Museum Experience and Comparison of Artworks

by Erin
Written for December 8, 2006

As I approached the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, I was initially not very impressed. I was actually more interested in the arcades of Franklin Field across the street. However, after spending more time observing the museum’s exterior, I did appreciate the architecture more. I enjoyed the courtyard-feeling at the entrance, and I felt almost immediately comfortable as I entered the building and began to explore. For the most part, as I made my way through the museum, I felt nothing concerning the building itself, but being surrounded by so much ancient art was mesmerizing. So much artwork from centuries, even millennia, ago left me speechless from fascination. The layout of the museum was easy to navigate, yet I was frustrated to miss Islamic art because it was in a niche off the Lower Egyptian wing, and in order to see the gallery, I would have had to interrupt my Egyptian viewing experience, which led me from the first floor to the third floor. Overall, the museum was well-organized, and its setting was very peaceful, since most people are quiet and polite when observing artwork. Even the small children I encountered during my visit conducted themselves in a very well-behaved manner.

The museum held artworks from a variety of different cultures, including sculptures from Ancient Rome and China. While the Romans prided themselves mostly in the depiction of emperors for propagandistic purposes, they also created images of their gods and goddesses, such as in the museum’s Seated God with a Lion. Spirituality was also a subject often portrayed in the art of the Chinese. Buddhist sculptures were common in ancient China, and the sculpture of Wen Shu is no exception. Though the Seated God with a Lion and the sculpture of Wen Shu are from clearly different cultures, they still share strikingly similar characteristics.

The Seated God with a Lion was originally used for decorative purposes in a Roman home. It is from the Roman Empire Period, which was from 27 BCE to 337 BCE. The Romans greatly loved and admired Greek artists, and there is a very strong Greek influence in their artwork, as can be seen in the Seated God with a Lion. The nude body of the god Dionysus is highly stylized. The proportions within the body are very true to reality, and the musculature is also quite detailed. Dionysis has the body of the ideal man, strong and fit. Even his hair is stylized, with each curl meticulously carved out of the marble. While the body looks very lifelike, the position of the body is highly unrealistic. Dionysus looks straight ahead, but his body is turned off to the side. His legs are almost perpendicular to his torso. In order for one to sit in such a position, the person would have to exert some effort and would probably be uncomfortable. Dionysus, on the other hand, looks very relaxed.

Painstaking detail is also employed in the lion upon which Dionysus rests his arm. The curls of the mane are almost as particular as the god’s. However, unlike Dionysus, the lion is very frontal and rigid, and it is reminiscent of Mesopotamian art or the Lion Gate at Mycenae. It is clearly disproportionate, as the god is at least twice the size of the lion, which is typically a large and fearsome beast. Here, the lion is small and looks far from ferocious (it is almost cute!). Dionysus has the lion completely under his control. Power over animals is depicted in the god’s seat as well. Covering the seat is a panther skin, which implies that the panther was once dominated by a human.

The Chinese stone sculpture of Wen Shu from the Tang Dynasty (618 to 960 CE) also portrays a spiritual being’s control over animals. Wen Shu sits a top a roaring lion and seems to be quite calm and composed. The fearless lion is a religious symbol and represents the stern majesty of Prajna, which is the mother of all buddhas. Wen Shu is the bodhisattva (“Buddhas-to-be”) of wisdom and the protector of sacred Buddhist doctrine. He holds a book and the sword of knowledge, which is a symbol of the eradication of ignorance. The sculpture of Wen Shu is clearly a religious sculpture, unlike the Roman sculpture, which, although it depicted the god Dionysus, was purely a decorative piece.

Like the Seated God with a Lion, detail is a major aspect of the en Shu sculpture. The garments of the bodhisattva are very precise. There is patterning in both the design of the clothing and in the drapery folds. Although the sculpture is not as realistic as the Roman one, its unreal qualities add to the spiritual feeling of the artwork. The serenity in Wen Shu’s face also emphasizes spirituality and suggests wisdom; both traits represent Wen Shu’s character and contribute to its overall purpose as a religious sculpture.

Both of these sculptures incorporate the theme of animals to make a statement. The Roman sculpture of the Seated God with a Lion depicts the power of Dionysus through his composed control over the lion, while the Chinese sculpture of Wen Shu portrays the bodhisattva’s control over the lion for symbolic purposes. The styles of the two sculptures are clearly different, but both have excellent employment of detail – the Roman artwork in the body and the Chinese figure in its garments. While one is of the Western influence and the other non-Western, both styles are exceptional in their own way and make for startlingly fascinating works of art.

The University of Pennsylvania’s museum held so many fabulous artworks in addition to the Seated God with a Lion and the Wen Shu sculptures. My breath was stolen when I traveled around the domed room which held the Chinese art. At first, it seemed like just a very large space, but when I looked up, I realized that I was standing in an infinitely tall room topped by a dome lined with windows flooding light into the room and held one window in the center. Not only was the room itself beautiful, but the variety of art was amazing as well. The massive paintings were remarkable, and the sculptures were magnificent. My fascination only grew when I viewed the rest of the Asian sculpture. It was all so extraordinary that I really wanted to force somebody to look at and appreciate the art.

When I explored the second floor galleries, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the Native American and Alaskan art. I loved the whiteware and polychrome pottery. The patterns and designs looked so pretty in both the white and black and in color. The artifacts such as clothing and shoes from the natives also interested me greatly. Perhaps it was because of my love for clothing in general, but no matter the reason I did find the garments and shoes to be quite lovely. I also liked the native Alaskan bags, especially the Octopus Bag, which reminded me of the Aegean Octopus Jar. The practical items made by the Native Americans and Alaskans were all very nice.

Unfortunately, I found myself disappointed with the Greek collection. Although it was really quite interesting to view all of the pottery, I wished there were more figural sculptures. The ones they did have were small, and the Hellenistic statuette of a woman was not very representative of the dramatic element of Hellenistic sculpture. I did like the marble statuette of Aphrodite, which was very lovely, but considering sculpture was so important in Greek art, I would have been extremely excited to see some better examples in person.

On the whole, I feel my experience at the museum was very rewarding. It was really amazing to personally see real Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art. Being able to examine non-Western art, especially the Buddhist sculptures, was really fascinating and enlightening. After learning about so much of the art, it was incredible just to witness it firsthand.

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