Teasing the Eye - The Search for Novelty in the High Qing
Rosemary Scott - Senior Academic Advisor
The first part of the Qing dynasty saw a quite remarkable artistic fluorescence. The arts in almost every field flourished. Once the dynastic wars were ended and the Ming resurgences were quelled, the empire enjoyed a period of relative peace and prosperity. Patronage was secure, the supply of raw materials fairly reliable, and the workshops were able to concentrate on honing the skills of their craftsmen, perfecting their existing technologies and developing new ones.
In the field of ceramics this situation was combined at the imperial kilns with able directors and the personal attention of succeessive emperors. Such was the state of development of the ceramics industry that by the second quarter of the 18th century the potters could achieve almost any decorative effect requested by their demanding patron. Underglaze painting in blue and red was fully mastered, the range of monochrome glazes was staggering, and there was an admirable range of successful overglaze enamel colours. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the search for novelty and exoticism became prevalent.
The mood of the court is perhaps caught by some costume portraits commissioned by the Yongzheng emperor. Of the three great Qing emperors - Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong - Yongzheng was perhaps the most serious and the least flamboyant, and yet he had a series of portraits painted showing himself in a range of different exotic guises including those of: a Persian warrior, a Turkish prince, a Daoist magician, and strangest of all a European gentleman complete with curling wig.
On the simplest level this desire for something a little more unusual can be seen in the rise in popularity of multiple forms. Double fish vases had been popular on and off since the Tang dynasty and resurfaced again - sometimes very close to the Tang original as in the white Yongzheng example in the Palace Museum, Beijing (The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 37 - Monochrome Porcelain, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 125, no. 114). But double vessels of other kinds also emerged, and were followed by larger multiples where three, four or five vessels were conjoined. These would have been quite difficult to fire successfully, but nothing like as difficult as the pierced, double-walled and even revolving forms that came into vogue in the Qianlong reign (for an example see The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 39 - Porcelains with Cloisonne enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 176, no. 156).
These are ingenious and technically difficult, but complexity did not end with the forms. In addition to developing enamel colours to satisfy the emperor' s demand for colours like those on European wares, the Chinese ceramic decorators produced designs of astonishing meticulousness, exemplified by the minutely executed scrolling backgrounds on some of the finely painted overglaze enamelled wares. There was a further interesting decorative theme on the ceramics, and other media, of this period - archaism. This was at its most varied in the Qianlong reign, when it ranged from the flamboyant to the very subtle. A fascination with antiques was prevalent at the courts of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors, as indicated by a number of surviving court paintings. The most famous of these paintings, of which more than one version has been preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is the portrait of the Qianlong Emperor and inscribed by him Shi yi shi er, (One or Two?). This was exhibited at the Macao Art Museum and illustrated in the catalogue The Life of Emperor Qian Long, Macao, 2002, no. 42, where two more versions are also shown. In these paintings the emperor is depicted at leisure, dressed in Han scholar's robes surrounded by antiques from the imperial collection. The more general court interest in antiques can be seen in one of twelve album leaves by the artist Chen Mei (d. AD 1745), which depict The Pursuit of Pleasure in the Course of the Seasons. These album leaves are also in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. One shows court ladies admiring paintings and antiques and it was so prized by the emperor that he commanded that this album leaf be copied in carved ivory. This transfer from one material to another also became a theme among the decorative arts of the high Qing, particularly the Qianlong reign.
It among the archaistic pieces that we see some of the most technically accomplished porcelains that delighted in teasing the eye, since they were decorated in such a way as to make them appear to be fashioned from another material. By the Qianlong reign the skill of the potters in using overglaze and on-biscuit enamels was such that they were able to mimic the appearance of a wide range of other media. In the current sale there is a spectacular porcelain gu vessel (lot 1239) with slender body and widely flaring mouth redolent of Shang dynasty bronze vessels. Not only does this porcelain gu have fine low-relief decoration like that cast on the surface of the bronze original, enamels have been exceptionally skilfully used to reproduce the patina of ancient bronze and the gold of inlays. The result is one of the most elegant of Qianlong archaistic trompe l'oeil vessels.
The copying in porcelain of another type of metalwork also found great favour with the court in the 18th century. This type of metalwork was cloisonne enamel, in which wires were applied to the surface of the metal body creating cloisons into which coloured enamels were placed and then fired. Later, when the surface had been rendered smooth, the surface of the wires was often gilded producing a particularly rich effect. This was copied in porcelain in two ways. In one version the raise lines of the metal wires were replicated in very fine relief outlines on the surface of the porcelain. The coloured enamels were applied with extreme care, and the upper surface of the relief lines were gilded. A particularly exquisite example of this technique can be seen in the superb pair of covered porcelain vases with lotus pond motif in the current sale (lot 1241). It is worthy of note that the theme of the lotus pond was also a popular one on metal-bodied cloisonne wares. The other popular method of reproducing cloisonne enamels in porcelain can be seen on two more especially fine vessels in the current sale - the large and impressive Tibetan-style ewer (lot 1244) and the lovely little censer (lot 1240). The cylindrical body of the Tibetan-style ewer is painted using enamels of the same palette that is most often found on metal-bodied wares to depict scrolls similar to those found on metal cloisonne vessels. On this piece and on the censer the outlines of the designs are not raised, but are painted in gold enamel to give the impression of the gilded upper surface of wires. The upper section of the censer is coloured with speckled gold enamel to give a beautiful metallic sheen, while the lower part appear to be encased in a cloisonne lotus, reminiscent of the form of some especially prized cloisonne lotus shaped boxes.
Closely related to these faux cloisonne wares, are those porcelains which imitate champleve. Champleve enamel on metal requires that the design is cut out of the surface of the item to be enamelled and then coloured enamels are placed in the resulting cavities and then fired. An exceptionally lovely little waterpot in the current sale (lot 1238) is a fine example of the porcelain version of this technique. It has been decorated with a deep sapphire-blue ground against which the shaded pink of the flowers stands out particularly well. While still having gold enamel outlines for the main decorative elements, in imitation of the metallic surface of the original, the style of pieces of this type differs somewhat from that seen on the porcelains imitating cloisonne.
It was not only metals items that were copied in porcelain, however. The 18th century saw porcelains made in imitation of lacquer, various natural stones, wood, glass, and even textiles. In the current sale is a charming small bottle that has been decorated to look like pale green glass (lot 1242). The delight taken by the ceramic artist in imitating other objects, can be seen especially clearly in another porcelain piece in the current sale. This is a box made to look like a book with patterned textile cover (lot 1237). Firstly the ceramicist has chosen to disguise the function of the piece by making it look like a traditionally bound Chinese volume. Secondly the potter has carefully reproduced the appearance of the various materials used in a traditional binding - the toggles, the paper title strip with ink calligraphy, the edges of the paper pages, and most significantly the textile used for the cover. All these have been copies with great skill and a rare feel for the precise colours of the different media.
These are just some of the ways in which the Chinese potters tired to provide their patrons with the novelty and interest they desired. The way in which the ceramic artist was able to tease the eye of the viewer with his imitation of other materials, no doubt particularly appealed to the Qianlong emperor with his love of the exotic.
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