Ceramics in China today: some artistic works you can have or imitate

Chinese ceramics, known mainly for Chinese-invented porcelain, has a long tradition of technical and stylistic innovations. Chinese ceramics and porcelain have had a great influence on the development of techniques and styles in Korea, Japan and Europe.

In these last months, China has been in the front page of all the media, although sadly, it has not been because of its ceramics.

In the architecture of the temples, the colorful ceramics are present, especially in the ceilings finished off by sculptures of protective animals.

Dehua and the Blanc de Chine

Our journey began in Dehua in the province of Fujian, where historically the famous blanc de Chine (white porcelain generally without painted ornaments) has been produced since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Several ceramic museums such as the Dehua Ceramics Museum present Buddhist statues of Guanyin (bodhisattva of compassion venerated in Buddhism) and warriors, but also tableware and fine flowers in porcelain, mostly contemporary. Such a way of presenting the works would be unimaginable in Europe, but there, the infinite multitude of showcases and objects is usually very common.

Designers like Ting & Ying have settled in Dehua to produce, together with talented local ceramists, amazing creations that are presented in international fairs such as COLLECT in London and exhibited in the Victoria & Albert Museum in the English capital.

One of these artists is Su Xianzhong (1968) whose workshop gathers abstract sculptures made of infinitely fine porcelain leaves, like paper, which contrast with his erotic works. Upstairs, on the second floor of the exhibition space, are works by his father (the “master”); on the second floor, his own creations and on the first floor, those of his students, or rather “disciples”. Throughout the trip, we encountered again this hierarchy that surprised us as much as the immense respect for the master ceramists and the incredible humility of the disciples who are formed by copying the work of their mentor for years, before freeing themselves to create their own style. Although this is not always the case, it is common for the technique to be passed on from one generation to another, from father to son and daughter.

The impressive dragon or “long yao” kilns, built following the steep slope of the land, reached a hundred meters at the peak of ceramic production in China.

The Celadons of Longquan

Longquan Celadon (龍泉青磁) refers to a type of ceramic glaze made in China, and at the same time the piece glazed with it, produced in the Longquan kilns (龍泉) in Lishui Prefecture in southwestern Zhejiang Province. Together with those of other prefectures, the total number of kilns discovered adds up to more than two hundred, making the Longquan celadon production area one of the largest historical centers of ceramics in all of China. “The traditional firing technique of Longquan celadon ceramics” was included in 2009 by UNESCO in the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Longquan city, located in the coastal province of Zhejian, is renowned for its celadon ceramics and the traditional firing technique that gives it its characteristic glaze. This glaze, which is composed of golden purple clay and a mixture of calcined feldspar, limestone, quartz and vegetable ashes, is prepared using procedures that are usually passed down from generation to generation by master craftsmen or from parents to children. The glaze is applied to fired stoneware pottery and then fired according to a cycle of six firing and cooling operations in which the precision of the temperatures is paramount, since any insufficiency or excess in the firing prevents the desired effect from being obtained. Artists who are experts in the art of celadon ceramics carefully control each stage of its manufacture using a thermometer and observing the color of the flame, which can reach temperatures of up to 1,310º C. The final product is of two kinds: the “big brother” celadon with a dark finish and a cracking effect; and the “little brother” with a thick finish and a lavender grey and plum green color. The underlying jade color in the celadon ceramics manufactured by Longquan’s family companies makes the objects made with this technique appreciated as artistic works of exceptional quality that can also be used for domestic purposes. Celadon pottery is a symbol of the cultural heritage of Longquan’s artisans and a source of pride for them, their city and the entire nation. (UNESCO/BPI).

In Longquan (Zhejiang Province), we visited a giant new museum, the Longquan Celadon Ware Museum, Longquan and several workshops that produce the famous celadons (see my article Timeless Celadons in Infoceramics) such as Lu Weisun’s (1962).

