The ceramic tradition marches on unabated
CERAMICS have long been Asian art’s most reliable record breakers. In the West, it is paintings that always top the price list, while in Asia, it’s ceramics. Mostly, this means Chinese wares of the Ming or Qing dynasty, but another Far Eastern contender has been known to assert itself. As in the case of cars and handphones, Korea makes the occasional bid for supremacy. It has been quite a few years since a Korean work established a world record, and since then it has been China every time.
Southeast Asia also has a proud ceramic tradition, at vastly lower prices than wares from China, Korea and Japan. The Malay peninsula, however, has never been king of the kiln. Tastes here have generally been a bit different, and when a distinct style has emerged, it has tended to be imported from elsewhere. In the case of Nonya wares, with their uniquely tropical colours, the place of origin was China.
None of this has stopped the West Malaysian chapter of the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society from being perhaps the most influential and enduring group of art enthusiasts in the country. When their members and the public gathered recently at the theatrette of the Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery, it was close to a full house, which was an unlikely achievement on a rainy Friday night on the eve of Ramadan.
The attraction was probably not the theatrette itself, comfortable and elegant though it is, but rather the presence of one of the world’s leading authorities on Chinese ceramics. The Secretary General of the Beijing Palace Museum Board, Madam Wang Liying is custodian to around two million artefacts, a large number of which are ceramics. Her enthusiasm for the subject and her endless list of credentials are backed up by a smile as illuminating as a piece of blanc-de-chine porcelain.
It was equally reassuring that this eminent authority actually came from China, when so many specialists in non-Western art are from the West. She has been involved in the field for 50 years and shows no sign of waning commitment. The penalty for Wang’s having dedicated her life to the study of Chinese art is that Mandarin is her medium of communication. With no less than three interpreters on hand, the Southeast Asian Ceramics Society was able to overcome this obstacle. A picture, of course, is worth more than 1,000 characters, and there was plenty of photographic evidence to admire.
Wang presented a broad sweep of Chinese ceramic history, not just looking at the more recent centuries with their immediate appeal as record breakers. From the investment point of view there is a curious inverse relationship between age and financial value in this field. Although 19th and 20th Century works have yet to make the big time, many of the top lots have tended to be 18th Century or a little earlier. If you go back as far as the 18th Century BC, or even a few millennia earlier, interest among collectors wanes. For Wang, monetary considerations are not part of the picture at all. From an historical and art-appreciation viewpoint, it is good to be reminded about the pioneer works that set China on the course that would forever link its name to fired clay.
The Neolithic wares that started Wang’s talk are among mankind’s earliest expressions of a creative urge. She is adept at bringing out the less obvious aspects of works that usually impress with their age rather than their virtuoso skill. One well-known type of early pitcher clearly resembles the head of a bird reaching towards the sky, although I had never noticed this detail until it was pointed out by Wang.
There were no terracotta warriors on display. Instead, the smaller and more ubiquitous types of tomb guardians were shown prominently. Once again, it was apparent how expressive ceramics can be. When not being modelled into a cake stand or gravy boat by European manufacturers, fired clay can rival sculpture of any medium. One illustration showed a lively team of camel and attendant, while a different work, also from the Tang dynasty, consisted of a military guardian armed with a smile more frightening than any conventional weaponry.
In contrast to the exuberance of multi-coloured Tang sculptures is the more sober and pared-down appeal of wares from the Song era. These are as pure and celestial as other works are florid and earthy. The variety is astounding. Unlike painting, which is an art form usually limited to two dimensions, ceramics can take almost any form. Painting and calligraphy have always been favourites of the literati class in China, but ceramics have been loved by everyone from the emperor downwards. They were even admired by barbaric foreigners who chose to burn scrolls and loot ceramics.
Clay is the lifeblood of Chinese history, admirably presented by Madam Wang. It’s a long history, though. By her calculations we are looking at 10,000 years of production. Difficult to cram all of this into a lecture. Two hours into her talk, she had barely scratched the surface of what, to most admirers, is China’s supreme achievement — blue and white porcelain. She will surely return to complete the picture, no doubt with a further collection of credentials to her name.