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Here are three different fluted ewers from medieval China which exemplify Longquan-type celadon. This style of porcelain (or stoneware, if you ascribe to a purely western methodology of ceramics terminology) was abundantly produced in the kilns of Zhejian and Fujian from about 950 AD to 1550 AD. The characteristic blue-green and gray-green colors are the result of iron oxide glazes fired at temperatures around 1250C in a reducing atmosphere (which is to say the oxygen-deficient atmosphere of the dragon kilns where they were made).

Longquan Fluted Ewer with Lid, late Southern Song Dynasty

Of course the real point of this post is to appreciate the beauty of these ancient ewers. I particularly like fluted pieces because the elegant vertical lines go so very well with the simple round melon/pumpkin shapes. Likewise, the understated green glaze color (along with the fleabites and brown patches of irregular glaze) are particularly suited to this sort of pot. They look like they grew on a magical vine in some immortal’s secret garden! Even the texture–which is perfectly smooth and glossy, yet also has appealing pits, bumps, and micropatterns–seems strangely alive.

These three ewers are arranged from oldest (top) to most recently produced (bottom). The top piece is from the Northern Song Dynasty when the Song emperor controlled both the north and south of China. The middle piece is from the southern Song (when the imperial capital moved to Hangzhou a city not so far from Longquan which was the center of these sorts of crafts).

The last piece is a Yuan piece from the era of Mongol hegemony and seems to have a different feel from the other pieces (so much so, that it is the most questionable of all of the pieces). Yet its gorgeous shape and color mean I must include it. As a final note, it is worth mentioning that part of the beauty of these works is in their utility and strength. They were all built robustly enough that they are here in pristine shape after a thousand tumultuous years of Chinese history. All of them have highly functional and thermodynamically efficient designs which, in the end, are not so different from the modern machine-made English teapot which I use every day. Indeed, considering where tea and porcelain originated, they are all ancestors of my teapot

Longquan Pumpkin Shaped Ewere Yuan Dynasty
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At its best, Chinese calligraphy is ineffably beautiful and seems to come from some transcendent celestial realm. Of course, in reality, such art doesn’t come from heaven at all. Instead it comes from distracted scholarly human beings carefully writing with bristle brushes sopping with India ink which, trust me, will not wash out of any textile. Indeed India ink stains most things other than the most impervious vitreous surfaces [sadly looks at black stipples, spots, and spatters on desk]. The Chinese attempted to coral this problem by manufacturing a class of small porcelain objects for the literati–exquisite brush rests! My favorite of these were made during the Ming Dynasty when handicraft cobalt glazed porcelain reached its aesthetic zenith.

Brush-rest with Arabic Script in Underglaze Blue, China-Ming Zhengde Period (1506–21)

Here is a little gallery of little Ming brush rests. I have great confidence in the authenticity of the first five of these rests which follow a familiar silk-road pattern (note the Persian and Arabic characters, which, I am told, say things like “brush stand” and “pen rest”). It is exciting to see how individual artisans take different directions with very similar designs and elements. Indeed, in the first two examples at the top, you can see how different glaze painters literally followed the same pattern (slavishly copying from a template was very common in the great Ming porcelain production centers–but the results strike our industrialized sensibilities as being quite markedly different).

The brush holders also exemplify how the glories of Ming ornamental design come from a mishmash of Chinese, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern sources. Even if the little stylized blue vines and flowers are clearly cobalt they still look realistic and seem as though they might wither if not watered or sprout additional buds.

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Although these last two brush rests are different than the rest, the one above is pretty obviously a real Ming piece. The brush holder which seems out of place (and is not in the collection of the Met or the British Museum or the Liang Yi Museum) is the final one. I am of two minds about it. Although the super glossy porcelain has the look of real dynastic porcelain (along with some of the little brown spots and flea bites which are invariably found in actual handmade goods from Medieval China), there is something fishy about those ribbon-y scholars. I love the overall shape though and the the expressiveness of those escarpment rocks on the first and fourth peaks. I guess you will have to be the judge about the last one on your own.

