Taft Museum of Art through April 7
by Fran Watson
It doesn’t take much to excite lovers of Chinese art, which makes the 14 pieces of Kangxi porcelain on exhibit in the Sinton Gallery of the Taft Museum a true holiday for such aficionados. It’s also a great opportunity to discover the elegant detail of Chinese porcelain. Stories illustrated on them are so far from today that it’s difficult to untangle them. The multiple gods and goddesses are on a level of confusion with Bullfinch’s Mythology. The best way to extract the sweetest portions of this art is to allow your eyes to feast on the era’s images and unparalleled skill. The articles are happily arranged for closer inspection than when viewed in the normal gallery format.
There is little of originality in Qing Dynasty porcelain. Its purpose was flagrant propaganda. Since the Dynasty was begun as conquest, and had no grounds in heritage, emperors found their voices in the decor of porcelain, all of which followed a tradition to which the Qing had no legitimate right: the old “picture worth a thousand words” trick. Popular ancient legends and fictional heros were beautifully placed in idealized settings. Toaist gods and goddesses appeared over and over as appropriate stories from the great kilns of Ching-te-Chen. Plates adorned with symbols of peace and prosperity were given to the favored courtiers as gifts on the birthdays of the emperors. And not least, the exportation of these prized pieces was a huge source of income for Qing emperors.
Mrs. Taft’s collection of about 200 pieces of Kangxi porcelain was acquired in bulk purchases, in part from J.P. Morgan’s collection. I refer to it as “Mrs. Taft’s” because it was purchased via the happy circumstance of fashion. “Chinoiserie” was the ruling style of the early 20th century, and Mrs. Taft followed fashion. While others purchased imitations, she could easily afford the originals.
“Immortal Vessels” offers some close-ups of fantastic design. Two porcelain lamp shades in the first case display lacy edges, delicate flowers, and a nice pastiche of good luck wishes in the persons of three immortals, gods who have great powers while maintaining touch with human foibles. Here, the powers are blessings, success and longevity. This last individual is displayed as a particularly unattractive man with a huge head. The entire surface of the rounded shades is nearly covered with delicate color in the best tradition of rococo design.
A fine pinkish-beige bottle vase given a heavy application of copper glaze echoes the oxblood vases in the music room of the museum. This popular glaze produced textures and markings in great variety with each application through the nature of the glaze under high heat firing. A small black bottle gourd in the same case ventures into the kingdom of magic. These bottles were intended for liquor, medicines, and a bit of sorcery-related contents. Just as the heavily decorated pieces each tell a specific story, so does this gourd shape dictate its use.
An especially interesting part of this show are recently conserved works. The finished conservation is so well executed that it is not possible to perceive the former damage with the naked eye. Photographs assist in explaining the locations and sizes of damage, and the reasons for the conservation, often attributed to former awkward or unacceptable mending. This little corner also points out the big difference between just mending and quality conservation.
Here also are pieces decorated with the favorite color of the Western world, cobalt blue. This color was chosen especially for Delft china in Holland. It was also the most life-threatening for workers assigned to produce it. Colbalt is poisonous, and the processing of the ore for its use on porcelain was truly dangerous. Two small vases in the last part of the display are named ”powder -blue”. Cobalt is blown through a tube with a piece of cloth on the end to facilitate an even application. A white space is stenciled off to be later painted with lovely ladies. The worker whose job it was to blow the powder onto the vase would have inhaled cobalt somewhat in the process, with eventual fatal results.
There were an estimated 1,000,000 people who worked in Ching-te-Chen producing delicate, quality porcelain in an assembly line manufacturing process. Those too old or too young to be of use in the actual production were put to work at tasks requiring no special skill. Creativity had no place in this production, since every design had to be approved by the emperor.
One unusual appearance in this exhibit is a large enamel basin. It looks very much like other Kangxi porcelains, but is actually enamel applied to a copper basin. The presence of such an unexpected technique makes one wonder about the Chinese connection to European art, and vice versa. European courts were not unacquainted with Kangxi designs. Perhaps the enamel, so popular in European art inspired the Chinese, while there is a remarkable connection between 17th century French rococo tastes and much that is seen adorning Ching-te-Chen art of the same period.
Photos: Lantern shade with Three Star Gods of Daoism
Pair of rouleau vases: Powder blue.
Bottle vase : Pale copper glaze l931.113