Archive for the ‘blue and white’ Category

Let It Be

September 8, 2019

“European ceramics were forever indebted to superior Chinese efforts, once exposed to those wonders.”

This nugget of received wisdom, initiated by a continent-wide, 200 year long porcelain recipe hunt, permeates the study of European ceramics from roughly the 16th century onward. That perspective even percolated down to the Fine Arts studio ceramics narrative after Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book (1940) put celadon, tenmuku, and other Sung Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE) stonewares on unimpeachable pedestals; many of these glaze types remain to this day (in name at least) routine options in European and American studios.

But what drove the West’s China obsession during the centuries preceding Leach’s book were not Imperial Sung jewels, but hybridized, prosaic Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE) export porcelains. Few westerners even knew of those exquisite Imperial examples before the Middle Kingdom’s late 19th century implosion, just decades before Leach began his pottery career.

More to the point, export production was almost from the start led by aesthetic and functional dictates of the “devils of the western ocean.” These dictates stemmed from a highly refined Iberian, Mediterranean, and ultimately Islamic enameled earthenware tradition – which, incidently, also heavily influenced initial Chinese blue and white development. This earthenware tradition, plus a mature northern European understanding of high temperature materials and kilns, had already established ceramics as fine art worthy of Europe’s idle rich. China’s inspiration could not have been absorbed and acted upon without these pre-existing conditions.

Now consider post-China trade Europe, ie; the Industrial Revolution. Porcelain was by then widely produced throughout the continent. But the masters of the Industrial Revolution instead ran with earthenware clay and glaze materials combined with scientific analysis, increased machine power, and efficient transport of bulky supplies and fragile finished products (and a heavy dose of child labor, but that’s another story). Chinoiserie was certainly a popular decorative option, but one of many. The Industrial Revolution transformed earthenware into fine art and fine dining utensils available to nearly every level of society – a truly revolutionary development.

Interaction with China over the centuries has left an enormous and indelible mark on European and American ceramics. But leaving it at that is almost like writing a 300 page book on the history of Rock and Roll, 250 pages of which are about the Beatles. Yes, of course the Fab Four were musical geniuses who cast a long shadow.

But 250 pages? Really?

Readings:

A Potter’s Book. Bernard Leach. Transatlantic Arts/New York. 1940.
The White Road. Edmund DeWaal. Chatto and Windus/London. 2015.

The Name of the Game

August 20, 2017

Suppose your pottery shop has a pretty good reputation. Suppose your neighborhood is full of pretty good pottery shops, maybe 30 or so. Suppose you all make pretty much the same stuff. And suppose you all even formed a collective of sorts to help everyone manage business. Now suppose that “neighborhood” covers only 2 or 3 city blocks. And suppose that “reputation” means an entire continent eagerly standing in line to buy your neighborhood’s handiwork.

About 340 years ago those “neighborhood potteries” were in the town of Delft. That “collective” was the Guild of St. Luke. And that “reputation” ruled Europe for almost a hundred years.

A question arises. Why didn’t those Dutch potteries sign their work? With such high demand, and in such tight quarters – 2 or 3 city blocks! – why did they opt for anonymous group identity over individual recognition? Today we immediately imagine signing our work as basic marketing. Branding. A signature on a pot seems the most obvious way of saying: “Hey! I’m over here!” But that’s just our perspective.

Delft potteries did ultimately sign their work. Their dominance in Europe, begun during a vacuum left by a prolonged civil war in China with its curtailing of export porcelain production, was being challenged. The war had ended, and Chinese porcelain was back. Also, other European potteries were getting serious about their own faience, porcelain, and creamware. This competition threatened delftware’s very existence. It was sink or swim, so they signed – and most ultimately sank.

But another reason why they began signing pots tells us perhaps as much about ourselves as about them. A faint but fundamental shift had happened. The delftware craze required a consistent commercial ceramic materials supply network. Nobody could do that much production while digging their own clay. Standardized materials ultimately meant easy replication of anything, anywhere, anytime. “Style” as a defining aspect of “tradition” in pottery would no longer be understood as a local distinction, tied to a specific geographic (and geologic) place with unique, communally shared values. Style would now become a showcase for individual expression based, essentially, on looks.

What does all this mean? Maybe not much. These events weren’t the beginning of that change in perception, nor its end. Still, the beginnings of the factory system in ceramics was a “writing on the wall” moment that, ironically, propelled individual fame over collective expression.

Reading:
Delffse Porceleyne, Dutch delftware 1620 – 1850. Jan Daniel van Dam. Wanderers Publishers/Amsterdam, NL. 2004.

