Fragile beauty

[b]The Chinese porcelain and ceramics collection displayed as part of permanent exposition at the Belarusian National Art Museum provides for a possibility to get to know the immense variety of cultural traditions in this country[/b]China has always been world famous for its porcelain, with ceramics and porcelain included into the highest achievements of Chinese civilization. Porcelain products enjoyed great demand not only in China proper, but far and wide beyond its borders. Porcelain fancy articles, which first got into the Medieval Europe by accident, were treated like relics of immense value.The fictile art has a history which is over three thousand years long. Porcelain proper was first manufactured in China approximately in the sixth-seventh century, when the technology and input components selection became improved to the extent that it was possible to obtain articles of pure white colour and excellent finesse.
The Chinese porcelain and ceramics collection displayed as part of permanent exposition at the Belarusian National Art Museum provides for a possibility to get to know the immense variety
of cultural traditions in this country


China has always been world famous for its porcelain, with ceramics and porcelain included into the highest achievements of Chinese civilization. Porcelain products enjoyed great demand not only in China proper, but far and wide beyond its borders. Porcelain fancy articles, which first got into the Medieval Europe by accident, were treated like relics of immense value.
The fictile art has a history which is over three thousand years long. Porcelain proper was first manufactured in China approximately in the sixth-seventh century, when the technology and input components selection became improved to the extent that it was possible to obtain articles of pure white colour and excellent finesse.
The China ceramics and porcelain collection at the Belarusian National Art Museum, comprising about 120 pieces, is rather modest in size, its first exhibits delivered to the museum from Beijing in 1957 to be later supplemented with ceramic and porcelain pieces donated by the State Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow. The rest of the exhibits from the collection were bought from private collectors in Minsk.
The most ancient exhibits from the museum collection date as far back as the Ming Dynasty age, comprising porcelain and ceramic pieces manufactured in Longquan, Zhejiang province, and Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, which are underglaze decorated with cobalt paint. The best of celadon technique is embodied in articles covered with a greenish-grey glaze formed by adding ferrous oxide. According to one version, the term ‘celadon’ originated from Arab ‘saladun’ (eng. ‘solid’), while another one says that it was Celadon, a character of the seventeenth century most popular French novel ‘Astree’ by Honore d’Urfe, who gave this technique its name due to the greenish-grey ribbons he wore. The finest pieces are believed to be those manufactured by the Song dynasty craftsmen (Х — ХIIIth centuries), though Longquan ceramists of the second half of the fourteenth — early fifteenth century were still able to manufacture pieces of a quality equal to that of the Song ones. In the National Art Museum collection, celadon pieces are not numerous, comprising a brush cleaning jar, a bottle and a vase. Their exact age is difficult to identify, even for stuff as experienced as that working for the Minsk museum; however, there’s a number of technical characteristics (such as ceramic body colour, glaze) which make it possible to conclude, with a certain degree of credibility, that those celadon pieces were manufactured in the late fifteenth — early seventeenth century.
According to the museum treasurers, the Chinese brush cleaning jar is the most ancient piece of art in the collection displayed at the Belarus’ major museum. It is notable that the craftsman who manufactured the piece followed traditional Song patterns, covering the jar with greenish-grey dark-streaked glaze, while the unglazed ceramic fragment in the jar bottom testifies that the piece dates as far back as the late fifteenth — early seventeenth century. The bottle, covered with a glaze of amazing grey-blue colour and adorned with a low relief scene, is also possible to identify as belonging to the same age.
Song celadon and early Ming Dynasty pieces boast floral patterns, geometrical ornaments, and, in rare cases, fish or bird images, either engraved or carved in soft dough. The fact the unknown craftsman who manufactured the bottle uses anthropomorphous images testifies to its later origin. The attribution is confirmed by the thick, slightly greyish ceramic body colour, whereas, for earlier pieces, it is typical to have a red-brown ceramic body in their unglazed bottom fragments. The vase, its floral ornament comprising twisting stalks, leaves and big lotus flowers carved in dough and covered with a greenish glaze, was manufactured in the celadon decline period, right in the end of the Ming Dynasty rule. Taken the greyish ceramic body, the sharp coloration and the carelessly done ornamentation, the vase can be concluded to have been manufactured in the early XVIIth century, when pieces from Longquan kilns had lost much of their renowned quality, their manufacture gradually coming to a halt.