History

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The long history of celadon production in Longquan and related sites began in the period of the Five Dynasties (五代 907-960) and in the Northern Song Dynasty (北宋 960-1127) when its production really began on a large scale. During the Five Dynasties, the merchandise showed a variety of shapes and finishes with the characteristic of “Yuezhou” enamel (岳州). In the Northern Song period, the merchandise was produced in Dayao (大窑) alone in twenty-three kilns. The largest production of ceramics occurred under the periods of the Southern Song Dynasty 南宋 (1127-1279), Yuan (元 1279-1368) and Ming (明 1368-1644).

Longquan celadon type pottery has been an important part of China’s export economy for over five hundred years. Since the 20th century, domestic and foreign scholars and amateurs have visited the firing sites. Among the first modern Chinese researchers who carried out systematic research is Chen Wanli in 1927 and 1934, as he explains the celadon in Dayao reached the perfection of jade with the work of the ceramic brothers Zhang Shengyi and Zhang Schenger.

In the period of the Southern Song Dynasty, a greater variety of shapes and colors began to appear in the glaze. Collectors have treasured magnificent examples with a blue glaze that has been called “kinutaseiji” (砧青瓷). Chinese collectors who have enjoyed a greater variety of Longquan goods have described them as “meizi ching” or “green plum”. After this Southern Song period, Longquan celadon ceramics experienced an expansion of production with a decline in quality, but its works have continued to be imitated in Jungdezhen and Japan.

The discovery of a sunken ship off the coast of Korea in 1976 has contributed to the academic recognition of Longquan celadon. The finely finished South Song celadon was found to have been manufactured well into the Yuan Mongolian period. Another excellent example of a Song Dynasty porcelain wreck is the Nanhai I, which will be a centerpiece at the Maritime Silk Road Museum.

The Hangzhou School of Art

In Hangzhou (Zhejiang province) we were able to visit the Chinese Art Academy. Chinese and European teachers teach students the techniques of ceramics in a fabulous campus with buildings and pavilions designed by internationally famous architects, such as the Design Museum of the Portuguese Alvaro Siza or the Folk Art Museum of the Japanese Kengo Kuma, among others. Some works by the Chinese painter and ceramist Bai Ming (1965) were exhibited there. A retrospective exhibition of his work was recently shown at Keramis, the ceramics center in La Louviere, Belgium.

Jingdezhen, world cradle of porcelain

Porcelain was invented in China and the secret of its manufacture took more than a thousand years to reach Europe where the first factory opened in Meissen, Germany, in the early 18th century. The Ariana Museum in Geneva currently displays private Swiss collections of Meissen porcelain.

In Jingdezhen, the world cradle of porcelain, where the old imperial kilns were located, we could discover a center-museum “Ancient Kiln & Folk Customs Museum” and workshops with demonstrations where ancestral gestures are repeated and all the stages of the manufacture of this famous “white gold” can be admired.

A district with numerous workshops of monumental and small works

The district of Tao Xi Chuan and its Ceramic Art Avenue revalues the industrial heritage by reconverting old porcelain factories into workshops, galleries, hotels and restaurants.

In Jingdezhen, the Chinese artist Caroline Cheng (1963) directs The Pottery Workshop, a revitalized neighborhood with the installation of a complex that includes a school, workshops, ceramic stores and cafes.

We also visited The Opposite Studio, an artist’s workshop and residence in Sanbao, a town near Jingdezhen, where the dynamic and welcoming Sky puts everything in place for designers and ceramists to realize their projects. There we saw some works of European artists like François Ruegg (1954) and foreigners. The artist collaborated with this workshop to create a series of works that were exhibited at the Ariana Museum in Geneva, Switzerland in 2017.

The teapots of Yxing

The Yixing teapot is a teapot made of Yixing clay (Jiangsu province) traditionally used to prepare tea. It emerged in China in the fifteenth century.

Origin

Archaeological excavations have revealed that as early as the Song Dynasty (10th century) potters near Yixing used the local zhisha clay to make utensils that could be used as teapots. The late Ming Dynasty author Zhou Gaoqi claimed that during the reign of Emperor Zhengde (1502-1521) a monk from Jinsha (‘golden sand’) Temple in Yixing made a high-quality teapot from local clay. Teapots of similar quality soon became popular among the wealthy classes, and the fame of Yixing teapots began to spread.