…40 Years Later

September 25, 2016

Everybody knows the story of how Chinese blue and white porcelain thoroughly influenced world ceramic history.  But we look at this story backwards, from its results.  How did it look from the other direction, from it’s beginning?

Mid 9th century Tang Dynasty grandees were repulsed by isolated southern Chinese potters’ gaudy color and decoration experiments.  Anything other than green (replicating jade) or white (replicating silver) belonged in tombs.

Far away Arabs instantly recognized that new work’s value.  Shiploads of southern Chinese stoneware, mostly bowls, were sent to the Abbasid Caliphate in large re-useable ceramic jars.  These jars had auspicious inscriptions, often in Arabic, scrawled along their outside.  Arabic was the ‘official language’ of the entire trade network connecting southern China to the Persian Gulf and beyond.

Arab potters noticed Chinese stoneware encroaching into their home market.  They responded by inventing a smooth white tin glaze for their own earthenware.  A world of color beyond somber Chinese greens and whites was now possible.  Cobalt blue was the first new hue, followed by many others.  Then someone in Basra invented lusterware, truly replicating copper and silver.

The Arabs began signing their work.  They also sent it back to China, along with Mesopotamian cobalt, to try this new look on white Chinese stoneware glazes.  The first Chinese blue and white was probably painted by resident Persians.

The Tang attitude seemed to be “fine, take the foreigners’ money- they actually like that vulgar stuff!”  But so much money was made that people criticized the volume of trees wasted by this work, and all the new ‘art pottery’ for elite tea ceremonies.  Whole mountainsides were deforested to feed the kilns.

The growing impact of ‘aliens’ led to a vicious reaction, with widespread looting and killing of resident foreign traders.  Colorful, decorated ceramics dried up.  The incoming Song Dynasty reverted to safe, comfortable celadons and whites.

The world had to wait another five hundred years for Persian traders to (again) ask Yuan Dynasty potters to put Mesopotamian cobalt on their new porcelain.  ‘Blue and white’ as we now know it exploded onto the world stage, blossoming over the next three hundred years into pottery history’s single most recognized chapter.

Back in the 9th century, Arab potters saw this tidal wave coming.  Their response – tin glazes, cobalt blue, polychrome, and luster ware – set the whole story in motion.  And they did all that in only 40 years.

Reading:

Shipwrecked, Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds.  Regina Krahl, John Guy, J Keith Wilson, and Julian Raby, ed.s Smithsonian Institute/Washington DC.  2010.

The Coptic Dot

June 26, 2016

Pretty much everything mentioned below actually happened.  The only question is – did it?

Can a dot be more than just a dot?  Who knows?  Who cares?

Perhaps we should back up a bit.  My first serious encounter with early pottery, and with making pottery in those styles, began with my tenure at the living history museum of Old Sturbridge Village.  Among those old pots which grabbed my attention were curiously dotted 18th century English slipwares.  When I saw a jar replete with a dotted slipware bird attributed to 19th century Connecticut potter Hervey Brooks, whose work is interpreted at OSV, a somewhat snarky thought struck me: to make slipware look old, just stick some dots on it!

Later, while exploring delftware, I noticed dots regularly lining borders and filling spaces on tin-glazed pottery across the spectrum.

Where did all these dots come from?

Years earlier I had come across an illustrated history of the Book of Kells.  Dots galore!  Given the proselytizing nature of 6th century Irish monks throughout the British Isles, maybe their dotted imagery inspired later slipware potters via old illuminated parish bibles.  But why did the Irish dot their imagery in the first place?  And what of those delft dots?

Dipping back into Irish monastic history, these Scholastic monks traveled far and wide to collect the most valued commodity of their time: books.  This is how the Irish “saved Western civilization from the Dark Ages.”  Did roaming Irish monks collect Egyptian Coptic Christian manuscripts during their sojourns in Venice, Alexandria or Sicily?  The Copts decorated their texts with a plethora of dense, sinewy, floral designs – including lots of dots.  Might these dotted Coptic patterns have inspired the illumination masters of Iona, Lindesfarne and Kells?

When Islam washed across Egypt a century later, did the Umayyad imams adopt the Coptic dot for their own illumination purposes?  Were their Korans among the loot pillaged by rampaging Mongols and brought back to China?  If so, this persistent little dot would be present when equally dense cobalt blue designs blossomed on white Chinese porcelain.  The dot certainly re-invaded 16th century Europe by latching onto carrack porcelain, inspiring delftware (among other styles) and forever changing pottery history.

