Art Through Time: A Global View
Converging Cultures Art: Porcelain Plate
The first porcelain was produced in China during the Tang dynasty (608–906).
During the succeeding Song dynasty (960–1279), Chinese porcelain wares were in demand throughout eastern and western Asia. Over the next several centuries, the obsession with porcelain grew, stimulating not only mass exportation, but also experimentation both within and outside China. By the fourteenth century, when this plate was produced, Chinese artisans at the Jingdezhen kilns in Jiangxi Province had refined the formula for their famed white ceramics and started adding the blue decorations most frequently associated with “china” today.
The key ingredient in Chinese white porcelain from Jingdezhen was kaolin, a soft clay, which—when mixed with porcelain stone and fired at extremely high temperatures (over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit)—resulted in a hard, shiny, translucent material. Decoration of this porcelain was often achieved by painting mineral-based pigments directly onto the unfired body and applying a clear glaze on top; hence the term “underglaze.” In the kiln, the pigments bonded to the clay and yielded rich colors. Cobalt, which fires as a deep blue, was one of the few raw materials that could withstand the heat required for porcelain production.
Although blue and white ware was consumed by the imperial court and the elite in fourteenth-century China, it found its biggest market in the Near and Middle East. Contact between China and western Asia had expanded dramatically after the Mongol conquest of both territories in the preceding century. This interaction resulted in the production of countless “hybrid” objects, particularly in the realm of ceramics. Shapes, styles, iconography, techniques, and materials were exchanged, copied, and adapted as artists and artisans in each region attempted to meet the diverse demands of local and foreign buyers. This plate is decorated with traditional Chinese designs, such as fish, foliage, and flowers, but its form is essentially Middle Eastern. It is widely believed that the cobalt used to paint this and other Chinese blue and white ware was itself an import from the Islamic world.
Expert Perspective: Alan Chong, Curator of the Collection, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Porcelain is this Chinese and East Asian ceramic that can withstand very high temperatures. You can actually cook with it, and it was a closely guarded secret in China. And for centuries, Western ceramicists tried to make porcelain. They even get some of the recipes and they look for the ingredients and they really can’t do it until the eighteenth century. It takes hundreds of years.
Expert Perspective: Ladan Akbarnia, Associate Curator of Islamic Art, Brooklyn Museum
The Chinese were known for their porcelain wares, and especially, their blue and white wares. The Chinese exported ceramics and, in fact, they were also given as gifts. In the ninth century, the Chinese emperor sent a gift of twenty imperial porcelains to the caliph who was the leader of the Islamic empire at the time, the Abbasids. And this would have a huge result, or a huge effect, on the interest in Chinese porcelains, especially blue and white porcelains, in the future of that region. So, later on you’ll see that this blue and white aesthetic that was created, that started in China really was a great inspiration for the types of ceramic wares that would later be produced in Iran, in the Ottoman world, and eventually you would even see it in Europe.
Some of the types of materials that were exported during the Mongol period (known as the Yuan Dynasty) from China to western Asia, or to the Islamic world, included silk, mint coins, paper also traveled from east to west. And then from west to east or from the Islamic world and including Africa, as well, North Africa, the kinds of things that went to China or were imported by China included rhinoceros horn, coral, cotton, hide, raw medicine, and numerous other types of goods that wouldn’t be found in China and could only be found outside. So each culture would trade what it had plenty of and get in return what it really couldn’t find in its own context.
It’s believed that the cobalt blue that was used to decorate the blue and white wares in the thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth century, it’s believed that the cobalt came from the Iranian world, but the porcelain was produced in China.
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