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The Lure of Chinese Art

Contacts between China and its immediate neighbours have been intense throughout history. It does not come as a surprise that Chinese art could easily reach these peoples. A number of shipwrecks with their cargoes of Chinese ceramics such as celadons and blue-and-white testify the prosperous trade of this kind of goods towards South-East Asia especially during the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) periods.

Likewise, if we take into consideration the development of Buddhist art in Asia, we can also follow stylistic developments from Northern Wei (4th-6th century) sculptures to Buddhist sculpture in Korea in the late 6th century (e.g. the pensive Buddha Maitreya) and in Japan in the early 7th century (e.g. the composition of the Shaka triad in the Horyuji temple, Nara).

We can also take a look at more debated and problematic relations between the artistic production of ancient China and that of some ancient civilisations in north and central America. In this case we talk of the possible circulation of artistic elements rather than of objects as such. What are the theories and controversies on this topic? What is the evidence to support these lines of thought? For example, have the split and doubled motifs used by Northern Native Americans anything in common with similar motifs in China's Shang dynasty (16th-11th c. BC) and Zhou dynasty (11th c – 221 BC)? Have the human-animal compositions of Amazonian art anything in common with similar compositions in Bronze Age China?

The Hou Han Shu (‘Annals of the Later Han’) – the official history of the Eastern Han composed in the 5th century AD by Fan Ye (398-445) – reports a Roman embassy to China in 166 AD:

... the ninth year of the Yanxi period during the emperor Huandi’s reign [= A.D. 166] when the King of Da Qin, An-dun, sent an embassy who, from the frontier of Jinan [Annam] offered ivory, rhinoceros horns, and tortoise shell ... (Hou Han Shu 88)

Yet, this event is not confirmed in any Latin source. It is, instead, likely that some merchants from the territories of the Roman Empire had made their way into China trying to boost their trade there. Similarly, no other trace is found of the account given by the rhetor Florus (ca. 70-ca. 140) of a Chinese embassy to Rome at the time of Augustus (63 BC-14 AD):

... the Seres too and the Indians, who live immediately beneath the sun, though they brought elephants amongst their gifts as well as precious stones and pearls, regarded their long journey, in the accomplishment of which they had spent four years, as the greatest tribute which they rendered ... (Epitome II, 34)

On the basis of the scanty references available, it seems thus probable that no direct contacts were officially established between Romans and Chinese. Communications were prevented not only by great distances and difficult, long journeys, but especially by the interference of the Parthian traders. Nevertheless, Roman merchants could travel from Italy to India via Egypt and the Red Sea, and trade between Rome and the East was, in fact, very active. A wide variety of exotic products – from spices to precious stones, from wool and skins to monkeys and parrots – were sought-after luxuries on Roman markets. Besides a limited amount of bronzes and earthenware, furs and iron, silk was the most abundant Chinese good to reach Roman customers. In particular, the silk trade must have become a relevant element in Rome’s overall commercial activities, draining substantial Roman resources. In his Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder (23-79) suggests that the expensive and extravagant fashion of Roman ladies wearing silk clothes is to blame for excessive expenditure.

However, silk did not arrive in Rome bearing Chinese patterns and decorations and sawn to be worn according to the Chinese customs; it underwent instead reprocessing and adjustment – either in Syria or in Egypt – to fulfil the requirements of Roman ladies and to be suitable for Roman clothing.

Porcelain is among the products from China that have captivated the imagination and the curiosity of the European public at different times throughout the centuries. While the first production of porcelain in China can be dated back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), this material was not known in the West at least until the 13th century. The earliest European mention of porcelain ascertained so far is the one by the Venetian merchant Marco Polo (1254-1324/5). He includes this reference in his The Description of the World – also known as The Travels or Il Milione – namely the account of his 24-year long experience in the Far East from 1271 to 1295. In particular, Marco Polo points out that beautiful porcelain bowls are not manufactured anywhere else in the world and are thus exported everywhere. According to traditional accounts, a small meiping vase with qingbai glaze now preserved in the collection of the treasures of San Marco in Venice was brought to Italy from China by Marco Polo himself. The appearance of the material itself suggested the choice of the word ‘porcellana’, already used for cowry shells and objects of mother-of-pearl. The fascination for Chinese commodities unknown in Europe before their introduction from the East was so strong that it triggered the almost obsessive desire to discover and acquire the secrets of the origin and manufacture of these ‘mysterious’ goods.

In Italy, the interest of the Medici family in Chinese porcelain derived from their passion for collecting exotic objects. It is possible that the first specimens of Chinese porcelain to enter the Medici collection were the ten pieces acquired, probably through gift exchange, by the Grand Duke Piero de’ Medici (1416-1469). Porcelain items increased in number – to about 50 pieces – under Lorenzo il Magnifico (1449-1492), but they were still considered as rare objects to be kept protected together with other treasures. It was with Cosimo I (1519-1574) that hundreds of porcelain objects started being bought not just for display but predominantly for daily use. Hence, porcelain was gradually integrated, assimilated and employed in the everyday life of the Medici family. The attempt to reproduce the formula for porcelain’s ingredients carried out in Medici Florence – probably the first one in Europe – was triggered by the increasing quantity of porcelain items that started reaching the West after the discovery of the new sea route to China, sailing around Africa and across the Indian Ocean, in the early 16th century. As porcelain trade intensified, the curiosity about its manufacture grew.