Is the dot a sort of visual virus, attaching onto a host for survival and propagation?  I’ve seen no scholarly opinion supporting this thesis.  I’ve seen none about dots at all.  So I’ll just leave it out there…

Readings:
English Slipware Dishes, 1650 – 1850.  Ronald Cooper.  Transatlantic Arts/New York.  1968

Hervey Brooks, Connecticut Farmer-Potter; A Study of Earthenware from His Blotters, 1822-1860.  Paul Lynn.  State University of New York College at Oneonta/New York.  1969.

English and Irish Delftware, 1570 – 1840.  Aileen Dawson.  British Museum Press/London.  2010.

The Book of Kells.  Edward Sullivan.  Crescent Books/New York.  1986.

How the Irish Saved Civilization.  Thomas Cahill.  Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group/New York.  1995.

A Thousand Years of Linguistics

May 15, 2016

caveat: the following train of thought happened entirely after the fact.  The plate shown here resulted purely from a confluence of design ideas, time constraints, and physical limitations.  Thus it ever was for the potter…

Charger, fish
If an efficient way to destroy a culture is to destroy it’s language (or simply kill off it’s  population), then a good way to honor a culture is to learn it’s language (and leave the people  be) – likewise for a culture’s artistic heritage.  But a culture’s visual language can take on a curious life of its own while traveling through the ages.

So, let’s talk delft.  Delft is a creole ceramic expression.  What began in the Arabian peninsula as a blue decorated tin-glazed response to white Chinese porcelain traveled back to China and then sprayed out in various forms, blanketing the globe.  Each stop along the way sprouted whole new styles of expression (like delftware), even as local potters freely drew from what came before.

How cool it would be to trace this language by following a single image or decorative device along it’s entire historical arc!  By seeing that image express change and/or constancy in the hands of an Arabian, Chinese, Indian, Yemeni, Persian, East and North African, Turkish, Spanish, Italian, French, Dutch, English, Irish, or Mexican potter.  Maybe curators, collectors, or scholars could identify such an image.  I can’t.  The big picture is too sprawling.

I’ll have to do like the old potters did and make my own ‘little picture.’  This one begins with a collision of two motives – to paint a fish (thus joining the ranks of fish-painting potters), and to wrap my head around an ‘Italianate’ delftware border pattern – combined with a diminishing inventory of blank plates as the clock ran out before a show.

Floating in the background were a 12th century Yuan Dynasty export porcelain bowl intended for the Indian Ocean trade, an early Dutch plate possibly made by an immigrant Italian faience potter, an obsession with Southwark floral imagery that creeps into every unguarded corner when I decorate, my brush and stick learning curve, a vague possibility that I may be related to early Delft potters, and a healthy dose of repetitive muscle strain.

Can one respectfully interpret the range, spirit, and boundaries of a historical style while still telling a unique story?  Who knows?  On the other hand nothing the potter makes exists within, or comes from, a vacuum.

The tale I offer goes something like this: “Here’s me wandering along in the language of pottery history.”

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The Used To Be Highway

November 29, 2015

The modern redware potter drives home from a show pondering crazy thoughts like “why am I doing all this,” and “does everything I do look backward?” (stylistically to earlier eras, financially to better shows, etc.)  The redware potter is traveling the Used To Be Highway.

Such a highway exists, of course, but not necessarily in the depressing way described above.  Interpreting historical styles, like redware, falls solidly along a venerable continuum of reproductions, copies, and revivals (and fakes and forgeries) made since ancient times.

Romans, fascinated by earlier Etruscan pottery, commissioned Etruscan style work for many of their lavish pavilions.  Chinese potters copied older work to honor past masters.  Medieval European artisans made historical reproductions for holy pilgrimage tourists.  Copies of 16th century Siegburg stoneware, often from original 16th century molds, were popular during the late 19th century German Gothic revival.  The nascent 19th century American tourist industry considered historical work a patriotic act.  And maintaining traditional cultural expressions in the face of changing times has motivated artists throughout time.

Blue and white pottery gets complicated.  This idea went back and forth in so many ways across the globe that it almost resembles light.  Is light (for example) a wave or a particle?  Is Delft (for example) a copy or an original style?

Then there’s fakes and forgeries. What appears to be simple malfeasance (and often is) can also be a complex issue.  Was early Delftware a forgery?  Are fakes worse than pilfered archeological sites?  What of desperate families peddling fake artifacts in impoverished but historically significant areas, or the work of Ai Wei?

Copying masterpieces was for centuries a principle method of arts instruction.  Intense observational and technical skills are required, and honed, when studying historical artifacts in this way.  A simple test illustrates this point: make two mugs, one which you thought up in your head, the other as an exact replica of someone else’s mug.  Ask yourself afterwards which effort stretched your skills more?

