On a brief visit to Paris during their Spring Asian Art Week, I gave a brief tour of the Chinese ceramic galleries of the Guimet Museum. I had not visited the museum since prior to the pandemic, so it was good to be back and to see this great collection again.
Since my last visit, the 3rd floor has been given over to a display of 18th century export birds, some of which, for example the phoenix, the swan tureen and a black and white duck next to it, are rare examples.
The purpose of my visit that day was to give my guests a brief introduction to the subject of Chinese ceramics and to try, in about an hour or so, to bring the subject alive with examples that would help to tell this story.
To this end, I decided not to give a chronological survey, but in fact began with the latest material first and worked backwards. This partly coincided with the clients interest, but I also felt that the more recent material was more immediately accessible than those from the distant past.
I decided to start with a vase that is a technical tour de force that would not fail to impress and dazzle the viewer. That is the large Qianlong mark and period millefleurs baluster vase, donated by Ernest Grandidier to the state in 1894. I have shown three sides of this vase and please click on each image for a close up view. On close inspection, it is evident that this has been painted by an artist of considerable technical ability, who has managed to create a unified whole in the execution of a very complicated design. The even distribution of colours, such as iron-red, pink and white and the repetition of certain flowers, such as lotus, peony and chrysanthemum has helped to create this effect.
We then proceeded to the galleries exhibiting famille rose enamels and I chose another vase which is a personal favourite – That is the tall baluster vase painted with numerous flowers including magnolia and peony. These are painted to the lower section of the vase, below a gilded blue ground neck and flaring rim. Besides the use of the pink enamel, these wares display the use of an opaque white and yellow enamel. These enamels allowed the artist to create greater tonal modelling, a technique which had derived from the European Jesuit artists who were employed at the imperial court from the latter part of the reign of the Kangxi Emperor.
Some examples of this style of early enamelling can be seen on a number of bowls in this gallery, which all bear enamel marks of The Kangxi emperor. These examples were enamelled in the Forbidden City workshops (Zaobanchu) and are known as Falangcai.
As a point of contrast, it made sense to have a look at the Kangxi period wares that were painted in famille verte enamels to guage the technical differences in the decoration. Here the enamel decoration is applied directly onto the fired and glazed surfaces in transparent washes that are outlined in iron-red and black enamel. Three dimensional effects are manly created by overlapping and the scale of the elements depicted.
From 18th century enamelled wares, we moved to the blue and white galleries and I briefly discussed the development and popularity of this medium. Painting an unfired porcelain body in cobalt dates back to the 14th century and developed as a popular medium for two main reasons: the first was because designs were very striking, where the deep cobalt blue colours contrasted so favourably with the white porcelain ground. The other reason was that it was relatively cheap to produce, as it only required one firing. A high level of skill in painting was required, as mistakes could not be rectified as the paint was immediately absorbed into the body of the piece being decorated.
One very striking example in the Guimet is the large hexagonal baluster vase, painted with sprays of flowers and fruit, bordered with European Rococo inspired C-scrolls. With its grand size and European design influences, It is quite possible that this vase may have originally been displayed in the old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan).
We then looked at a number of late Ming examples with bold potting and striking painting. One of the most notable is the large Jiajing mark and period dragon jar. The central field of the jar is painted with a lively five-claw dragon, which is painted with his mouth ajar and his eyes bulging. As with many wares of this period this jar is painted in distinctive deep blue tones, sometimes referred to as ‘Mohammedan blue’
Another notable example is the Wanli period (1572-1620) five peak dragon brush rest. This is painted in a deep blue colour and each peak is formed by the head of a dragon. This piece would have been used on the scholars table to rest his brush whilst painting.
We then looked at some early Ming examples of blue and white and the large Yongle period (1402-1424) grape dish was particularly notable. It is painted to the centre with three bunches of grapes, with various flower sprays in the cavetto. Dishes in this period are made with bracket-lobed and straight rims, the former being more distinctive. These large dishes were made for the Middle Eastern market and reflected the style of communal eating that was practiced there at the time.
Another striking early Ming piece was the underglaze copper-red kendi dating from the Hongwu period (1368-1398). This example is painted with a continuous chrysanthemum scroll below a band of ruyi. It is rare to find a vessel with such a bright and consistent red colour and much of the copper-red fired in this period misfired to a grey colour. The same distinctive design of chrysanthemum can be seen on a blue and white dish of the same period. They continuous scroll surrounds a central roundel painted with a peony.
One of the most rare and significant pieces in the ceramic galleries at the Guimet is the Yuan dynasty white slip-decorated blue ground dragon meiping vase. The majority of wares produced in the Yuan dynasty employ a cobalt blue pigment, which is painted on to a white ground. A small group of wares were produced that employed the technique of covering the whole vessel in cobalt, to which a design in white slip was added over the top of it.
The effect of the white animal against the deep blue ground is somewhat striking and the scales of the dragon are carved into the body which gives the animal a greater sense of realism. There is a small dish in the Percival David Foundation which his decorated with a similarly lively white dragon and a larger dish with a barbed rim decorated with a qilin, pheasant and phoenix in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul.
Continuing our tour chronologically backwards, we were next to look at the wares of the Song dynasty. I began with a brief comparison between northern celadons wares from the Yaozhou and Longquan kilns. Of particular note in this group is the early Northern Song phoenix head ewer which is particularly well potted and carved with flowers in high relief. Carved animals are particularly rare in Yaozhou wares and the galleries has a well modelled lion, seated on its haunches with its right foot on a brocade ball.
The Longquan wares of the Southern Song are distinctly different from those of the north. During this period, these wares are minimalist in style and tend to rely more on their shape and glaze and less on carved decoration. In the subsequent Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), Longquan wares are generally larger and rely, to a greater degree, on carved or moulded decoration.
We then briefly looked at some of the other Song classic wares, including Jun and Ding, as well as some of the painted and carved Cizhou wares. The two pillows were of particular note and are finely painted with a bird and figure scene. The last pieces we looked at were some of the sancai (three coloured) wares from the Tang dynasty (618-906) and some furniture and scholar pieces.
I look forward to returning to the Guimet again in the future and spending time in these and other galleries.