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A RARE LARGE MING-STYLE BLUE AND WHITE MOONFLASK, BIANHU
PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION, ACQUIRED IN ASIA 1920-1943A RARE LARGE MING-STYLE BLUE AND WHITE MOONFLASK, BIANHURosemary Scott Senior International Academic Consultant, Asian Art This magnificent flask is exceptionally large, and takes both its form and its decoration from vessels made in the early 15th century. The Yongzheng Emperor was, like his father, a keen antiquarian and a significant number of the art items made for his court were made in antique style. The blue and white porcelains of the early 15th century were particularly admired, and so their style was often adopted for imperial Yongzheng wares. Indeed, the famous director of the imperial kilns, Tang Ying (唐英1682-1756), who first came to Jingdezhen as resident assistant in 1728 and stayed until well into the Qianlong reign, was especially celebrated for his success in imitating earlier wares. The 1795 Jingdezhen tao lu 景德鎮陶錄by 藍浦Lan Pu noted that: ‘his close copies of famous wares of the past were without exception worthy partners [of the originals]’. For most connoisseurs of Chinese ceramics, the so-called moon-flasks are classic Chinese porcelain forms. However, the form has a surprisingly long history in international art, although it is possible that the Chinese early Ming dynasty form was inspired either by metalwork or glass of the Islamic era, as argued by B. Gray in ‘The Influence of Near Eastern Metalwork on Chinese Ceramics’, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 18, 1940-41, p. 57 and pl. 7F). However, one of the earliest flattened circular flasks with handles joining the mouth of the vessel to the shoulder on either side of the neck is the unglazed pottery flask decorated with an octopus painted in dark brown, which was found among the late Minoan artefacts at Palaikastro on the island of Crete. The Minoan flask dates to about 1500 BC, and thus was contemporary with the Shang dynasty in China (illustrated by Spyridon Marinatos and Max Hirmer, Crete and Mycenae, New York, 1960, pl. 87). One version of the Chinese ceramic moon-flask shape, which has no upper bulb, but simply a circular body with rounded edges looks as though should have its origins in two bowls being stuck together rim to rim, although in fact the early Chinese form is luted horizontally, not vertically. The Minoan flask, however, appears to have been made in precisely the former method. Examples of slightly later vessels are the flattened circular flasks from Nineveh - in this case with their handles on the shoulders - dating to the Parthian period (150 BC-AD 250), which is roughly contemporary with the Han dynasty in China (a number are preserved in the collection of the British Museum). A number of glazed pottery flasks of flattened circular form with handles on either side of the neck are found among Sassanian ceramics (AD 224-642). A small Sassanian flask with turquoise glaze, from Šuš, in the Iran Bastan Museum, is close to the Parthian example, and reasonably close to one of the early fifteen century Chinese porcelain moon-flask shapes - the strap handles joining the lower part neck, if not the mouth (The World’s Great Collections - Oriental Ceramics, Vol. 4, Iran Bastan Museum Tehran, Tokyo, 1981, colour plate 12). A green glazed earthenware pilgrim flask, also from Šuš, dates to the Sassanian period (AD 224-642), and is also in the collection of the Iran Bastan Museum, Teheran (illustrated ibid., black and white plate 101). This flask has flat encircling sides forming a relatively sharp junction with the front and back circular panels, which are noticeably domed, similar to later metalwork examples, and also similar to the lower section of 15th and 18th century flasks, such as the current vessel. Interestingly a similarly shaped flask - circular with sharp angles to flat sides - was made in China during the Liao dynasty (916-1125), and a green-glazed example - without handles, but with six loops spaced around the flat sides for suspending the vessel from a saddle - was excavated from a tomb in Inner Mongolia in 1965 (See Zhongguo wenwu jinghua daquan - Taoci juan 中國文物精華大全陶瓷卷, Taipei, 1994, p. 164, no. 560). Unlike most early circular flasks this vessel stands on a rectangular foot similar to that on the later porcelain flasks, including the current Yongzheng moon-flask. A number of similarities can be seen between the Liao 10th-11th century vessel and both the flattened moon-flasks with upper bulb made in China in the Yongle and Xuande reigns, which inspired the current vessel - such as the example from the Riesco Collection sold by Christie’s Hong Kong on 27 November 2013, lot 3111 - and the large, flat-backed Chinese porcelain flasks without a bulb upper section, which were made in the early 15th century, with loop handles on the sides of the vessel, one of which was sold by Christie’s London on 6 November 2007, lot 156. A distinct foot can also be seen on a green glass flask in the Tareq Rajab Museum in Kuwait (illustrated on http://www.trmkt.com/glassdetails.htm). This is a Syrian flask from the late 7th or early 8th century - contemporary with the Tang dynasty in China, and was made of mould blown and cut glass. A vessel of identical form was