It’s tempting to draw some meaningful conclusion about why potters today might work within historical styles, given the array of available paths.  (Or are these stylistic options just interpretations of a different sort?).  But regardless of the route they took to get there, or the bumps along the way, many potters (and other artisans) who make historically based work will tell you – it’s just tremendously fun to do.

Readings:

Decorated Stoneware Pottery of North America.  Donald Webster.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

Dutch Pottery and Porcelain.  Pitcairn Knowles.  Scribner’s/New York.  1940.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain.  Reginald Haggar.  Hawthorn Books/ New York.  1960.

If These Pots Could Talk.  Ivor Noel Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.

The Rise of the Staffordshire Potteries.   John Thomas.  Augustus Kelly Publishers/New York.  1971.

Stoneware: White Salt-Glazed, Rhenish and Dry Body.  Gérard Gusset.  National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Environment Canada/Ministry of the Environment, Ottawa, Canada.  1980.

Unearthing New England’s Past: The Ceramic Evidence.  Exhibition Catalogue.  Museum of Our National Heritage/Lexington, MA.  1984.

Fringe Elements

June 14, 2015

Deflt Detail Southwark 1628The technique was loose and sloppy.  The imagery bordered on abstraction.  The finished product seemed almost tossed together.  But closer examination reveals an intense, studied effort.  This was 17th century delftware from Southwark on the Thames River, opposite London.

What was going through these potters’ minds?  More to the point, what was going on right outside their doors?

Potters, along with painters, glaziers, weavers, metal smiths, wood workers, and artisans of all sorts congregated in Southwark from the 13th century onwards.  Musicians and actors (including Shakespeare and the famous Rose Theater) joined them.

But "congregated" is a generous term.  "Confined" would be more accurate.  Many of Southwark’s artisans, potters included, were "strangers" or "aliens" – immigrants that is: Dutch, French, German, Spanish, etc.  Most were gathered by the Royal family or other local elites wanting the ‘latest and greatest.’  Alien artisans weren’t allowed to settle within London city limits, however, thanks to collusive efforts of London’s various artisan guilds.  (In a true expression of big city mentality, "foreigners" were English nationals from outside London who, like actors and musicians, weren’t much welcomed either.)

London’s guilds continually petitioned the crown to evict, tax, restrain, or otherwise punish those nasty alien ‘job stealers.’  Guild vitriol curiously belied sentiments echoed a little over 100 years later in the newly independent United Colonies of America – that handiwork of foreign artisans seemed superior to local products.

Back in Southwark, restriction had its advantages.  The London guilds’ more extreme efforts rarely stuck because Southwark was outside the authority of London’s bailiffs.  Southwark was a multicultural and aesthetic melting pot spiced with a righteous dose of siege mentality.  The scene was further powered by caffeine, an exotic new stimulant then flooding English society.

Respectable London saw Southwark as a rough, seedy, blue light district full of prostitutes, thieves, aliens, actors and artisans of all stripes (which it was).  But everyone who was anyone wanted what Southwark offered…

Other English delftware pottery centers of Norwich, Liverpool, and Bristol – port towns all – were similar ‘wretched hives of scum and villainy’ (to paraphrase a famous traveler from a galaxy long ago and far away).  These were the dodgy environments that produced some of the most creative art of the era.

Readings:

The King’s Glass.  Carola Hicks.  Random House/London.  2007

The Graves Are Walking.  John Kelly.  Macmillan/London. 2012.

The Hit Parade #3: Mexican Majolica

April 12, 2015

Chocolatera, Puebla, early 18th Century The “global village” is a messy place.  It began messy, and it will always be messy.

In Puebla, Mexico City, and on presidio’s across Mexico during the early 1500’s, Humanist Italian trained Christian Spanish potters working in the Islamic Arabian style of copying Taoist Chinese porcelains incorporated Aztec Mexican flora and fauna imagery onto their pottery.  Before then, no body of work combined so much direct influence from such a wide geographic and cultural web.

Mexican majolica  is beautiful in its own right.  This ware also manifested the onset of what we now might consider the ‘global village.’

It gets messy, though.  How much does knowing the whole story behind a work of art influence our appreciation for it?  To make this pottery the Muslims had to be evicted, the Aztecs wiped out, the Chinese pulled apart, the Spanish bankrupted, and the Italians sidelined.  Few pottery types illustrate such messy but important questions well as Mexican majolica does.

Can (should) these sorts of questions be carried over to today?  For example, how do we reconcile the final product we produce with the strip mining and horrendous labor exploitation involved in bringing us many of our raw materials?  These aren’t the kinds of things most people think of when considering ceramics, but they exist just the same.

