WILLIAMSTOWN -- When the Clark Art Institute reopens this weekend, after an extensive 10-year renovation, it will stretch from from 1800 BCE to 1965.
In one of the most visible of the new galleries, beside a new stretch of water, natural light falls on 40 bronzes from the Shanghai Museum. A visitor can stand at the windows and look through the trees toward the Stone Hill Center, where a David Smith abstract sculpture will stand on the terrace.
From here, the reflecting pool stretches away toward the new entrance to the original museum building, where a Rodin bronze woman stands in silhouette.
And in this glass-walled gallery, bronze snakes coil into the shape of a wide bowl. Lions climb a vessel's rim to become handles. Bronze temple bells hang on a wooden frame.
The Clark's second show of Chinese art on recent years will reach back 3,000 years and into the afterlife, said Tom Loughman, assistant deputy director at the Clark.
These bronze vessels, carved containers and bells played a role in ceremonies and have come to light from tombs.
They were meant to harness the power of the animistic spirits carved or sculpted in them, Loughman said -- buffalo, rams, phoenixes, fantastic birds and otherworldly creatures -- in heaven-sent gleaming and steaming bronze.
Loughman led the curatorial team with Liu Yang, curator of Chinese art and head of the department of Asian art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Liu was born in China, trained in London, and began his career in Australia, Loughman said. The pieces he has helped to select are among the rarest and the most complete in the Shanghai Museum's collection of 6,000 to 7,000.
The museum has worked generously with them, Loughman said. More than half of these 40 artworks came off view there to travel to this show, and the Chinese government relaxed its limits on the number of works that can leave the country for an international exhibit.
"We have twice as many as usual," Loughman said. "The idea of national cultural property coming to a small museum is exceptional."
The works span 1800 BCE to 8 CE, Liu said, from the begnning of bronze casting to the end of the Bronze Age.
They were made before the land became China, before the unification of the empire.
Some bear the names of the people who made them or who had them made as gifts. Their inscriptions are some of the oldest known writing in China -- in characters that no longer exist in modern Chinese.
Some still show traces of soot from the fire, and of what heated or cooked in them. They give glimpses of the way their makers people thought about the afterlife, faith and and family.
Many of these vessels warmed ceremonial wine or cooked sacrificial meat, Loughman said.
Each had a different ritual purpose, Liu said, to cook, to hold water to wash hands, to play a role in a ritual. Wealthy families had them made as gifts, passed them down through generations and used them only in ancestral temples, for services.
In this time before Buddhism, they might come to a ceremony honor the ancestors, or to consult an oracle who would write a question on an ox's shoulder blade, set the bone in the fire and read an answer in the way the heat split the bone.
Bronze made more than art, Loughman said -- it made weapons.
Over the exhibit's 1800 years, dynasties rose and fell, and the ruling families kept control of the bronze foundaries. The charcoal that fueled the smelters may also have fired kilns for ceramics. The people who made these vessels may have lived and learned their craft in workshops in the state capital.
"They evolved into this activity," Liu said. "They were not thought of as artists."
They left no long written descriptions of their faith, Loughman said. Archaeology and artwork show a culture with a sensitivity to nature, a relationship between the living world and the afterlife.
Loughman finds the sculptures strongly three-dimensional and yet abstract.
He once asked Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, how to find the line between natural and abstract in works like these. Xu told him the people who made these pieces did not make that distinction.
"None of these animals are naturalistic, because none exist in the real world," Loughman said. "How do you capture the essence of an owl or a dragon when its the eyes of the underworld?"
An animal may show a trait like strength, he said. Sculptors would often give a vessel an elephant's trunk or legs.
"It's often a composite," he said. "It's not meant to be a chicken but the quality of a chicken."
He describes their shapes, moving between fabulous and sleekly muscular, abstract and holding an inner storyline.
And he finds words for the bronze water buffalo on a cowry shell containter: "formal, pristine, gorgeous -- and emotional."