3. The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Cross-Cultural Imitations

From: Global Clay

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64 3 | the sincerest form of flattery Cross-Cultural Imitations Two birds flying high, A Chinese vessel, sailing by. A bridge with three men, sometimes four, A willow tree, hanging o’er. A Chinese temple, there it stands, Built upon the river sands. An apple tree, with apples on, A crooked fence to end my song. Variant of the “Blue Willow” poem1 This is an “East Meets West” story, specifically about the impact of the Far and Middle East on the rest of the world’s ceramics. To put it another way, it’s a story about cultural diffusion: the spread of ceramic ideas from a single place of origin—China—to virtually the rest of the globe. The diffusion I’ll be discussing occurred mainly through trade, migration of potters, and later access to information through print and museum collections. White Ware: The Porcelain Story The story begins with one of China’s great ceramic innovations, the development of that pure white, translucent product we call porcelain. Chinese potters were making wares from white clay as early as the twelfth century BCE, and by the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) an early version of porcelain (fig. 3.1) was being exported to the Islamic world by sea and land routes such as the Silk Road through Central Asia.2 Bear in mind that while much of today’s porcelain is cheaply mass produced and regarded as having little value, centuries ago a porcelain vase or dish was a rarity, treasured like a precious jewel. Outside China at the time of Tang, most Figure 3.1. Tang dynasty dish recovered from the Belitung shipwreck off Indonesia, made in Gongxian, Henan province, ca. 825 CE. An early example of Chinese blueand -white ceramics, it’s closer to stoneware than porcelain, which was perfected in later dynasties; Gongxian high-fired white wares were made as early as 575. Collection of ArtScience Museum, Singapore; Photograph: Jacklee, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Figure 3.2, facing. Tin-glazed earthenware bowl likely inspired by Chinese white wares, Basra, Iraq, 9th century. The influence went in both directions; cobalt-blue decoration on Middle Eastern wares may have inspired the same on some Gongxian white wares such as figure 3.1. The repeated Arabic inscription in the center is “ghibta,” translated as “felicity.” Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, www.metmuseum.org. Figure 3.3, below. Pair of maiolica (tin-glazed earthenware) albarellos (pharmacy jars), Florence, Tuscany, Italy, early 1400s. The dark clay body is exposed where the white glaze is absent. Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, www .metmuseum.org. Photograph: Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Figure 3.4, above. Lebrillo, Puebla, Mexico, ca. 1650, continuing the tin-glazed earthenware tradition brought in the previous century by potters from Talavera de la Reina, Spain. The rim inscription indicates the basin’s function: to wash purificators, altar linens used to wipe the Eucharist chalice after Communion. Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, www.metmuseum.org. Figure 3.5, facing. Tin-glazed earthenware plate painted in imitation of Japanese Imari porcelain, Delft, Holland, early 1700s (Dutch wares imitating porcelain of Ming dynasty China were more common). Collection of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands, https://www.rijksmuseum.nl. Figure 3.6, above. Tin-glazed earthenware plate with transfer-printed Blue Willow pattern, Spode factory, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England, 1818. In this specialorder variation of the pseudo-Chinese design, the recipient’s name and year replace the usual pair of birds in flight. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, https://www.vam.ac.uk, England. Figure 3.7, facing. Fritware dish luster painted on tin glaze with interlocking Islamic design, Kashan, Iran, dated 1268 (Western equivalent). Courtesy of the David Collection, Copenhagen, Denmark, inv. # Is195. Photograph: Pernille Klemp. 72 | Global Clay pottery was darkish earthenware, with limited options for decoration; in Europe, lighter-colored stoneware would not appear for several more centuries. Imagine the wonder of Middle Eastern potters and consumers when the first examples of this magical product arrived by ship and pack camel. The problem for Muslim potters desirous of producing their own porcelain is that they lacked knowledge of the ingredients and technology that remained a Far Eastern secret until the eighteenth century. But that didn’t stop them from trying; the medieval Islamic world was quite advanced scientifically for the time. The real challenge for Middle Eastern potters, then, was to...


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