The emperor’s seal with underglaze cobalt painting manufactured in Jingdezhen pertains to the Ming Dynasty period. Chinese craftsmen had used cobalt to paint white porcelain surfaces since Yuan rule (1280—1367), creating a wonderful aesthetic effect against white and blue backgrounds. The Ming Dynasty period is the time when underglaze cobalt painting became wide-spread. The technique is complex and requires great skill. Paint is applied onto an unglazed ceramic body. Once painted, the piece is then glazed and burnt at 1350—1400?C. The seal from the Minsk collection is covered with a solid, hastefully running painting, using pale, slightly greyish cobalt, which makes it possible to date it as far back as the late Wanli rule (1573—1620), when Jingdezhen articles lost much in their quality and quantity due to the tricky political and economic situation within the country.
Another range of articles displayed at the Belarusian National Art Museum, comprising the seventeenth — early twentieth century porcelain and ceramics, is the most numerous, being represented by various periods within the Qing Dynasty rule (1644—1911). The pieces of the late seventeenth — eighteenth century, manufactured during Kangxi (1662—1722), Yongzheng (1723—1735), Qianlong (1736—1796) rule, are distinguished by their multiple painting patterns and shapes. In the first half of the seventeenth century, China experienced significant political changes. The year 1644 saw the rise of the foreign Manchu-origin Qing Dynasty, the country involved in a war and a series of anti-Manchu riots. The once thriving Chinese economy, its power gradually built up during the Ming rule, was undermined, which, of course, could not but have an adverse effect on the ceramic manufacture. Almost all of Jingdezhen kilns were destroyed, and it was only during Kangxi rule, the second emperor from the Qing Dynasty, that the once great ceramic centre activities began to be revived. Burning kilns for porcelain were being restored at rapid pace, with Ming Dynasty times output reached as early as in 1680. During Kangxi rule, ceramists focused on improving porcelain patterns and techniques. It was the time when luminous monochrome glazes with finest shade gradations, requiring quality burning, reached their peak popularity. The most wide-spread patterns included glazes, such as “red sacrifice,” “apple colour,” “tea leaf colour,” ”yellow fish scales.” The museum’s collection includes a small vase, shaped as a double pumpkin and covered with an exquisite dark-olive glaze, which can serve as a perfect example of the Kangxi period monochrome articles from Jingdezhen.
The second half of the seventeenth century — the early eighteenth century are also notable for development of traditional painting techniques, such as blue underglaze, polychrome overglaze and a complex decoration technique, combining underglaze cobalt painting and overglaze enamel painting. The latter technique was used for a high cylindrical vase with a bell-mouth and a small swelling in its body centre on a display at the National Art Museum. The vase boasts three horizontal belts with picturesque ornaments: the one at the top features women, dancing and playing musical instruments in a garden, while, somewhat lower, one can see blooming peonies and peach tree branches. It should be noted that, in general, overglaze painting in green shades, its major colour being intensive green, dominate Chinese porcelain decoration patterns of the late seventeenth — early eighteenth century. Craftsmen also used yellow, purple, blue and black colours. The cylindrical vase exhibited at the Minsk museum features birds on a blooming cherry plum tree and peony bushes, which symbolize the spring onset and are painted on symmetrically arranged figured imprints. It is evident that while employing the popular ‘birds and flowers’ pattern, the craftsman constructs the painting as an unrolling scenery, the deep green background with flowers and spiral curls still more contributing to the effect.
It needs to be borne in mind that the trend towards revival of porcelain art, typical of Kangxi times, can be observed throughout the subsequent Yongzheng rule, the period being the big come back of the Song Dynasty aesthetics. The porcelain articles of that time are distinguished by their finesse, fragility and exquisite decor, monochrome patterns prevailing and the complex underglaze engraving technique enjoying its revival. Porcelain underglaze cobalt paintings also managed to retain the best of the old school and were still in great demand, though later the blue underglaze painting would go out of fashion, superseded by the polychrome porcelain.
