Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Purity of Line and Proportion

Through the centuries, Asian cultures produced a wealth of ceramics and lacquerwork

THE arts of ceramics and lacquer, when seen at their best, are extremely impressive. Their purity of line and proportion, their colors, bear mute testimony to the legions of artisans and laborers who created them, usually humble men whose lives were passed in obscurity. The two arts have their forms in common, in some degree, but differ from each other in almost every other way.

Ceramic dishes are everywhere, and people crave them. Through the centuries enough examples have escaped being dropped and smashed so that they can be displayed and viewed - though not so frequently at the standard of the two magnificent examples shown here, both from China, both beyond praise.

About these ads

Lacquer presents an entirely different story. It was never in common use but always a luxury, a gift for princes. Considered a sign of wanton consumption which might well "sway the mind" of a ruler, sumptuary laws were often passed against the production of lacquer, but never, it would seem, to any effect. Such regulations were generally ignored, recognized as only face-saving gestures, designed to avert the criticism of the censors.

Pottery is a traditional, conservative art, always linked to practical ends. The manufacture of early stoneware and earthenware was not connected with a formal search for beauty. But because of the superbly gifted Chinese craftsmen, these utilitarian pieces came to give pleasure through their essential, unpretentious harmony. Those workmen were endowed with so wonderful a sensitivity of hand and eye, so intuitive a feeling for line and shape that whether the form they created was simple or complex, it wa s "right."

The incense burner shown here was recently exhibited in a very satisfying display of early Chinese ceramics, drawn from a number of New York state museums, and shown at New York City's China Institute in America. This piece dates from the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 8), and is quite small (8 3/4 inches high), made of glazed earthenware. The Han Dynasty, one of China's peak periods, lasted for roughly four centuries, but was split in midterm through internal difficulties. Its artistic potential was a lways tremendous, and much of what was created then, in literature and the arts, has never been surpassed.

This incense burner bears the shape of a mountain, possibly the mythical Mt. Penglai, which was venerated by the Taoists as the home of the immortals. If it is Penglai, the basin below it represents the sea, while up its paths climb hunters and animals. It is a traditional design, allowing for perforations where the smoke could escape. This type of censer was often made in bronze, this one being an ambitious ceramic copy of a familiar pattern. Much of the original green glaze has vanished, but in a few p laces a faint iridescence still lingers.

The other example, a porcelain ewer in a bowl, is of Qinghai ware, and was made much later, during the Southern Sung Dynasty (1127-1279). This period was a time of great artistic flowering beset by political ineptitude. It was ended by the Mongols seizing all China and holding it for a century, first under Genghis Khan, then his son, Kublai, whom Marco Polo so much admired.

The art of ceramics continued steadily throughout these national trials, entering at the end of the Southern Sung into great technical improvements and advances in the making and painting of porcelain. The set pictured here was made before that culmination. It is again a traditional pair, with the bowl for warming wine fitting exactly, the colors tender and soft. Such articles were entirely for the Chinese internal market, and had been popular during the Northern Sung Dynasty.

TURNING now to lacquer, one finds oneself in quite another world. Instead of clay, there is the sap of the lacquer tree (rhus verniciflua), which is native to central and southern China, as well as Japan, Korea, and the Ryukyu Islands. When the sap is first drawn it is gray; with exposure to the light it turns dark brown, then almost black; the brilliant reds we associate with it are due to the addition of colors. It is described as having the nature of a plastic, or a binding and adhesive agent. Its man ufacture always demanded inordinate skill.

About these ads

The lacquer would be coated upon a core of wood, metal, or cloth, or applied as a covering to leather or metal (such as armor), or over chairs or stools. The first coat, like all the succeeding coats, had to be of extreme thinness. It was left to dry some 48 hours in damp heat, and then another coat was applied. Some objects had only two or three coats, some more than 200, these last being carved deeply by the Chinese workmen. (Carved lacquer was peculiar to China.)

Lacquerwork is divided into three categories: the plain (as on trays or bowls), the carved, and the pieces which are ornamented with flakes of silver and gold, something in which the Japanese excelled. Lacquer also came to be inlaid with mother-of-pearl, following a Chinese fashion that was taken up everywhere. Obviously, this was a highly luxurious product.

It was made from very early times, from perhaps 1600 BC right on up to our day, flourishing (theoretically against imperial wishes) through the 18th century. The Ryukyu Islands, which were through much of their history independent, were famous for their lacquerwork, particularly Okinawa. Okinawans loved to work with mother-of-pearl inlay, drawing many ideas from the Chinese province of Fujian, which lies directly across the sea from them on the mainland.

The Japanese, with the innate genius of their craftsmen and their intense sense of design, never allowed themselves to lose sight of the basic shape they were working on, adorning the product with different colors of oil paint and with gold and silver foil. The Koreans liked to work with metal inlay and loved to use mother-of-pearl fashions from the mainland.

All this resulted in trays, layered baskets, beautiful little boxes, teapots, bowls, and myriad bijoux. The articles, with only a slight base in their core material, have proved very fragile over the centuries, as lacquer is brittle and cracks; a covered object has more strength. The range of color is not wide but very effective - black from carbon, brown, yellow, and vermilion. So prized was lacquer that artisans' names were preserved on their work, a practice not common to craftsmen of the time.

This beautiful red ewer from Japan made in the 15th or 16th century (Muromachi period) is of wood which was turned on a lathe, the lacquer bands afterwards added. The shape is like that of the bronze and iron kettles, the effect strong and pleasing. Its diameter is 10 1/4 in., its height 14 1/2 in., and it was presumably used in a Zen temple for monastic meals. Designed for the utilitarian purpose of holding hot water, it appears that this lovely article was not subjected to the strain of boiling water. The handle's proportions balance the body of the receptacle so perfectly that this modest object is engraved on our minds: It is confident, reassuring yet humble.

The set of hexagonal stacked boxes, black lacquer with mother-of-pearl inlay, is from the Ryukyu Islands and dates from the 18th century. The inlay is paper thin, wonderfully iridescent, and, on the lid, tells the story of the Chinese poet Li Bo at a famous feast on a spring night. The boxes pile perfectly; underneath the bottom box is the name Jiang Qianli, a famous artist in the medium.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York showed these pieces earlier this year. They are part of the Florence and Herbert Irving Collection, a wonderful assembly of East Asian lacquer, highly thought-provoking, a triumph of beauty and taste.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.