Characteristics and use

Yixing teapots are manufactured to make black tea and oolong tea, as well as pǔ’ěr. They can also be used for green and white teas, but for these the water should be left to cool down to about 85°C before pouring it into the teapot. Zisha teapots (a purple sand clay present only in Yixing) absorb a tiny amount of tea during cooking. After prolonged use, they develop a coating that retains the flavor and color of the tea, which is why soap should not be used to clean them, rinsing only with water and allowing them to air dry.

The size of these teapots is smaller than Western teapots, as they are designed for individual use. Traditionally some Chinese drank the tea from the spout of the teapot directly into their mouths.

There are also yixing cups to brew tea directly in them.

The legendary red stoneware teapots from Yixing (Jiangsu province), produced since the 16th century, are distinguished by their small size. Today they are sold at astronomical prices for collectors, but models are also available at a reasonable price, even in vending machines inside hotels: another example of extreme Chinese modernization.

A world competition and exhibition of teapots was held with the participation of the International Academy of Ceramics (AIC), and ceramists such as Jacques Kaufmann, Oriol Calvo-Vergés, Ming Wu and Chinese and international artists.

The Terracotta Army of Xian

What about the arrival at the first of many giant hangars near Xian city (Shaanxi province)? In those excavated pits is the famous and imposing terracotta army of the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huangdi (259 B.C. -210 B.C.), the first emperor of China, with thousands of warriors standing or kneeling and their horses. All were made with various moulds, but their faces with individualized features have a lively and unique expression. Some statues are in perfect condition, others in pieces, many have been restored and others are in the process of being restored. Fortuitously discovered in the 1970s, the archaeological site was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987. The army reproduced in terracotta had to accompany the late emperor in the afterlife for all eternity. Replicas and originals of the world famous terracotta warriors have traveled around the world to be exhibited in Bern (Switzerland), Madrid and other cities. The Xian museum also holds treasures of goldsmithing and other beautiful terracotta sculptures.

Funeral figures of the Tang Dynasty

Tang Dynasty Funeral Figures are ceramic sculptures of people and animals made in the Tang Dynasty of China (618-906) as funerary objects to be placed in graves. It was believed that the figures depicted would be available for the service of the deceased in the afterlife. The figures are made of molded earthenware with color usually added, although often not over the entire figure, but in naturalistic locations. When the coloring was done in paint it has often not survived, but in many cases it was done in Sancai ceramic glaze (three colors), which has generally been well preserved.

The figures, called mingqui in Chinese, were mostly servants, soldiers -in male graves- and assistants, such as dancers and musicians, and many undoubtedly represented courtesans. In burials of high ranking people there can be, besides soldiers, officers as well. The animals are often horses, but there are a surprising number of Bactrian camels and their Central Asian drivers, who are distinguished by their beards and thick hair, and their facial features. The depictions are realistic to an extent unprecedented in Chinese art, and the figures give archaeologists much useful information about life under the Tang era. There are also figures of the imaginary monster “earth spirits” and the fearsome human Lokapala (or tian wang ), both usually in pairs and acting as grave guards to repel attacks from spirits and humans. There are also sets of the twelve imaginary beasts of the Chinese zodiac, usually unglazed.

The figures represent a development of earlier Chinese funeral figure traditions, and in Tang the elaborate enameled figures are restricted to northern China, largely in the areas around the capitals. They “virtually disappeared” in 755 when the very disturbing An Lushan Rebellion began, probably affecting the Henan and Hebei kilns making the pieces for their elite clientele. A much diminished tradition continued in the later dynasties until the Ming Dynasty. The use of glazed pottery in Sancai figures was restricted to the upper classes, and production was controlled by the imperial bureaucracy, but a single burial of a member of the imperial family could contain hundreds of figures.

Blue and white ceramics

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“Blue and white ceramics” (in Chinese, 青花; pinyin, qīng-huā; literally, “Blue flowers/patterns”) refers to a wide range of white ceramics and porcelain decorated under cover with a blue pigment, usually cobalt oxide. The decoration is usually applied by hand, originally by painting with a brush, but currently with stamping or transfer printing, although other application methods have been used as well. Cobalt pigment is one of the few that can withstand the high firing temperatures needed, particularly for porcelain, which is partly responsible for its lasting popularity. Historically, many other colors required decoration on deck and then a second firing at a lower temperature to fix it.

