- The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History by Robert Finlay
In 1998, Robert Finlay published a paper, which was innovative for its time, offering a new perspective on the global spread of Chinese ceramics. The title was “The Culture of Porcelain in World History” (Journal of World History 9, no. 2 : [End Page 582] 141–187), and it positioned Chinese porcelain in the emerging field of the history of global trade in commodities and suggested its impact on world commerce and economic behavior. In the field of art history, an equally innovative exhibition catalogue was published shortly afterward: “Porcelain Stories: From China to Europe” (Seattle Art Museum, 2000), which presented this same narrative from an object perspective. In this case, the exhibition brought together a number of familiar histories of various porcelain traditions to suggest a more global narrative for the production and consumption of a single ceramic type. Both of these earlier works inspired the publication in 2010 of Finlay’s book-length treatment of his original article topic, even using the same title: The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History. For those who read Finlay’s initial approach to the subject, this book was greeted with much anticipation but also with some trepidation as its aim was one that might seem almost impossible to achieve. A comprehensive world history of porcelain would encompass so many different time periods and cultures, consumption patterns and perspectives, that such a task would be daunting for any specialist in ceramic or commodities history.
Finlay, however, has bravely attempted this task and has done so in a comprehensive and wide-ranging book. The structure of the text is both thematic and chronological, covering roughly four thousand years, from 2000 b.c.e. to 1900 c.e. This chronology is not presented in strictly linear fashion but is rather divided into discrete but overlapping themes, from eighteenth-century Jingdezhen, where most of the Chinese porcelain consumed outside China was made, to the development and trade in blue and white Chinese porcelain in West Asia (1000–1400), then East Asia (1400–1700), Southeast Asia (1400–1700), and finally Europe and Britain (1500–1850). While this structure does lead to some repetition, it is one way of managing such a geographically and temporally wide-ranging narrative. The large amount of information is further tied together by a decision to treat the main topic as representative of multiple threads of the same story—a synthesis grounded in the assumption that, as Finlay notes, Chinese porcelain both played an important role in world history and reflected significant events in world history (pp. 7–8). Within this book, he makes a convincing case for this assertion, especially if one is looking for further evidence of the exceptional nature of Chinese porcelain.
The difficulty with such a synthesis is that, in order to provide a coherent, well-structured discussion and thesis, the details need to be as accurate and relevant as possible. In weaving together threads to form such a complex quilt, a vast amount of research material needs to be located, assessed, and assimilated in such a way that all the main threads are equally strong. In this case, Finlay admits that he is “an outlander to the subject,” (p. xv, acknowledgments), and this is noticeable in his analysis of some aspects of this story. It also might explain why the title is so misleading. The book should really be titled “The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Chinese Ceramics in World History,” because it often discusses at length ceramics that are not porcelain, and its focus, for the most part, is Chinese material, not ceramics [End Page 583] from other cultures. A world history of porcelain would, indeed, be a monumental task. Thus, narrowing the topic to Chinese porcelain makes sense, especially if this is considered the dominant type of porcelain in world history. However, it is misleading to exclude China from the title of the book. Furthermore, if...