The 20-30’s of the eighteenth century gave rise to a new polychrome painting technique, the so-called ‘rose range,’ which contributed to further thrive of ‘birds and flowers’ patterns. Pieces from this range have a new special collaurin-based rose paint introduced into their colour palette. The Meihua tree in blossom (a cherry plum symbolizing the onset of spring, one of the ‘noble four’ plants, besides the bamboo, the orchid and the chrysanthemum), peonies and birds, rose and gold colours dominating, make up the ornaments on a dish manufactured in Guangzhou workshops.
Qianlong rule period porcelain pieces come in multiple shapes and various ornaments. These include a Chan bowl (a tea bowl on a low ring-shaped stem), Meiping vases (with pear-shaped bodies and a narrow throat to keep a blooming Meihua tree branch during the New Year celebrations), Guan jars (with a ball-shaped body and a wide throat with a cover to keep tea, sweets and New-Year gifts in) as well as bottles and dishes, decorated with underglaze cobalt painting, overglaze enamel painting, reliefs and underglaze engraving. The scene depicted on the vase decorated with an underglaze cobalt painting is based on an ancient tale about carps, who, heading upstream the Huang He river, try to jump over the so-called Longmen rapids (‘The Dragon Gates’). According to legend, those carps who manage to do this, ‘fly off’ the ground, becoming dragons. The vase was painted in a traditional graphical manner, the major focus being lithe and expressive lines. The Guan jar painting is an illustration of the ‘scenic stain’ trend, with free brush strokes unlimited by the darker shade cobalt contour. Based on technical characteristics, such as white ceramic body, dense and slightly bluish glaze, the non-uniform cobalt shade, the jar can be identified as manufactured in the mid eighteenth century at private Jingdezhen workshops. The bottle for aromatic substances, adorned with polychrome overglaze enamel painting, is a perfect example of works from Qianlong period. On one of its sides, there’s an image of a traveller against a mountainous background, while the other side features a scientist with his servant, feasting his eyes on the beauty of orchids blooming in the mountains. The bottle painting is arranged as an unrolling scenery and, by its general mood, is very close to landscape paintings, their major object being admiration of the beauty and power of nature. The brilliant craftsman, obviously a master of this art confident about his skills, has managed to make his painting an utter perfection, its content totally in synch with the object shape and its colour range outstanding with its delicacy.
The decorative pieces from the Chinese collection of the Belarusian National Art Museum combine ‘flower and birds’ patterns, scenic and landscape paintings with hieroglyphic inscriptions, sometimes covering a substantial part of the surface. Mostly, such inscriptions are poems, their contents directly related to either the functionality of a piece or whatever is painted on its surface. Thus, the Qianlong period bottle for aromatic substances, featuring blooming chrysanthemums as symbols of autumn, has also a poetic inscription devoted to this season. The tradition, having survived throughout the nineteenth century till present day, dates as far back as the Ming Dynasty age. Another fine example of it is a tray for Chinese tea ceremony identified as belonging to the early Jiaqing rule period, which is adorned with a poem, framed by an ornament of wreathen lotus stalks, flowers and leaves.
The Qianlong rule is remarkable with high quality of porcelain products; however, there already emerge certain signs of stagnation in the porcelain art, which reveal themselves in shapes of products becoming more intricate, paintings overloaded with ornaments and craftsmen trying to imitate other materials. Thus, the decor of the Chan bowl from Guangzhou workshop is virtually an imitation of the carved red varnish coating, while the internal surface, covered with gold, looks as though made from metal, rather than porcelain.
During Qing period, porcelain figures of the ‘eight’ immortal — Lu Dongbin, Iron-Crutch Li, Zhongli Quan, Elder Zhang Guo, Cao Guojiu, Han Xiang Zi, Lan Caihe, He Xiangu — who, having reached immortality, helped people, enjoyed immense popularity. The figures were manufactured in a great number of Chinese ceramic centers, craftsmen decorating those with rough overglaze paintings using intense green, blue, purple, yellow and red colours. The figures, no marking on them, are usually difficult to identify. Based on similar relics kept in other museums and private collections, pieces included in the Belarusian National Art Museum’s collection can be identified as belonging to the late eighteenth — early nineteenth century.