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I have conflicted feelings about Ai Weiwei (arguably China’s most renowned contemporary artist). On one hand his work can be undeniably powerful. He and I went to the same art school (The dear old Art Students’ League of New York) and he is fearless: it takes true courage to stand as a gadfly to the world’s most powerful authoritarian state. Yet, on the other hand, his work partakes obsessively of Warhol’s solipsistic narcissism. Ai exemplifies the toxic studio system which has erased handicraft mastery from art (although, arguably, that very point is a big part of his work) and he has so blurred the lines between art and politics that I wonder if he is not a Chinese politician rather than a Chinese artist. I realize as I write this, that all of these “counter” points could be construed in his favor (and they are certainly the larger part of the reason he has found such immense international success). So my ambiguous feelings about Ai Weiwei probably have to do with my ambiguous feelings about art and politics: which are twin disciplines in a way which is not readily apparent at first. We will explore that kinship and tension later this year as we ask what the purpose of art is anyway (and what the purpose of politics is too—other than to aggrandize a bunch of hypocritical elites).
But, for today, I want to uncritically praise Ai Weiwei because I love the new series he has produced.
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Longtime readers know my love of Chinese porcelain—especially the justly famous cobalt glaze blue-and-white ware which was created in the Yuan Dynasty but flowered into its greatest glory during the Ming Dynasty. Ai Weiwei has used the techniques and style of Ming blue-and-white porcelain to produce a majestic series which exemplifies timeless beauty of the form yet with fully contemporary subjects. The resulting pieces are masterworks. They underline tricky questions about China, art, power, individuals, society, and coercion throughout the ages.
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Naturally they are produced by unknown artisans whom Ai Weiwei enslaved and exploited. But that dynamic also undergirded original Ming ceramic masterpieces (which were made by unknown artisans). Additionally, everything is made that way today. Look around your computer (and AT your computer) unless you are reading this in the far future or are an eccentric potentate, it was all made in a Chinese sweatshop. And the work, with its themes of refugees, escape, conflict, and striving, has a pathos and a human element absent from the courtly dragons, serene pine, and magical peaches of the originals.
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It is amazing stuff. Maybe he can redeem himself in my eyes for smashing a Han urn as a publicity stunt (although I am sure that where he is now laughing atop a pile of money as art curators genuflect before him, my good esteem may not be at the forefront of his concerns)

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One of the great classical forms of Chinese porcelain is the Lonquan ewer. These green-glazed wine vessels are named for the the Longquan kiln complex in (what is now the) Zhejiang province of South China. The ewers originated in the Song dynasty and the form was characteristic up until the Ming dynasty—but perhaps the heyday of Lonquan ware was during the Yuan dynasty when Mongols ruled China. I suspect most (or all) of these examples are from the Yuan dynasty. Look at the beautiful pear form of the vessels and the sinuous grace of the handles.

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I apologize: I got sort of a late jump on writing my blog post today (it is already 2:00 AM tomorrow), so it is going to be predominantly visual…but that’s ok.  Explaining this business wouldn’t help anyway.  These are “magical” prophetic teacups.  Apparently as the querant (?) drinks his or her tea (or whatever mystical brew they favor) bits are left by atop the various symbols.  Gifted diviners (snicker) can use these portents to peer into the murky future.

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I’m, uh, not so sure about all of that, but the cups are beautiful in their own right and I really can’t stop looking at all the magnificent little animals and daggers and what have you.  Somebody should make a contemporary version…or, then again, maybe not…it would probably be little robots and carbon atoms and mushroom clouds and corporate brands.  Better to stick with snakes and spinning wheels.

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Let’s extend chicken week for one more glorious day with this exquisite ewer from Ancient China.  This stoneware chicken vessel was made in the 4th or 5th century in the Eastern Jin Dynasty—the the most empire-like entity to emerge from the chaos and wars of the Three Kingdoms period (some might note that the hideous Three Kingdom Phase of Chinese history contains many valuable lesson about what happens when great nations start to bicker internally and form strongly antagonistic regional factions).  The Jin dynasty was a pathetic broken shard of the glory that was the Han dynasty however they made fine chicken shaped ewers and this is one.  I particularly like the chicken’s little tube-shaped beak/spout, anxious eyes, and abstruse comb.  The piece is a sort or subtle celadon green with dark spots where dabs of iron oxide were deliberately sprinkled over the green glaze.

Quingbai Ewer (Song Dynasty, porcelain) Zetterquist Galleries

Quingbai Ewer (Song Dynasty, porcelain) Zetterquist Galleries

China has a long (and continuing) history of exquisite art, but many aesthetes and Sinophiles feel that the apogee of Chinese craft came during the Song Dynasty (960 AD – 1279 AD).  Now I am not sure I agree with the Song purists to that degree, but the work of that era is indeed particularly lovely. Additionally, Song creative forms became the standard templates followed and improved upon in seceding dynasties.  Here is a beautiful Song dynasty ewer with a pale blue glaze which illustrates the winsome delicacy of form characteristic of the time.  Note how elegantly the slender handle and spout curve into the flower petal body.  A little carnivore sits on the stopper: a dog or wolf or cat? This pale blue green color is known as quingbai (“blue-white”).  It is a pale translucent blue green over white and it is one of the characteristic trademarks of the era.  It is a wonderful little vessel!

Large bowl with design of miniature potted plants (Ming dynasty, Jiajing mark and period,  Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province,  Porcelain; underglaze blue-and-white; Tianminlou collection)

Large bowl with design of miniature potted plants (Ming dynasty, Jiajing mark and period, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, Porcelain; underglaze blue-and-white; Tianminlou collection)

It’s been a while since we had any posts about how beautiful trees are. Therefore here are two Ming Dynasty bowls which feature tree art. The first bowl above is rather large and dates back to the reign of the Jiajing emperor (which lasted from 1521 AD to 1567 AD). The Jiajing emperor was a noted loon who believed absolutely in magical portents and auspicious signs—which in turn made him a pawn to corrupt court officials who used the monarch’s credulity as an opportunity to steal and/or ruin everything. However the emperor’s obsession with magic meant that Jiajing-era porcelain was marked by a beautiful sense of occult whimsy and Taoist fantasy. This bowl shows four different potted plants: a cypress, a pine, a peach, and a bamboo which are growing in a beautiful garden filled with butterflies, cicadas, and dragonflies. The plants are shaped in the form of four different auspicious words fu, shou, kang, and ning (happiness, long life, health, and composure).