The origin of this decorative style is believed to be in Iraq, where Basra craftsmen sought to imitate imported white Chinese stoneware with their own white tin-coated pottery, and added decorative motifs in blue glazes. Blue and white” pieces from the Abbasid period have been found in today’s Iraq dating back to the 9th century, decades after the opening of a direct sea route from Iraq to China.

Later, in China, a decoration style based on sinuous vegetable forms was perfected and spread throughout the object and was very common. Blue and white decoration started to be widely used in Chinese porcelain in the 14th century, after the cobalt pigment for blue started to be imported from Persia. It was widely exported, and inspired imitation ceramics in Islamic pottery, and in Japan, and later European glazed ceramics such as Delft pottery and later European porcelain, after the techniques were discovered in the 18th century. Blue and white ceramics in all these traditions continue to be produced, mostly copying ancient styles.

Origin and development

The blue coverings were first developed by the ancient Mesopotamians to imitate lapis lazuli, which was a highly prized stone. Later, a cobalt blue covering became popular in Islamic pottery during the Abbasid caliphate, when cobalt was obtained near Kashan, Oman, and northern Hejaz.

Also…

Chinese ceramics have had an extraordinary influence worldwide in both the East and the West throughout history. Today it is more alive than ever through the work of artisans and artists who perpetuate millenary gestures or innovate, in search of new ways to express themselves with this fabulous art that is ceramics.

What is porcelain?

In ceramic art, the term “Porcelain” (derived from the Italian word “porcellana”, which means a type of translucent layer) describes any ceramic that is white and translucent, no matter what ingredients it contains or what it is made of. However, it is fired at a higher temperature than regular earthenware. In Chinese ceramics, the porcelain clay body is typically heated in an oven to between 1,200 and 1,400 degrees Celsius. These temperatures cause the formation of glass and other chemical compounds, which in turn gives the porcelain its hardness, strength and translucency.

What are the ingredients of bone china?

Chinese porcelain: one of the best examples of traditional Chinese art – It is usually made from the mineral kaolinite clay, combined with pottery stone known as petunse, feldspar and quartz. Other ingredients may include ball clay, bone ash, glass, steatite and alabaster. The clays used in the manufacture of porcelain are generally lower in plasticity and shorter than other ceramic clays. In China, the composition and characteristics of northern porcelain differ significantly from those made in the south of the country.

Is Chinese porcelain glazed?

Yes, but unlike other low-firing ceramics, porcelain goods do not require glazing to make them waterproof. Therefore, glazes are applied simply for decorative purposes or to avoid staining. As it happened, several different types of glazes, including the iron-rich glazes used in Longquan’s celadon ceramics, were specifically designed for their decorative effects on porcelain.

How is bone china decorated?

Porcelain is typically decorated under the glaze with colored pigments such as cobalt and copper, or painted over the glaze with colored glazes. Today, bone china can be fired with cookies at approximately 1,000 degrees Celsius, painted with glaze, and then returned to the kiln for a second firing at approximately 1,300 degrees Celsius.

When was bone china first made?

Due to confusion about exactly what constitutes porcelain, archaeologists and art historians disagree about when the first Chinese variety was produced. Some argue that the first true porcelain was made in Zhejiang province during the late Art period of the Han dynasty (100-200 CE). For example, the fragments unearthed at the sites of the Eastern Han kiln revealed firing temperatures ranging from 1260 to 1300 degrees Celsius, fully compatible with porcelain manufacturing, meaning that Chinese ceramists invented porcelain some 1700 years before their counterparts in Europe! Meanwhile, other experts say it first appeared as one of the arts of the six dynasties (220-618 CE), or during the Art era of the Tang Dynasty (618-906).

