Imperial Taste

Chinese ceramics from the Percival David Foundation
At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, July 1989)

An elegant white vase stands at the beginning of this exquisite exhibition of Chinese imperial ceramics, like a welcoming presence. The vase is lightly incised with curving lines that suggest the fluttering, overlapping petals of a peony. Its gracefully tapered body swells voluptuously at the shoulders. It was made in the 11th century in the imperial kilns at the great Chinese ceramic center at Jingdezhen.

Wu Tung, the curator of the MFA’s fabulous collection of Asiatic Art, tells me that the first cermaics were all white.

Then in the early 12th century, the Emperor Quianlong, who was a also a poet, said

“I want color”.

He got color – exquisite pale blues and greens that seem to float on the surface of the Ru ware bowls’ smooth surfaces like clouds. A Jun ware vase made a hundred years later is a deeper blue, splashed with purple. The purple splashes were called “the sky at dusk“, and they were made by painting copper oxide on the unfired pale blue glaze.

The vases in the next room are much more elaborate in their shape and decoration. A 14th century temple vase is adorned with dark blue dragons, flying phoenixes and dragons and realistically detailed flowers – lotus and crysanthemum. Tu tell me that the ornate style reflects the taste of the Mongolian emperors who conquered China in the 13th century. They also brought Persian cobalt blue into China.

In the 14th century, the Chinese regained China under the Ming dynasty. Ming potters continued to use colors imported from Persia – cobalt blue, turquoise, copper oxide red – but they returned to simpler shapes and purer, more abstract decoration, concentrating on perfection of form and refinement of color. A gorgeous pale blue vase carved with highly stylized peonies, a stunning brilliant turquoise wine jar with a band of gilded copper around its neck, and a small bowl glazed in coppery red are dazzling in their simplicity. The blueness of  a Ming vase glazed in a beautiful pale cobalt blues amazes me. It’s the blue distilled from a field of cornflowers, or a serene and cloudless summer sky.

When the Manchu emperors established the Qing dynasty in the 17th century, ceramics much more elaborate and delicate. Wu shows me an 18th century Yongzheng teapot. It’s all white and so thin that light can shine through it, and on it is an exquisite painting of a pine tree, plum blossoms, and bamboos. “Those are the three friends of winter,” he says.   Another small teapot and cup is decorated with a painting and a poem painted in glaze. “The artists is painting on the white porcelain as a piece of white paper.”

Anyone can enjoy this,” says Wu Tung.

“The form, color, and decoration carry enough message. But it’s interesting to know more. And the more you know, the more you enjoy.”

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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