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A Remarkably Versatile Metal

The Asian Art Museum holds a wealth of stunning art worked in gold, from sculptures to textiles to paintings. 
Bodhisattvas descending from paradise detail
Bodhisattvas descending from paradise (detail), approx. 1300. Japan. Ink, colors, and gold on silk. Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B60D34+. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.
Some of these works have never been displayed, while others have been hiding in plain sight in the museum galleries. Some are obviously made of gold, while others incorporate gold in ways that may not be immediately apparent.     

Gold appears on so many artworks from across Asia in large part due to its unique physical and symbolic qualities. Physically, gold is the most ductile of metals. Indeed, a single ounce of gold can theoretically be spun into a wire 1,250 miles long without breaking. From an artistic perspective, such spun gold can be drawn out into minute wires perfect for creating Indonesian jewelry, for example, or even finer threads for embroidery on Indian textiles.  

Gold is also the most malleable of metals, so much so that a single ounce of gold can be pounded into sheets 0.1 microns thick; a thousand such sheets would be about as thick as a standard sheet of paper. From an artistic perspective, fine sheets of thin, cut gold can be used to create luminous figures in Japanese paintings, for example. Gold leaf also has important ritual functions, especially for the renewal of sacred imagery.
 

Finally, gold is among the least reactive of metals, which means it will not react chemically even with oxygen; this is why gold does not tarnish or rust. For the artist, gold’s low level of chemical reactivity means that an object worked in gold has an excellent chance of lasting a long time. Taken together, these three physical qualities make it possible for a little gold to go a long way.

Birds flowers and landscapes
Birds, flowers, and landscapes, approx. 1920–1930. China. Jade, gold, and wood. Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B60J978. Photograph © Asian Art Museum.