Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Antique ceramics at Penn State's Palmer Museum

Porcelain teapot - Yongzheng reign (1723-1735)

Cup and plate from the same tea set
China has produced and exported so many fine ceramics during its history that you don't have to travel to China or Taiwan to see wonderful artifacts. On the contrary, given the troubles of the second world war, the civil war and the cultural revolution, there are comparatively few pieces on the Mainland.

So, a travel to almost any city in America or in Europe provides an opportunity to visit a museum that exhibits antique ceramics from China. The Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State is no exception. In this article, I would like to share some of exquisite pieces I have seen there this spring, when I traveled there during the Tea Institute's Puerh exhibition.

This gilt and enameled tea set featuring a peacock shows that Chinese merchants had a good understanding of the tastes of European nobility and knew what would sell well! The design of the cup and saucer was so fitting that it has hardly changed since! They represent classic European elegance and wealth. However, the lines of the teapot and cup are quite simple and the white porcelain isn't perfect (see the black dots inside the cup).
Sung dynasty bowls
Sung dynasty pottery did to ceramics what Bach did to music. It established a unity of purpose and meaning that has become a classic, a standard for future generations. That's why this broken bowl has been repaired with gold. It shows how highly regarded these bowls were and still are.

Can you feel the power, the stability, the harmony glowing from these bowls? Why is something that looks so simple, almost common, so special? Nowadays, tea drinkers mostly use tea bowls to dispose the waste water. But during the Sung dynasty, the bowl was both the ware where tea powder turned into a tea brew and from which they drank the tea (a teapot and cup in one!) 

Sung bowls have also become standards for today's rice bowls. For tea, they are where function and beauty intersect. Perfect from both points of view. It's an ideal still worth pursuing today: an inspiration to raise our game and expect more elegance from our teaware.
Cizhou ware comes from northern China and is more austere. The greyish or red clay used is very common and that's why it way covered with a white, creamy engobe. But what distinguishes this type of ware is the dark brown paint brushed on the pottery. The literati liked this style of ware a lot because the paint reminded them of their (black on white) calligraphy ; besides, many literati were relatively poor (compared to merchants and the court) and this type ware was more affordable than more colorful ceramics). The power and elegance of each brush is what we can enjoy even without any knowledge of Chinese culture!
Below, we can see that this style has inspired Bernard Leach (author of the classic A Potter's Book, 1940). He has led a renewal of Western pottery that is based on the study and understanding of Asian ceramic culture and history. This piece by Bernard Leach shows how the present is linked to the past. Thanks to ancient ceramics, we don't have to start from scratch. They establish a certain classic standard against which we can compare what we see today. This should help us, users of ceramics, to make better informed choices on what to purchase and use.
Seeing beauty can be a deeply personal and moving experience. This mourning figure wears a quiet and dignified sadness on her face. Her bare white hand expresses a gentle compassion. She looks right into your soul with her swollen eyes.
Qing dynasty mourning figure
These art pieces have achieved to move and inspire us long after the death of their makers. Can we can celebrate art and beauty by striving to live up to their standards of refinement and elegance in our daily lives? It's not easy, but this would a worthy quest. Such road may start with a visit to a museum this summer! 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I just Love materials with ceramics