There is a story behind every work of art. Sometimes these stories are not known for years. – Soapbox Cincinnati | Candle Made Easy

Hou-Mei Sung, one of the museum’s curators, discovered an ancient artifact that has long been kept in the museum’s warehouse and tells the story of a people, a religion, and a time in history. A 16th-century bronze mirrorth or 17th Made in China in the 19th century to reveal the image of a Buddha when exposed to direct light. It is a so-called “magic mirror” whose bronze inner surface is carefully and subtly soldered so that with the right lighting, the image of a Buddha surrounded by emanating rays of light is manifested.

Sung discovered magic almost by accident. Last year she was redesigning an exhibition in the museum’s Buddhist gallery and was looking for a relevant artifact to house. She recalled the mirror, which was actually on display in 2017 as part of a special exhibition of ancient Japanese armor. Researching the mirror before writing a new description for it, she found that a similar one was in the possession of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They named their magic because of the hidden Buddha image. Maybe the Cincinnati mirror was magical, too, she thought.

Working with a museum restorer, she tested the mirror and illuminated its surface. The Buddha appeared. “I never realized it was magic,” she says.

Ancient magic mirrors are extremely difficult to make and very rare, Sung says. Only two other similar Buddhist mirrors are known from this period: one is in the Tokyo National Museum and the other in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On the back of the mirror are six Chinese letters spelling out the name Amitābha Buddha. “‘The Buddha of Infinite Light’ is the translation,” says Sung. “When believers call on the name of Buddha, you are saved. That’s why the name is on the back.”

She believes the museum acquired the mirror in 1961, but it was likely brought to Cincinnati long before that. The museum began collecting East Asian artifacts in 1881, Sung says, but standards of museum care were different then, and many of the objects from the period contain little information. This is where the curator’s research and detective work comes in.

On the back of the mirror are six Chinese letters spelling out the name Amitabha Buddha.“I’m still researching,” she says. “These kinds of discoveries are very exciting.”

The museum’s collection of East Asian art and artifacts is very large, too large to show them all. late 19thth In the 19th century, Cincinnati was a thriving commercial center, an industrial city with wealthy collectors, civic leaders, medical missionaries, and others exploring Japan, China, and other East Asian countries in the Far East. They brought back important and rare objects that cannot be collected today, says Sung. Many of these were eventually donated to the museum, gifts that formed the core of its East Asian collection.

“It’s the most exciting part of my job,” she says. “Discover stories behind the art.”

She recalls finding two pieces of ancient Japanese armor in the collection that had no identifying tags or numbers that could indicate how and when they were acquired. She went to work. After some research, she found out that they were bought to raise money for two Japanese girls who wanted to come to the US. The plays were sold to raise enough money for them to attend medical school, and eventually they both became doctors.

The Buddha mirror, she says, was created hundreds of years ago to bring blessings to people. “I think it will be a blessing to our city and our museum,” she says.

New discoveries of a different kind also await visitors to the art museum. Think the Roaring Twenties, the Art Deco period and over-the-top ornate furniture. The museum has preserved and exhibited a magnificent bedroom designed by a Viennese architect in the 1920s. Joseph Urban was a prolific illustrator, set designer and architect, trained in Vienna at the turn of the 20th centuryth Century. He embraced the modern art of the time. In 1911 he moved to the States to become artistic director of the Boston Opera. He became a sought-after stage designer and worked in film and architecture. He designed sets for the Metropolitan Opera, the Ziegfeld Follies and Hollywood films; worked at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair; designed interiors for Mar-a-Lago (yes, the one built by Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1927); and the roof garden of the now demolished Hotel Gibson in Cincinnati.

In one of his most recent commissions, he designed a bedroom for 17-year-old Elaine Wormser, who lived with her parents in Chicago’s renowned Drake Tower. That Wormser Bedroom features striking combinations of color and pattern, black glass walls and a reflective silvered ceiling, a dramatic design now known as Art Deco.

When she married Thomas Reis, they moved to Cincinnati, bringing with them the opulently designed bedroom, complete with custom carpeting. The elements of the room were donated to the museum by Elaine in 1973 and today make up the largest collection of urban-style furniture owned by a public institution, according to the museum. Elaine died in 2007.

In addition to the bedroom, the exhibition features drawings, paintings, costumes, and related furnishings from other American collections. It is curated by Amy Miller Dehan, the museum’s curator of decorative arts and design.

For decades, the public’s understanding of the space was based solely on black-and-white photos, she says, which didn’t show the combinations of colour, pattern and finish that designer Urban was known for.

“The process of reconstructing the space was a revelation,” she says. This exhibition will help showcase Urban’s contributions to American modernism, “as well as the bold message that women like Elaine Wormser projected when they chose avant-garde style over backward-looking historical fashions,” she says.

Joseph Urban’s Unlocking an Art Deco Bedroom runs through October 2nd at Galleries 232 and 233. Tickets to the exhibit are $12, with discounted rates for students, children, and seniors. Admission is free for members. The exhibition is free every Thursday evening from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. It can also be viewed for free during the Roaring Twenties themed Art After Dark on Friday 29 July from 5pm to 9pm

The Magic Mirror can be viewed free of charge in the museum’s East Asian Gallery (Gallery 140).

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