Note: For the influence of Chinese ceramics on the ancient ceramics of Korea, see: Korean Art (c.3, 000 BCE onwards). For the history and development of porcelain in China, see Chronology of Chinese Art (c.18, 000 BCE – present). To see how Chinese ceramics adapted to the development of ceramics, see: Chronology of Ceramics (c.26, 000 BCE – 1900).

Why is Chinese porcelain so famous?

Two reasons: first, the Chinese invented porcelain, so it is often called “china” or “fine porcelain” in English-speaking countries; second, the quality of Chinese porcelain has always surpassed European goods. An Arab trader, for example, on a visit to China in 851 during the Tang Dynasty, stated that he had seen “vases as transparent as glass” made of fine clay.

Despite the early growth of westward trade routes to Central Asia, it was not until the Tang Dynasty (618-906) that China began to export its porcelain on a regular basis. The first major customer was Arabia and the Islamic world. Tang ceramists managed to combine the qualities of southern Chinese celadon and northern white porcelain with the high-quality soil of the region near the city of Jingdezhen, in the northeastern province of Jiangxi, to produce a type of white-green porcelain, known as artificial jade.

In fact, the first known item of Chinese porcelain to reach Europe was the Fonthill Vase (1300-40), which was exported in 1338 during the Art period of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Made in Jingdezhen as a gift for Louis the Great of Hungary, and named after William Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey, the Fonthill Vase is a blue-white Qingbai vase, probably made around 1320-38.

By the Art era of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), porcelain goods were regularly exported to Europe, including some of the most famous Chinese styles, such as the prestigious blue and white Ming ware (known as kraak porcelain).

Interestingly, despite the enormous attention paid to these Chinese imports, and the high value attributed to them, all attempts to replicate them failed, despite some reputable efforts, such as the china (tin-glazed china), as well as the Italian paste “. porcelain” made by the Medici Family in Florence, during the late Renaissance Art era.

Buying and selling antique ceramics and porcelain

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In Tandem Antiques they buy and sell works of art and antiques in general. Since 1980, they have been dedicated to this task and therefore keep their clients informed about all the prices in the market today. If you want you can visit them in their store in the Gothic quarter of Barcelona to sell or buy antique pottery. In his store come, equally, interested, collectors and owners of works that want to assess and sell. They always offer the best quality, an optimal price and reliable certifications. They are receptive in the search of all type of old porcelain that has possibilities of sale nowadays.

More about buying and selling tandemantigüitats sculptures

Within the world of antiques, one of the most representative fields are the pieces of pottery and porcelain. The art of making containers and vessels is a millenary work to human civilization. Clay, faience, porcelain or terracotta represent some of the most used materials. Their uses have always been linked to the domestic environment and actions as essential to life as food and drink. However, also, from very early on, paintings and polychromies began to be applied to its surface, turning the everyday object into a work of artistic value.

Chinese porcelain and ceramic products

Since time immemorial, Chinese culture has been prodigious in this ancient art. From there, it extended to nearby regions, such as Japan and Korea, until it reached the West and the Iberian Peninsula, although here there were already pieces of their own, such as reflective ceramics, Carthusian ceramics, etc. Without needing to look so far back in time, already in the 20th century, recognized artists, such as Dalí or Picasso, shaped their art into plates and jars. In fact, in our section of articles we have and we have counted with some of these pieces, like a plate of Salvador Dalí of the series of the dalinianos horses of year 1970.

We also buy oriental ceramics, clear pieces with much antiquity as a Persian bowl of the seventeenth century to articles like porcelain of Capodimonte (jugs or cylindrical boxes). We have bought for example German Frankenthal porcelain, from the period 1770-1790, of great quality, we have several copies in the store. One of our oldest pieces is a Triana jar, used in the transportation of goods in ships of the 16th century. We also have a wide collection of national dishes from different regions: Catalan, Valencian or Andalusian.

But, in addition to vases, bowls, etc. the exciting world of ceramics also extends to other objects, such as boxes, figures or tiles, so common to see in the past in many houses. As a curiosity, many of our clients come across these valuable pieces after having received an inheritance or having bought a new property. We will take care of selling these items and valuing them in their right measure. It should be noted that many of these pieces were made before the arrival of factory mass production.