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: Institute Acquires Important Group of Chinese Ceramics


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Institute has recently acquired, through the Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund, four outstanding examples of ancient Chinese pottery and porcelain. This group includes a fine pair of Northern Wei (A.D. 386-535) painted pottery tomb figures, a rare T'ang (A.D. 618-906) glazed porcelain ewer, and a well-known and important Sung (A.D. 960-1279) carved and glazed porcelain vase of the Tz'u Chou type, each representing the highest achievements of its period. Ceramics of such quality and generous proportions are rare. The Institute is therefore fortunate in having secured these examples to complement previous acquisitions in this field.The importance of Chinese ceramics becomes clear when we reflect that today we use the word china for most ceramics, regardless of origin, because the Chinese produced the first fine examples and contributed their technique to the rest of the world. It was their chance discovery of the advantage of using powdered stone in ceramic manufacture which permitted the Chinese to produce porcelain of great durability and refinement a thousand years before other peoples did so. This discovery, and its subsequent development, constitutes one of their chief contributions to our own civilization. The Chinese have never considered ceramics a minor art. On the contrary, they have always held the potter's craft in high esteem and their literature contains abundant critical writing on the subject. For centuries they have collected pottery and fine porcelain, cataloguing their treasures in great detail. Today we collect their ceramics as classical examples of ingenious, but always appropriate, treatment of form and decoration in the handling of clay.The earliest of the Institute's recent acquisitions is the pair of Wei tomb figures, representing a civil and a military dignitary, dating from the sixth century. These imposing figures rival the pair of dignitaries from the Institute's superb T'ang tomb set and, although made two centuries earlier, probably come from the neighborhood of Lo-yang, where the set of T'ang figures was actually excavated. Originally placed in the tomb of a prince or nobleman to serve the deceased in the next world, they reflect the ancient beliefs and customs of China. The use of such tomb figures can be traced to the practice of human sacrifice, which was eventually supplanted by the more humane custom of burying effigies.For the most part, these figures follow general types. However, the two Wei dignitaries represent individualized portraits, giving us considerable insight into the international character of Chinese civilization under the Wei Dynasty. Like others of their type they portray not Chinese, but foreigners from the borders of an expanding empire. Their features, especially their flat heads, broad noses, and wide mouths, indicate that they come from Khotan on the Southern Trade Route to India. Wise men from the West, like these Khotanese, with a reputation for urbanity and military prowess, became the trusted advisers of the Chinese rulers and accompanied them in effigy form to the next world.The Chinese created their most monumental sculpture under the Wei Dynasty and it is probably the influence of this sculpture which made ceramic sculpture such an important phase of Wei art. The technique employed is simple, befitting the nature of the medium. Most of these tomb figures were made in moulds and finished by hand. The two examples illustrated, of dark grey clay with a white slip and painted, unfired pigments, were most certainly completed by hand. They are not hollow, but solid, and conceived as sculpture in the round. As unusual amount of original pigment has remained after centuries of burial: flesh tints, and red, green, gold, and blue details of costume. The respective facial expressions and costumes indicate the civil and military functions of the dignitaries. Each is about twenty-six inches high.The ewer dates from the T'ang Dynasty, under which Chinese rule was expanded and unified as never before or since. Great poetry and painting flourished along with a rich foreign trade, and porcelain was invented. Through this ewer we can study the achievements of the age. First of all, its shape obviously derived from the art of Sassanian Persia, with which the Chinese, under the T'angs, traded. The ovoid body and narrow neck and spout follow the forms of Sassanian silver and bronze work, which the Chinese no doubt admired. However, the Chinese potter who created this beautiful vessel understood the elements of his craft and kept his form pure and his decoration simple, only contrasting the severe body of his vessel with the delicately modelled double-strand handle and removable stopper. The latter, modelled in full relief with carved details, portrays the head of the mythological phoenix. One of the earliest known examples of true porcelain, this ewer is made of buff-colored stoneware covered with an unusually even creamy-white glaze.This ewer can be dated as ninth century because fragments of the identical porcelain, without question imported, have been found in the excavations of Samarra on the Tigris, abandoned in 883. However, white porcelain of the T'ang Dynasty is so rare that it cannot be assigned with certainty to a definite kiln site. That must wait until China is reopened for accurate excavations of seventh- and eighth-century ruins. This rare addition to the Institute's collection is the ancestor of similar wares manufactured at Chü-lu Hsien and Tz'u Chou in Chihli Province under the Sung Dynasty. It is twelve inches high.The Sung Dynasty marked the perfection of Chinese poetry and philosophy, painting and porcelain. The emperors themselves took tremendous interest in the great number of kilns producing fine ceramics for the court or for general trade. One of the best-known kilns was that at Tz'u Chou, literally “crockery town.” In operation for over a thousand years, this factory enjoyed its highest reputation under the Sung Dynasty, specializing in boldly-turned vessels with contrasting carved or painted decoration.The Institute's vase, about eighteen inches high, reveals a breadth and freedom of handling heretofore unknown. Although the shape is generally reminiscent of Persian inspiration, it is strictly Chinese in decoration. The ovoid body rests on an expanding foot-ring and supports a long neck with a saucer-like rim. The material is buff-colored stoneware, covered with a white slip and then a cream-colored glaze. The decoration recalls the art of the Chinese painter, for the subtlety of the design depends on the economy of line employed. The potter ornamented the shoulder and lower areas with a series of delicately incised lily petals. In contrast, the central portion of the vase was boldly decorated with a frieze of peony blossoms by cutting completely through to the buff ground. With consistent restraint the potter kept the painter's art subservient to the basic form and possibilities of the ceramic art. This vase, once in the collection of Mrs. Christian R. Holmes, now becomes the Institute's most important example of the Golden Age of Chinese porcelain.Referenced Works of Art
  1. White porcelain ewer. Chinese, T'ang Dynasty (A.D. 618-906). Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund.
  2. Pottery figure of a Civil Dignitary. Northern Wei Dynasty (A.D. 386-535).
  3. Pottery figure of a Military Dignitary. Northern Wei Dynasty (A.D. 386-535).
  4. Carved porcelain vase from Tz'u Chou. Sung Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279).
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Source: Richard S. Davis, "Institute Acquires Important Group of Chinese Ceramics," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 40, no. 22 (June, 1951): 106-109.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009