It is an awkward fact that great artworks are sometimes created amid deplorable circumstances. Next week the popular PBS program Antiques Roadshow will air a segment featuring a record-breaking appraisal of Chinese rhinoceros horn carvings (check their site for local scheduling). It is hard not to think of the current plight of the rhinoceros when viewing artworks made from rhino horns, or indeed of that of the elephant when viewing objects made of ivory. The rhinoceros was almost extinct in China by the time of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) due to hunting and habitat destruction. On November 10, 2011, the western black rhinoceros was declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and all rhino species are currently endangered. So what are we to make of rhino horn art?
The rhinoceros was of special importance to the ancient Chinese, as the museum’s famous rhinoceros-shaped vessel, which probably dates from 1100–1050 BCE, attests. Rhinoceros horn was (and still is) valued for its medicinal properties, and considered an antidote to poison. Often carved into cups, it became a prized medium of artistic expression, and Chinese artists created great works of art from it; the period of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was one of particular excellence.
More examples of rhino horn objects are on view in Gallery 17, on the second floor of the museum. By displaying these objects we hope to improve understanding of traditional Chinese art and to heighten awareness of the current threat to an animal long esteemed in Chinese culture, and admired by people the world over. For information about rhino conservation visit the World Wildlife Fund.
What do you think? Use the comments to share your views on antique art works that use materials from endangered species.
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