspective”
Innovation/Adaptation: 5,000 Years of Making Art in China Series
September 15
5:30-7:00 PM
List 110

When prehistoric pottery was first unearthed in northwest China in the 1920s, western scholars immediately compared it with pottery from eastern Europe and the ancient Near East, and most concluded that the arts of making and painting pottery came to China from somewhere in the West. In the 1950s this conclusion was indignantly rejected by archaeologists in the PRC, and though the political tensions that once surrounded the question have subsided, the prevailing view today is still that, at least as far as pottery is concerned, the Chinese Neolithic was an independent, local development. But neither side of the controversy ever made a compelling case, and half a century of archaeology has hugely enriched the evidence we could be studying. At bottom the question is about artistic invention. We are comparing similar pots from different places and asking: Is it conceivable that two potters—two artistic traditions—arrived at this design independently? Or are the similarities of such a kind as could only be accounted for by contact? Questions of this type, whether they concern the invention of a painted design or the invention of writing or the invention of the pentatonic scale, can never be answered with certainty. If pots resembling those from China were found on Mars, we would still have to weigh probabilities: which is more probable, two separate inventions on two planets, or interplanetary travel? But the fact that certainty is unattainable does not mean that comparison is pointless. It can help us assess probabilities: the New World is not Mars, but it is a long way from China and Mesopotamia. More important, comparison has much to teach us about artistic invention. Design, we cannot doubt, is part of what it is to be human (and Martian?).

Robert Bagley is a professor in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University specializing in the art and archaeology of pre-Han China. His recent publications include Max Loehr and the Study of Chinese Bronzes: Style and Classification in the History of Art (2008); articles on the origin of the Chinese writing system and on ancient Chinese music theory; and the chapter on Shang archaeology in The Cambridge History of Ancient China (1999). His lecture will develop ideas touched on in his recent paper “Interpreting Prehistoric Designs” (chap. 1 in Paul Taylor, ed., Iconography without Texts, London: Warburg Institute Colloquia 13, 2008).

Sponsored by the Woods Lectureship, The Margerie Cutler Endowments and The Kenneth List Endowment.

During his presentation, Prof. Bagley demonstrated how this spiral design is created, a decoration found in pottery excavated from different regions of the world, in locations as disparate as China, Mexico and Crete.During his presentation, Prof. Bagley demonstrated how this spiral design is created, a decoration found in pottery excavated from different regions of the world, in locations as disparate as China, Mexico and Crete.

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Poster for Robert Bagley Lecture