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Shelagh Vainker, in The British Museum Book of Chinese Art, tells us that ceramics are the 'most enduring of all China’s arts’. They have been produced there for over 8000 years at locations spanning that great country: produced for both elite and everyday use. Consequently ceramic was a medium never restricted to art objects. In fact, it is these objects’ use value that makes them so fascinating; for everything had a purpose, whether it was as tomb offering or tea pot. Furthermore that use value accounts for the survival of the tiny proportion that remains from what was produced on a massive scale over several centuries. So much has been lost through wear and tear, war, rebellion and, of course most recently, Cultural Revolution.
The kilns of Jingdezhen in the southern province of Jiangxi are probably the most famous for producing vast amounts of ‘china’, particularly from the Ming period onwards (1368–1644) for domestic use and more importantly for the Western markets so eager for this unusual and striking material. It was also from this time and through the subsequent Qing dynasty (1644–1911) that the practice of collecting it became systematic at home and in the West. Despite this, the potters themselves remain largely unknown: mass ceramic production was the result of careful planning and a complex division of labour, with whole groups of workers responsible for one task among many in the whole process of production. The organization behind the construction of the first emperor’s 7000-strong terracotta army is sufficient testimony to the anonymity and yet the skill of its craftsmen.
Times however have changed…and so has China. A wonderful exhibition of contemporary Chinese ceramics shone so brightly for just two days and as quickly as it came it was gone. The British Museum who hosted, but did not curate it, in fact there were no representatives present from the museum at all, seemed to be keen to keep it a secret for even though the viewing was by invitation, it was still hidden away in the basement with little publicity to direct the lucky few trying to find it. When we did, we were treated to 26 ceramics along with most of their makers.
The objects themselves were of an extraordinary variety; some sculpture-like figures such as the 80-year-old Zhou Gouzhen’s Snow Leopard, whose cracked surface was pure accident, otherwise it would have been entitled simply Leopard; and the spokesman for the group Lv Pinchang’s delightful Ah Fu #27, a very plump and joyfully festive green-glazed male nude. These stood alongside nonfigurative works such as Zao Peisheng’s Silence Makes a Stone fashioned from the rare and ugly taihu stone along with probably the most challenging and least representative of a traditional idea of Chinese ceramics, Zhang Jingjing’s abstract A Growing Prosperity.
In fact this notion of the modern and the traditional was very much the key to the exhibition and it was nowhere better seen in the almost impossible vase and plate by Wang Zhiwen, Entitled respectively Sun Bin’s Art of War and Poetry of the Tang Dynasty, these would seem to be wholly traditional. Yet the former carries an exquisite Chinese landscape beneath the handwritten calligraphy of a 2500-year-old military treatise where the precise hanzi characters can only be seen clearly under magnification. The same technique is used on the plate where the sublime painting of a traditional peony flower disintegrates into countless Chinese characters.
There was so much more to enjoy but so little time. One artist commented that maybe the British Museum will now exhibit more contemporary ceramics. Seeing that it wasn’t taking any responsibility for this exhibition that seems unlikely.