Blue and white Ming Bowl with garden scenes (Chenghua reign marks)

Blue and white Ming Bowl with garden scenes (Chenghua reign marks)

Interior scene from the Chenghua bowl

Interior scene from the Chenghua bowl

The second bowl is smaller and arguably finer. It also shows a garden scene bounded beneath by two ornamental borders of extreme elegance and beauty. A dwarf flower tree is bursting into blossom among spring foliage (the opposite side of the bowl shows a bamboo grove). Inside the bowl is a beautiful miniature garden of rocks, bamboo, and flowering trees. The tiny bowl was manufactured during the Chenghua reign (from between 1464 AD and 1487 AD) which was a troubled era of court intrigues and palace murders (which took place at the orders of the villainous concubine, Lady Wan). This little bowl, however, is exquisite and seems to have escaped the shadows of its era. For half a millennium the tiny perfect Ming garden has been blooming in delicate shades of cobalt glaze.

Detail

Detail

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

Last week Ferrebeekeeper featured a delicate porcelain cup from the Ming Dynasty. I was going to let you think about it for a while before showing more Chinese porcelain, but the news of the world has intervened with my plans. Behold the famous Meiyintang Chenghua Chicken Cup which was made in mid 15th century China.

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

Made of delicate white paste porcelain, the cup is quite charming. A bold rooster struts vainly through a garden of prayer stones and red flowers while a pragmatic hen snatches up bugs with her beak. Around the pair is a little flock of endearing chicks. The scene is almost exactly copied on the opposite side (as you can see in this futuristic albeit mildly sinister wrap-around photo).

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

The cup has spawned countless imitations—you could go to a Chinese market and buy endless chicken cups of plastic and porcelain for not very much money. Yet the reason that the original cup has made waves in the international news is not because of its beauty or its legacy but instead because of the sky high price which it commanded at auction today (April 8, 2014) in Hong Kong. Sotheby’s auction house reports that the chicken cup sold for a record 36 million US dollars (well, really 281.2 million Hong Kong dollars to be exact). For comparison Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 for 7.2 million dollars (although if we adjust for inflation, that price goes up a good deal).

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The cup was made in the Ming dynasty during the reign of Emperor Chenghua (who ruled from 1464-1487). Emperor Chenghua was the father of the renowned and righteous Hongzhi Emperor whose reign was a high water mark for the Ming. The story of Emperor Hongzhi’s boyhood however is one of terror and fear. The young crown prince was nearly snuffed out by the infamous Lady Wan, an imperial concubine of Emperor Chenghua who tried to consolidate power by surreptitiously killing off all of the emperor’s male heirs (and all of his other favorite concubines to boot). The turmoil and corruption at court spread far and wide.

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

I wonder if the unknown artisan—or team of artisans—who made this little cup were thinking about the problems in the imperial court and in society as they churned out a big batch of chicken cups long ago. I also wonder how they would react to the fact that this one somehow survived more than 500 years of war, upheaval, and change to end up being sold for more than a lord’s estate.

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In dynastic China, the color yellow was considered to be the most beautiful and prestigious color. Yellow was symbolically linked with the land itself and the turning of tao: thus yellow became associated with the mandate of heaven–the emperor’s divine prerogative over the middle kingdom. Huang Di, the mythical first emperor of China (who was worshiped as a culture hero and a powerful magician/sage) was more commonly known as “the yellow emperor”. Yellow was extensively employed in the decoration of the royal palaces and the royal personage. During the Ming dynasty, when a yellow glaze was discovered for porcelain, it was initially the exclusive provenance of the imperial household.

A Ming Dynasty Stem Cup (ca. 1488-1505)

A Ming Dynasty Stem Cup (ca. 1488-1505)

Here is a stem-cup in imperial yellow from the Ming dynasty. It bears the mark of the Hongzhi period (Hongzhi reigned from 1487-1505). A five clawed dragon, the symbol of the emperor crawls along the side of the piece. The cup perfectly exemplifies the elegant lines and perfect calligraphic grace of middle Ming aesthetic ideas. Additionally the age of the hardworking and morally upstanding Hongzhi was an era of peace and happiness. Alone among all Chinese emperors in history, Hongzhi elected to marry a single wife and keep no concubines. Palace intrigues were thus kept to an all-time low (although the plan backfired somewhat when his sole heir took up a life of prodigal indulgence).

The Hongzhi Emperor in a yellow robe

The Hongzhi Emperor in a yellow robe

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