With regard to the production of Medici porcelain, it is worth mentioning the brief treatise ‘De’ Vasi di Porcellana’ written by Lorenzo Legati, a doctor from Cremona, in 1677. In this report, Legati discusses all the previous hypotheses of the manufacture of porcelain, dismissing the assumption that this material was made of seashells and eggshells, as well as the speculation on its therapeutic properties. As others had already suggested before, he believes that the main ingredient is a peculiar kind of soil only found and used in China. He thus concludes that because of the absence of this special soil in other parts of the world, porcelain vases cannot be produced anywhere else. Yet, Legati acknowledges the production of similar wares commissioned by the Grand Duke Francesco I de’ Medici (1541-1587). He also praises maiolica produced in Genoa, Savona and Faenza, as a good attempt at imitation. Nevertheless, he points out that these imitative products can be easily chipped. Furthermore, as far as the Italian maiolica is concerned, it has to be considered that the origins of this material as well can be traced back to a phenomenon of influence from Chinese porcelain. As a matter of fact, the production of maiolica was introduced in Renaissance Italy from Moorish Spain, where the production of earthenware glazed with stannic oxide – one of the tin oxides – had been acquired from a Middle-Eastern practice. In their turn, Mesopotamian artisans had recovered this ancient Assyrian tradition in the 9th century, possibly in the attempt to imitate the first examples of porcelain arriving from China through the trade routes between the Middle East and the Far East.

The association of Chinese porcelain with a ‘magical’ sphere can be detected in the approach of Francesco I towards the manufacture of porcelain itself. His strong interest in alchemy, together with his admiration for Chinese porcelain, led him to pursue the project of reproducing the exotic material. He gathered expert potters, already specialised in the production of maiolica, in the purposely arranged workshop in the Casino of San Marco, in Florence. The result of these technological experimentations was the so-called Medici porcelain, white soft-paste porcelain with blue decoration. This material was obtained using white Vicenza clay, glass, powdered rock crystal, sand and white earth from Faenza. The decoration was applied as an underglaze blue, in such a fashion as to copy blue-and-white Chinese porcelain wares and the similarly coloured Turkish Iznik ceramics, produced combining traditional Ottoman arabesque patterns with Chinese elements from the last quarter of the 15th century until the end of the 17th century. Yet, the production of Medici porcelain did not outlive its patron and only lasted between 1575 and 1587. The short life of this manufacture was due to the high cost of production and the high rate of failure, faults and cracking during the firing process. Of the hundreds of pieces produced, less than 60 survive today.

After the discovery of kaolin as the key ingredient of Chinese porcelain, thanks to the experiments of the physicist and chemist Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus (1651-1708) and the alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719), in the early 18th century the essential knowledge of the production of hard-paste porcelain spread from Meissen, in Saxony, throughout Europe. This important technological development directly influenced, in a particular manner, the production of porcelain in Naples. Here, King Carlo di Borbone (1715/16-1788) established a porcelain workshop in the small palace in the woods of Capodimonte. The result of the efforts of the chemist Livio Vittorio Schepers (d. 1757) and the artist Giovanni Caselli (b. 1698) at the so-called Real Fabbrica di Capodimonte was a peculiar type of soft-paste porcelain, still renowned today as Capodimonte porcelain. Its distinguishing characteristic is a fusion point at 1,100-1,200º C, lower than the ca. 1,400º C usually required for hard-paste porcelain. The manufacturing process was once again based on the one followed for locally produced maiolica. After a first firing, the porcelain was covered with a lead-based glaze. It then underwent a second firing, and, having been decorated, it was returned to the kiln, baking, again at a lower temperature. The special connection between Capodimonte porcelain and Meissen porcelain was due to the fact that King Carlo’s wife was Queen Maria Amalia of Saxony (1724-1760), the granddaughter of Augustus II of Poland (1670-1733) who had patronised the porcelain research at Meissen.

Lacquerware was another favourite Chinese product for the European market. Chinese lacquer furniture was very popular in Europe especially in the 18th century. Together with other Chinese artefacts, it inspired chinoiserie, a decorative and elaborately painted style reflecting oriental figures and motifs. Starting in France and spreading to other European countries, chinoiserie was particularly applied to interior walls, furniture, and tapestries. Often times the art includes oriental scenery, human figures, intricate lattices, and exotic birds and flowers. Entire rooms were hand painted with chinoiserie influences. Chinese painting historically attracted less attention among the western public as the technical criteria applied to painting were too different and difficult to appreciate for those used to western aesthetics. Chinese paintings were thus seen as lacking perspective and depth. Only from the early 20th century they have undergone a profound re-evaluation by western artists and collectors. A more recent example of this change is ‘Nichols Canyon, a painting in Fauvist style, created in 1980 by the British artist David Hockney. The artist himself sees a relationship between Cubist and Chinese painting in their treatment of time and space. As in Cubist painting, Chinese handscrolls unfold in time (they are literally meant to be unrolled bit by bit) as horizon lines and points of view shift, much as they might in a walk through the countryside.

Contemporary Chinese art is also proving to be highly appreciated. The Tate Modern in London, for instance, has recently acquired approximately 8m individual sculptures, although each is smaller than a little finger nail, from Ai Weiwei's famous porcelain Sunflower Seeds. The installation presented in 2010 was made on 100m seeds, all individually sculpted and painted by Chinese craftsmen. A quantity of the seeds were also sold at a Sotheby's auction for £3.50 a seed. Ai Weiwei has also collaborating with the architects Herzog and de Meuron, the design team responsible for the bird's nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, to create a temporary pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, London, on the occasion of the 2012 London Olympic Games.

April 01

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03/23/2016 11:00 AM 01/04/2019 5:30 PM Europe/London Antiques & Interiors

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