found in an excavation at Tarsus in south-eastern Anatolia in the 1930s, in a context with Umayyad and early Abbasid pottery. The handles attach only to the lower part of the neck of this vessel. Although these glass forms could have made their way to China, as Near Eastern glass was much appreciated in the Tang dynasty, metalwork seems a more likely inspiration for the specific form of the precursors of the current flask. There is a somewhat larger Syrian brass canteen, dating to the mid-13th century, in the collection of the Freer Gallery, Washington (illustrated on http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/online/islamic/artofobject1b.htm), which is of very similar form to the lower section of the two-section flasks, and has close similarities with the single section, flat-backed flask sold by Christie’s in November 2007, mentioned above. Interestingly the brass canteen is decorated with Christian imagery as well as calligraphy, geometric designs and animal scrolls. This Syrian mid-13th century brass canteen in the Freer Gallery appears to be the only published example of such a metal vessel, but it shares a number of features with the form of the Chinese porcelain two-section flasks, having both a bulb-shaped mouth and similarly S-form handles. When the flattened flasks with upper and lower section in double-gourd form appear in porcelain at the Chinese Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in the early 15th century, they appear with varied proportions, and in both plain white and blue and white. A plain white example of the larger type from the Yongle reign (1403-24), which was excavated from the early Yongle stratum at the Imperial kilns, is illustrated in Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong, 1989, pp. 92-3, no. 5. A blue and white Yongle flask of the smaller size is in the collection of the British Museum (illustrated by J. Harrison Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, p. 110, no. 3:21). Large and smaller flasks decorated and undecorated were made in the Yongle and Xuande periods, and the Yongle vessels usually stand on an oval foot, while the Xuande examples usually have a rectangular foot. The Yongle vessels do not have reign marks, while some of the Xuande flasks have the reign mark written in underglaze blue in a horizontal line below the mouth. It has been suggested by some authors that these flasks, particularly the blue and white examples with decoration clearly inspired by Islamic arabesques, were made solely for export to the Islamic West. However, one crucial piece of evidence suggests that this is not the case. A shard from one of these flasks, bearing the same decoration as the vessel sold by Christie’s Hong Kong in 2013 was excavated from the Yongle/Xuande stratum at the site of the early Ming dynasty Imperial Palace in Nanjing (See A Legacy of the Ming, Hong Kong, 1996, p. 48, no. 52). Clearly these elegant flasks were also appreciated by the Chinese court in the first half of the 15th century. This imperial appreciation is also demonstrated in the 18th century by the vessels, such as the current Yongzheng flask, which were so closely inspired by the early 15th century examples. A much smaller Yongzheng flask of similar shape with decoration, which precisely imitates Xuande 15th century flasks, is in the collection of the Shanghai Museum (see 陸明華Lu Minghua ed., Qingdai qinghua ciqi jian shang 清代青花瓷器鑒賞, Shanghai, 1996, pl. 16). A further smaller Yongzheng moon-flask, with bulb mouth and twin handles, and decorated in 15th century style, is illustrated by 錢振宗 Qian Zhenzong in Qingdai ciqi shangjian 青代瓷器賞鑑, Hong Kong, 1994, p. 84, no. 97. The mixed floral scroll seen on the current flask is also was also inspired by early 15th century imperial porcelains, but was more frequently applied to meiping vases, large bulbous flasks or open wares. However, the 18th century decorator clearly saw the potential for its application to enhance the current flask. Significantly, a Yongzheng blue and white moon-flask with short straight neck and twin handles, without a raised foot, in the collection of the Palace Museum Beijing, is decorated with a similar mixed floral scroll to that on the current flask (see 故宮博物院藏 青代御窰瓷器 Gugong Bowuyuan cang – Qingdai yuyao ciqi, volume I-2, Beijing, 2005, pp. 104-5, no. 41). The Beijing flask also bears a reign mark of similar style to that on the current flask.
A RARE LARGE MING-STYLE BLUE AND WHITE MOONFLASK, BIANHU

YONGZHENG SIX-CHARACTER SEAL MARK IN UNDERGLAZE BLUE AND OF THE PERIOD (1725-1735)

Details
A RARE LARGE MING-STYLE BLUE AND WHITE MOONFLASK, BIANHU
YONGZHENG SIX-CHARACTER SEAL MARK IN UNDERGLAZE BLUE AND OF THE PERIOD (1725-1735)
The vessel is decorated to each convex side of the flattened circular body with a network of stylised floral scrolls, cleverly highlighted with simulated heaping and piling effect, all within a narrow scroll border. The shoulders are applied with a pair of elegant strap handles, each decorated with meandering foliage bearing flowers, terminating in ruyi heads, all below the 'garlic' neck painted with several horizontal bands of floral scrolls.
20 7/8 in. (53 cm.) high
Provenance
Acquired in Asia by the grandfather of the current owner between 1920-1943.

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