The western hemisphere’s first glazed, blue and white pottery was an impressive achievement, and an important milestone.  Fascinating, but messy.

How I Learned To Hate Everything

August 31, 2014

(an editorial thinly disguised as a book review)

A group of potters went to see a “Blue and White” ceramics exhibit at a major museum in a large city.  During the trip, one of the potters lamented how she was taught nothing in college about America’s pottery heritage. 

Most of the potters in the group, being of more or less the same generation, were taught that Asian porcelain was pottery’s culminating expression.  Anything outside that narrative – excepting modern pottery – was background (ie; easily dismissed).  Gaping educational holes were partially filled as individual interests randomly wandered.

Daniel Rhodes defined the ‘official’ narrative during my own college years.  Rhodes’ Clay and Glazes for the Potter, revised edition 1973, was our class bible.  (Boy, am I dating myself!)  Just as important as the book’s technical information were its pictures.  I poured over them and absorbed their implied lesson – see the rest, end with the best: Song Dynasty Chinese Imperial porcelain.  We were certainly offered a generic overview of the ceramic spectrum, but the ultimate lesson remained.

The Rhodes book had two images of early American pots; A sgraffito plate by Georg Hubener of Bucks County, PA, c.1790, and a mass-produced molded stoneware pitcher in the form of a waterfall or whatever by the American Pottery Company of Trenton, NJ, c.1840.  Without context or hint of other efforts, and compared to those oil spot and celadon glazes, I concluded, “no thanks.”

That “no thanks” attitude wasn’t so much like comparing apples to oranges as it was like believing apples for eating were “better” than apples for making cider, or for baking.  But why compare at all? 

Of course, Daniel Rhodes can’t be all to blame.  There were (are) plenty of books about all sorts of pottery types.  And yes, old Chinese porcelain deserves respect.  But we were poor college students.  The pictures in Rhodes’ book and the resulting chatter around the studio were our gateway (there was no internet back then).  The range of early American (and European) pottery expression hit me only after some intense overseas time induced reflection on my own background.

If we’re never taught that something has value we can easily assume it has no value;  “History is boring!”  “Who cares?”  “Been there, done that.”

When did you first see beyond these ridiculous notions?

Readings:

Clay and Glazes for the Potter, Revised edition.  Daniel Rhodes.  Chilton’s/Radnor, PA.  1973.

The Day the World Shrank

April 6, 2014

Before the internet, before the global village, before most people even thought of the planet as a whole, there was Mexican majolica.  The Talavera workshops of Puebla, Mexico produced tin glazed pottery which included the world’s first global imagery.

Potters from Seville, Spain began wheel thrown, glazed pottery in Puebla around 1520.  Everything needed for tin glazing could be found nearby.  This new pottery activity was a ‘men only’ club unlike ‘campesino’ pottery made primarily by women.  Local assistants were trained from scratch.  Most of the extremely talented native potters had been killed (as part of the Aztec literati, they were doomed to extinction).

Mexico was a transit hub for colonial riches flowing from the Pacific to metropolitan Spain.  As such, large shipments of Chinese export porcelain passed through Mexico.  Mexicans were crazy for blue and white.  Talavera’s “refined” ware intentionally imitated the Chinese.

The influence of three continents and four cultures could be seen on Puebla majolica.  Islamic aesthetics encouraged filling the whole space with designs.  European “Istorio” designs focused on narrative stories.  Decorative frills defined the Chinese influence.  And local flora and fauna, such as cacti and jaguars, provided ready inspiration to Mexican potters.  All this on one blue and white surface.  And all this a hundred years before Chinese potteries began slavishly reproducing European designs, or European potteries began slavishly copying Chinese designs.

Things progressed so well that Puebla’s potters formed a guild in 1653.  The Potters Guild regulated production, quality control, sales and (curiously) penalties for counterfeiting.  The Guild folded 100 years later but it’s rules influenced production up to the early 19th century.

Mexicans loved their blue and white majolica.  They especially loved drinking chocolate from majolica mugs.  Well-to-do 18th century Mexican women obsessively drank chocolate from these colorful mugs everywhere and at all times.  But there were limits.  A decree had to be passed banning chocolate drinks in church during masses.

Those ladies’ world must have shrunk a little on that sad day.

Chocolatera, Puebla, early 18th CenturyChocolatero, Puebla, early 18th century.

Readings:

Ceramics in America.  Ian Quimby, Ed.  University Press of Virginia/Charlottesville.  1972.

The Emily Johnston De Forest Collection of Mexican Maiolica.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  Hispanic Society of America/New York.  1911.