MONUMENTAL CHINESE VASES OF THE KANGXI PERIOD
The Emperor Kangxi was the first Qing dynasty ruler to consolidate power after the tumult of the mid-17th century, and one of the most important acts of his early reign was the reinvigoration of the famous porcelain kilns at Jingdezhen. In 1680 he established a commission to investigate the state of the porcelain industry, following that with the 1682 appointment of a highly capable and innovative Director of the Kilns. Jingdezhen began to turn out high quality porcelains both for the Imperial household and for export to Europe, where only pottery was being produced and the best Chinese porcelains were highly desired by princely collectors.
Vases of the scale of the present pair were extremely difficult to create, in the Kangxi period or any other era. And the double-gourd form was even more difficult to achieve successfully in wood-fired, brick kilns than a straight-sided vase, such as the famous Dresden "dragoon" vases. Prior to the emergence of the present pair of vases, there seem to have been just seven vases known in this shape, scale and decoration. In the collection of Augustus the Strong a five-piece garniture was comprised of: 3 Töpfen mit doppelten Bäuchen, so blau und roth gemahlet sind, und Deckeln, auf deren jeden ein doppelt blauer runder Knopf ("3 jars with double bellies painted in blue and red and covers each surmounted by a double round knop"), as recorded in the 1721 inventory in the ‘Blau und Weiss Ost Indisch’ category, under ‘no. 10 vvv.’ Two vases and covers, 36 5/8 and 35 3/4 inches (93 and 91 cm.) high, are in the RA Collection, illustrated and discussed by Maria Antonia Pinto de Matos (The RA Collection of Chinese Ceramics, Jorge Welsh Books, London 2011, vol. III, p. 300). Two appeared on the European art market (Vanderven & Vanderven, s’Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands) 35 5/8 and 36 inches (90.5 and 91.5 cm.), and two are in the collection of the National Museum of Decorative Arts in Madrid. The present pair is by some margin the largest of this small group.
THE DOUBLE-GOURD IN CHINA
Many cultures developed in ancient times the practice of manipulating the shape of growing gourds by tying them with string Dried, it makes a very useful container. Dried, these double gourds were used in China to hold medicines and tonics, and thus the shape became closely associated with magic elixirs and wishes for good health. Small double gourds were also used as cricket cages, while larger sometimes formed musical instruments. The attribute of Li Tie Guai, one of the Eight Taoist Immortals, is the double gourd, sometimes shown emitting wisps of smoke to symbolize his free spirit, able to wander the world. The Chinese word for gourd is hulu, in part a homophone for the word meaning protection or blessing, further strengthening the magical associations of the gourd in China.
AUGUSTUS THE STRONG AND HIS EXTRAORDINARY COLLECTION
Elector Friedrich Augustus I of Saxony, later Augustus II, King of Poland, inherited a kunstkammer rich in coins, arms, paintings and other treasures. But it was his outsized ambitions, his zeal for collecting and his unquenchable passion for artworks that built these riches into the astonishing collections that made Dresden the cultural heart of Europe. He founded the famous Green Vault as the first treasure museum open to the public, created an important library and formed important collections of clocks and instruments, of classical antiquities and of natural curiosities. He also brought together and reorganized the existing collections of paintings, firearms, clocks and instruments.
But it is for his fascination – or perhaps obsession – with porcelain that Augustus the Strong is best remembered. By his death in 1733 Augustus had amassed some 20,000 pieces of Chinese, Japanese and Meissen porcelain, the latter famously created under his assiduous patronage. His grand plan was to create a “Japanese Palace” to exhibit this vast collection with appropriate splendor, but though the plans had been drawn up – showing large, sumptuous halls divided into Chinese, Japanese and Meissen displays – it was unfinished at Augustus’s death. His son, Augustus III, did finish the building, and added treasures like the famed life-size Meissen animals, but by the middle of 18th century European visitors complained that most of the splendid porcelain collection was not on view.
In 1781 the porcelains that were displayed in the Japanese Palace were taken down and stored in its cellars, replaced by antiques, coins and the library. In later decades of the 19th century the decision was taken to transform the porcelain collections into a history of ceramics, with pieces traded away to achieve this aim. At this time the porcelain displays were moved into the Johanneum, another part of the Zwinger Palace compound, giving rise the misnomer ‘Johanneum mark’ for those marks that were wheel-engraved into some of the pieces in the time of Augustus. And in the 20th century there were two auctions of ceramics from the holdings, in 1919 and 1920 in Berlin.
An inventory of the Augustus the Strong porcelain collection was made in 1721, with supplements made until 1727. Chinese, Japanese and Meissen were recorded separately, though descriptions were not precise. In 1779 another inventory was recorded, showing gaps where perhaps some pieces wandered during the Seven Years War.
Augustus collected during the Kangxi Emperor's reign and was clearly drawn to the classic Kangxi aesthetic, as seen in such wares as the famous 'dragoon vases' that the Elector acquired from Frederick the Great of Prussia in exchange for a regiment of soldiers. Quite a few of the Augustus the Strong large-scale baluster jars and covers feature the same deep, foliate-scroll-filled lappets as the present pair of vases.
The remarkable survival of these monumental double-gourd vases, still with their distinctive original covers, is an extraordinary link to the princely taste of early 18th century Europe.