The nineteenth century marked the period of porcelain manufacture decline in China. Craftsmen of those times were more and more frequently reproducing patterns from Ming, Kangxi and Yongzheng periods, contributing nothing of their own to painting techniques. Porcelain ornaments became eclectic, combining various techniques. However, Jingdezhen craftsmen continued making high-quality porcelain, though their paintings were already showing signs of asymmetry and their backgrounds were rather faint. It was as early as the Ming Dynasty period when porcelain products were marked with a label, consisting of six, in rare cases, four hieroglyphs, standing for the dynasty name and the emperor’s rule slogan. The labels were usually applied as underglaze cobalt paintings, while, during Qing age those were sometimes, though quite rarely, marked with black or red overglaze paint. Quite frequently craftsmen’s labels featured either some of the ‘Eight Treasures’ (an artemisia leaf, a rhomb) or stamps with good whishes. The fact that Chinese porcelain enjoyed great popularity both on the domestic and the foreign market and the demand for porcelain by the emperor’s court was increasing from year to year provoked an outburst of forging during the Qing rule, the major objects affected by forging activities becoming porcelain with Ming Dynasty slogans. This was mainly done for commercial purposes. Whenever craftsmen forged a label for some other purposes, besides gaining additional profit (for example, made a copy), they would make deliberate distortions when writing hieroglyphic symbols. Many of those nineteenth century artists, who made replicas of Ming and early Qing period pieces, marked their products with slogans of their times. For instance, the tetrahedral rectangular-shaped dark-blue glazed vase from the Minsk museum’s collection marked with a Guangxu rule label is an exact copy of an article from Qianlong period. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Guangzhou workshops provided for most of national-style porcelain exports. The most vivid example of such exports is the vase adorned with a colourful scenic painting, its prevailing colours being intense rose and gold.
By the end of the XIXth century, porcelain manufacture had reached its peak decline, as the semi-colonial China had serious economic issues. The old school achievements were virtually lost, which greatly affected porcelain quality. What was produced were either bad imitations of ancient pieces or fancy shaped articles overloaded with ornamentation. Ceramic manufacture was breathed in a new life in the 30’s of the twentieth century, with Chinese porcelain craftsmen gradually reviving the previously lost old artistic techniques. In the 1950’s, craftsmen started manufacturing traditional colour glaze products, employing techniques, such as celadon and ‘ox blood.’ The ‘rice grain’ technique, first appearing back in the eighteenth century and mostly typical of late Qing pieces, also enjoyed great popularity at that time (its sequence was as follows: first, on a dried, but unburnt ceramic body, a craftsman made holes shaped as rice grains, proceeding to cover the surface with multiple, up to 30, glaze layers, finally putting the piece into the burning kiln). In the second half of the XXth century ceramic manufacture continues to develop, major ceramic workshops being those in Yixing, Shivang and other.
Shivang settlement in Guangdong province is one of major ceramic manufacturing centers. It was back in the eighteenth century that its produce had already gained wide recognition. Vases and figurines are made of heavy yellowish clay and covered with a dense glaze layer, either splashed or in erratic streaks, following the eleventh-twelfth century artistic traditions. It is known that in the 1950’s, on an instruction by China’s Culture Ministry, the ‘Folk Art’ State Canton Workshop set up an experimental artistic studio in Shivang, which united the best local sculptors. A horse figurine, made by a contemporary Shivang craftsman, which is part of the Minsk museum’s exposition, has no signs of stylization and is distinguished by its utmost realism in every detail. The figurine has a green glaze cover with erratic black and yellow-brown streaks, which are typical of Guangdong ceramics and give the image a special charm and significance. As it becomes evident on seeing works of talented Guangdong craftsmen, the fine plastic art, common for contemporary Chinese culture, is at its creative rise.
Thus, the China porcelain and ceramics collection displayed at the Belarusian National Art Museum provides for a general idea of the ceramic arts history in this country. And if Ming dynasty pieces on display at the Minsk exhibition are quite scattered in time, Quing dynasty pieces make it possible to trace the way shapes and patterns evolved, becoming more intricate and decorative. It is visible enough that the best twentieth century pieces, while embodying the traditions of the past, are also blessed with creativity and imagination. And it is our cultural relations that make us so sure that we would be able to follow further Chinese craftsmen’s achievements throughout the twenty first century.

By Viktor Mishutin
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