The Columns

Watson Pavilion Exhibit Explores Great Traditions of East Asian Ceramics

— by on February 6th, 2008

Silk Road to Clipper Ship: Trade, Changing Markets, and East Asian Ceramics, a special exhibition of more than 50 exemplary objects on display at Washington and Lee’s Watson Pavilion, vividly demonstrates the impact of the exchange of goods, people, and ideas on Chinese potters, and their counterparts in Japan over nearly 2,000 years.

This exhibition is organized and circulated by the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA). All of the works are from UMMA collections. It is on loan to W&L and will be exhibited until April 12. It is open to the public free of charge.

Distant markets–from ancient Persia to early modern Europe–as well as the demands of influential tastemakers at home, continually inspired these craftsmen to reinvent their repertoire of shapes and decorative techniques. The result is a ceramic tradition of unparalleled beauty, creativity and technical excellence.

Throughout recorded history, the technical and material superiority of Chinese ceramics has made them prized commodities. Foreign trade–as well as the occasional influential individual–played a key role in shaping the history of this art form. The works in this exhibit have been chosen to illustrate three historical phases in East Asian ceramic production.

Exchanges along the Silk Road

The first section explores the exchange of ideas and goods between China and Iran and the Mediterranean on the overland route known as the Silk Road, from the 1st through the 10th centuries of the Common Era. The Silk Road trade impacted Chinese art through the introduction of new subjects to the artists’ repertoire, exposure to new materials–such as cobalt from Iran–and technical experimentation, especially in the development of new glaze effects. At the opposite end of the trade route, Rome and Persia eagerly sought out Chinese ceramics, which were far more durable and beautiful than the pottery available locally.

Tea Wares and the Ceramics Trade within East Asia

This section focuses on the beginnings of a certain type of black glaze and its lasting importance for tea bowls and other wares associated with the tea ceremony. The Chinese Song dynasty emperor Huizong (reigned 1100-1126) declared that black-glazed bowls were best for drinking tea, giving instant prominence to the thickly glazed black stonewares from southeastern China. Another individual who greatly influenced the history of tea wares was the Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyž (1522-1591), who advocated the use of simple materials and found objects. He is credited with nurturing the creation of Raku ware.

Asian Porcelains for Foreign Markets

The largest section of the exhibition presents the vividly colored porcelains of Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasty China and their Japanese counterparts. Beginning in the 14th century, Chinese potters mastered an extraordinary range of colors for ceramic glazes, from chicken fat yellow and peachbloom to teadust green, deep reds and all shades of blue. Blue-and-white wares were made possible when the Mongols reopened trade with Central Asia in the late thirteenth century and came to be cherished and imitated throughout the civilized world.

The Silk Road to Clipper Ship exhibit in the Watson Pavilion is available for viewing from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. When no one is viewing the exhibit, the building is locked. To gain admittance, ask at the adjacent Reeves Center.