Hou-Mei Sung, one of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s curators, discovered an ancient artifact, long stored away in the museum’s warehouse, that tells the story of a people, a religion, and a time in history. A bronze mirror, dating from sometime in 16th or 17th century China, was crafted to expose the image of a Buddha when exposed to direct light. It’s a so-called “magic mirror,” with its bronze interior surface carefully and subtly soldered so the image of a Buddha surrounded by emanating rays of light is manifested when lit in the right way.
Sung discovered the magic almost by accident. Last year, she was redesigning a display in the museum’s Buddhist gallery and was searching for a relevant artifact to include. She recalled the mirror, which had actually been on display in 2017 as part of a special exhibit of ancient Japanese armor. As she was 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 called theirs magic because of the hidden Buddha image. Perhaps Cincinnati’s mirror was magic too, she thought.
Working with a museum conservator, she tested the mirror, shining a light onto 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 from that period are known: 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, which spell the name Amitābha Buddha. “‘The Buddha of Infinite Light’ is the translation,” Sung says. “If believers invoke the Buddha’s name, you are saved. That’s why the name is on the back.”
She believes the museum acquired the mirror in 1961 but was likely brought to Cincinnati long before that. The museum started collecting East Asian artifacts in 1881, Sung says, but the standards of museum curation were different then and many of the objects dating to that period have little information with them. That’s where the curator’s researching and detective work come in.
On the back of the mirror are six Chinese letters, which spell the name Amitabha Buddha.“I’m still researching it,” 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 display it all. In the late 19th century, Cincinnati was a thriving hub of commerce, an industrial city with wealthy collectors, civic leaders, medical missionaries, and others who were able to explore Japan, China, and other East Asian countries the Far East. They brought back important and rare objects which are no longer possible to collect these days, Sung says. Many of them were ultimately donated the to the museum, gifts that shaped the core of its East Asian collection.
“This the most exciting part of my job,” she says. “Discovering stories behind the art.”
She recalls finding two suits of ancient Japanese armor in the collection that had no identifying tags or numbers that might have referred to how and when they were acquired. She went to work. After some research, she found that they were purchased in order to raise money for two Japanese girls to come to the U.S. The pieces were sold to raise enough money so they could attend medical school, and eventually both became doctors.
The Buddha mirror, she says, was created hundreds of years ago to give people a blessing. “I think it will give our city and our museum some blessing,” 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 artful furnishings. The museum has conserved and displayed a lavish bedroom designed by a Viennese architect in the 1920s. Joseph Urban was a prolific illustrator, scenic designer, and architect who trained in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. He embraced the modern art of the time. He moved to the states in 1911 to become the art director of the Boston Opera. He became a sought-after set designer, working in in film and architecture. He created set designs for the Metropolitan Opera, the Ziegfeld Follies, and Hollywood films; worked on the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair; designed interiors for Mar-a-Lago (yes, that one, built by Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1927); and the roof garden of Cincinnati’s now-demolished Hotel Gibson.
In one of his final commissions, he designed a bedroom for 17-year-old Elaine Wormser, who lived with her parents in Chicago’s prestigious Drake Tower. The Wormser Bedroom features striking combinations of colors and patterns, 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 and brought the opulently designed bedroom with them, including the custom wall-to-wall carpet. The room’s elements were donated to museum by Elaine in 1973, and now form the largest collection of Urban-designed furnishings held by a public institution, the museum says. 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 understanding of the room was based solely on black-and-white photos, she says, which failed to display the combinations of color, pattern, and finish that designer Urban was known for.
“The process of reconstructing the room has been a revelation,” she says. This exhibition will help reveal Urban’s contributions to American Modernism, “as well as the bold messaging that women like Elaine Wormser projected when choosing the avant-garde style over backward-looking historical fashions,” she says.
"Unlocking an Art Deco Bedroom" by Joseph Urban will be on view until view until Oct. 2 in galleries 232 and 233. Tickets for the exhibition are $12, with discounted rates for students, children, and seniors. Admission is free for members. The exhibition will be free every Thursday evening from 5–8 p.m.
The magic mirror can be viewed for free in the museum's East Asian Gallery (Gallery 140).