Recent Acquisitions: The Asian Art Museum Now Guarded by (Bronze) Lions

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Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds every other Friday.

In 2011, the Asian Museum received two rare Japanese bronze sculptures, but extensive conservation work kept them out of the public eye. On May 13th, they finally made their public debut outside the Larkin Street entrance. The five-foot-tall, six-foot-long lion and lion-dog somehow escaped the mandatory metal collections ordered by the Japanese government before World War II, and have been donated by Marsha Vargas Handley, a longtime museum supporter, in memory of her husband, Raymond G. Handley.

Laura Allen, the AAM's curator of Japanese art, was kind enough to speak with us about the acquisition.

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Can you describe the conservation process?

The lions were cleaned, and the feet repaired so that they could be securely fastened to a new, customized base. Several layers of protective coating were applied to resist weathering.

How will they fare, exposed to all the elements?

The lions were designed for outdoor display and have always been outside, and regular maintenance will help them continue to look good in their new Civic Center location.

The lions are going to assume pride of place in front of the museum. Do you hope they become iconic, like the lions outside of the New York Public Library in Bryant Park, or are they a part of a rotating cast of characters?

We certainly hope they'll capture people's imagination and become iconic and beloved symbols of the museum. At the same time, we might change them from time to time with other sculpture, and then bring them back again.

On the question of their relationship to the NYPL lions, of course our museum is in the former San Francisco Public Library building. We presume that the granite plinths at the front of the building were meant to support lions, and we're pleased that the building will finally be getting its lions, in a tip of the hat to this tradition.

Will they receive names?

We have not given them names, but that might very well be something we'll do in the future. There's been some talk of hosting a competition among the city's schoolchildren to find good names that match our museum's identity and its mission.

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Are they similar to any other items in the collection?

There are two early pairs of wood guardian lions from Japan in the museum's collection. You can see one of the pairs flanking the entrance to Gallery 26 in the second-floor Japanese art galleries; the other pair is resting in storage.

A pair of Chinese marble lions once flanked the entrance to the old Asian Art Museum in Golden Gate Park, and they are today housed in museum storage. Unlike the Japanese lions, which are intended to be placed facing each other, the Chinese lions stand facing forward and would not have fit well on the existing, oblong plinths.

Can you offer some insight into the history and significance of the lions?

The practice of placing pairs of guardian lions outside important buildings has a long history in East Asia. The first such figures are thought to have reached Japan from Korea, and so they are known as komainu ("Korean dog") after the Japanese word for the Korean Goguryeo kingdom (Japanese: Koma). Since the Heian period (794-1185) the pairs consisted of an open-mouthed lion and an imaginary, close-mouthed "lion dog" distinguished by having one horn. They are usually found facing each other at the entrances to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.

The enormous size -- nearly five feet tall and six feet long -- and standing poses of these bronze lions are both somewhat unusual. We date them to the 19th century, but further research will be necessary to determine whether they were made for a shrine or temple, or as an exhibition piece intended for one of the international expositions held in the United States and Europe at the end of the 19th century. At one time the lions belonged to an English estate, where they stood for many years outside in a garden.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.
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