Friday, March 02, 2012

How to appreciate a teapot. The basic and the potter perspectives

As with Chinese calligraphy, you don't need to be Chinese a sinologist or even a tea drinker to appreciate the beauty of a teapot. An excellent article makes this point about calligraphy and this gave me the inspiration for this post. There are many levels to look at and understand a teapot. Starting with our basic perceptions is a good way to start, even for experts.

1. Basic perceptions:
Our brain perceives the world with a whole range of filters. We apply them so often and automatically that we hardly notice them anymore.

a. The sense of touch
Simply holding the teapot in our hands conveys a lot of information about the material the teapot is made from. Is it hard, porous, light, soft...? How rough is the inside of the teapot compared to the outside? How natural does it feel and how pleasant is it to hold and touch the teapot?

b. The sense of balance
Our brain is pleased and at ease when it sees something well balanced. On the contrary, if we see something unbalanced, we feel afraid it might fall and break. This makes the picture below quite disturbing to watch.
Chinese teapot makers have even come up with a water test to measure the balance of a simply designed teapot: see if the teapot floats on water. Hence the name of these teapots: shui ping hu (water balance teapots).

3-dimensional, a teapot can be looked at from various angles. A round body more or less preserves this sense of balance from wherever we look at it.  
c. Facial recognition
Quickly recognizing a friendly expression or an enemy is a basic survival instinct. Our brain is always scanning our surroundings for danger. On the other hand, one of the very first comforting shape we have all encountered is... our mother's bosom. We fed from it when we were hungry and it always came with a warm embrace. This probably explains why we feel more mellow and peaceful when we see something round, while sharp edges, rectangular shapes feel more aggressive.

If you take the spout and handle away, the basic shape of most round teapots with a curved lid and a pierced knob on top is reminiscent of a female breast. No wonder most teapot collectors are males! So, maybe there's also some sexual drive behind teapot appreciation. But I think it's still mostly relates to recognizing a comforting 'mother's bosom'.

d. Rhythm, interaction
After getting a first global impression based on the whole, our brain continues to analyze what it sees by breaking it down in smaller pieces. The teapot becomes a body, a spout, a lid with a knob and a handle. Notice how our eyes go over the teapot, stopping at the 3 focal points: the spout, the knob and the handle. How do these elements interact with each other?

2. From a potter's perspective

Knowledge of how teapots are made further helps to appreciate the skills of the teapot.

a, Shaping
Yixing clay, for instance, is flattened like a long sheet of paper and then folded into a circular shape to make the body. That's why potters will feel inside the teapot to find where the connection of both sides of the sheet of clay is made. On the outside, this connection should be made seamless. On the inside, it shouldn't really matter.  

The devil is always in the detail, so it's in the detail that we can spot makers with skill and patience. Long, thin and slightly bent walls below the lid are more difficult to make than short walls at a 90 degrees angle. This is one of the details that gives you a hint of the maker's skills.

Another small detail is the attention given to the knob. This is the central point of the teapot and a spot that will be often touched. Like the first sentence in a book, the knob should grasp the essence of the design of the whole teapot.

b. Firing
The sense of sound tells how high the temperature climbed in the kiln. The sound of the lid falling (just a couple of millimeters) on the rim of the teapot is high pitched if the clay has sufficiently hardened. But it will be low pitched if the clay was fired with a low temperature (and/or if the clay is particularly porous).

A problem with high temperatures in the kiln is deformation, so it's a big challenge to fire all pieces at the right temperature. Because another challenge is that temperature varies from place to place in traditional kilns. These variations are smaller in modern electric or gas kilns, though.

(In my next article, I will look at the appreciation of teapots from an experienced tea drinker's perspective).


ahnn said...
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merlin said...

Bonjour Stéphane,

est-ce que tu comptes écrire cet article en français ? Je te demande ça car il m'intéresse beaucoup, et je ne suis pas vraiment perfectionné en anglais :-)

Merci beaucoup !


Hélène said...

Please, Stéphane ! Envisages-tu de transcrire ce post en français afin que les non anglophones aiguisés puissent en saisir les nuances !
Merci beaucoup !

Ethan said...

Everybody wants French! Thanks for the great article, Stephane!

Alicha McHugh said...

Not everyone :) Thank you for the English!

Stephane said...

J'ai écrit assez simplement et la traduction automatique donne d'assez bons résultats:

merlin said...

D'accord, pas de problème.

Je demandais cela car souvent je recensais des articles écrits en français et en anglais parlant de la même chose.

C'était donc pour savoir si ça valait la peine d'attendre ou que je le traduise illico :-)

Merci encore pour cet article, sinon !