Global Design: Chinese Ceramics from the Albuquerque Collection

Bottle with coat of arms, porcelain painted with cobalt blue under a transparent glaze, circa 1590-1630, Ming dynasty (1368-1644), height 30.5 cm, R Albuquerque Collection

GOLBALISATION IS  nothing new. It is approximately 2,300 years old and began with the Silk Road. By both overland and by sea, the Road and its network connected the world’s two empires, the Chinese and the Roman, and the several states in Central Asia, the Middle East and Arabia. This collection of 60 Chinese ceramics is a time capsule of Chinese and foreign commercial and cultural contact. Silk was the principal commodity of trade and continued so until about the 8th century, when the Chinese began exporting to other Asian nations, as evidenced by Tang ceramics and gold excavated in the Philippines and from shipwrecks just offshore.

Ceramics became a major export during the Yuan dynasty with celadons produced at the Longquan kilns located in Zhejiang, Guangdong, Fujian and elsewhere, all near ocean ports. By the end of Yuan and early Ming, the Longquan potters had mastered the creation of very large ceramics, mainly chargers. Because of the very high failure during firing, they were rare from the start and the Chinese sold them accordingly to the only three clients who could afford such extravagance: the Mughal emperors of India, the shahs of Persia, and the sultans of Turkey. However, in order to create a market for the massive number of small celadon dishes and saucers, they spread the rumour in the Philippines, Southeast Asia and the islands of Indonesia that celadons could detect poison. The rumour was a brilliant marketing ploy – as poisoning was a great threat and anyone who was anyone was liable. Hence, thousands of pieces of small Longquan have been and are still being found in excavations, intentional or accidental.

Blue and white porcelains made during the Yuan dynasty and early Ming often reflected Islamic influence, such as two in the exhibition, a wine pot and cover of Persian metal shape, but with panels decorated with Chinese designs. Whether it was made for ‘domestic’ or ‘export’ use is difficult to ascertain. Beginning in this period, 20th century distinction between these two categories begins to blur and rather than being firmly black or white, a very large area of grey began to appear. The question arises about whether the styles of shape and decoration have merged or have melded. That, after all, is the main theme of this rare-subject exhibition.

Destinations in Europe seem to have begun in the early 15th century as evidenced by a tiny number of so-called Medici porcelains. These were products of a single potter who accidentally discovered the ingredients for real porcelain but made only a few pieces before he died and took the secret with him. The Medici porcelains were decorated on the exterior with typical blue and white Yongle designs and a factory mark under the foot of the Duomo in Firenze.

After the ‘discovery’ of America by the Spanish, there was an international land grab by Spain and Portugal, joined in almost immediately by the French, English and Dutch who found it more convenient to attack the Spanish and the Portuguese for their possessions than to settle new, and possibly unproven, territories themselves. This north European trio first ganged up against the Portuguese first and then the Spanish, eventually leaving the Portuguese with only Brazil, Macau and Goa and the Spanish with the Philippines, Mexico and the lands south. England, France and the Dutch did make some successful attempts to claim lands in North America: modern-day Canada (France) and the United States (England and the Netherlands.) The one failed colony was one settled by French Huguenots on the east coast of Florida. These Protestants grew native North American tobacco (Nicotiana rustica), as opposed to the Spanish-owned Caribbean tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), which they sold to the Portuguese. The Spanish inSt Augustine, refused to tolerate Protestants in territory they felt was theirs and sent an expeditionary force south and butchered the entire colony – men, women and children.

Canton, modern Guangzhou, as it was in Chinese territory, remained open to all comers. Japan allowed the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English to maintain trading stations in very restricted areas. The English did not last long, and the Spanish and Portuguese, because of the unsubtle attempts by their Jesuits to convert the Japanese, got them expelled by 1525. The Dutch, quiet Protestants, kept their mouths shut and continued to maintain their trading activities on the island of Deshima until the 1870s, thus remaining the only source for Imari and other Japanese porcelains for Europe for 350 years. It was a remarkable monopoly that brought them great wealth.

For the purposes of the Albuquerque Collection, the periods of Jiajing (1522-1567), Longjing (1567-1572), and Wanli (1573-1620) are extremely important in the chronology of Sino-European style ceramics because it was then that the Europeans, especially the Portuguese, began to commission ceramics, many of an ecclesiastical nature, and here the question of cultural origin of shape and decoration becomes its most wonderfully complex.

There has been an attempt to show that there was some sort of category of porcelains between ‘domestic’ and ‘export,’ but in almost all cases, porcelains of this period that eventually wound up outside of China had distinct qualities of ‘export’ without being completely foreign in design. Later 17th- and 18th-century ceramics, including many in this collection, are clearly export. It would appear that most in the Chinese porcelain field believe that ‘domestic’ porcelains are the ones made for home consumption and ‘export’ are those that appear to have been made with non-Chinese buyers in mind.

The Islamic world was probably the first to commission Chinese porcelains, as evidenced by early blue and white examples made after Islamic shapes, and/or with Islamic decoration or inscriptions. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to order specific pieces from China and most of them were decorated in a rich washy blue with both royal and Catholic imagery. During this same late 16th-century period, the Spanish also began to commission porcelains from China, including some destined specifically for Mexico. Their international route of trade started in Canton and continued to Manila, Acapulco, Mexico City, Vera Cruz, Cartagena, Havana and home to Cadiz. This route explains why much Chinese porcelain has been discovered in Spanish shipwrecks off the east coast of Florida.

One such Spanish market piece is a long-neck Wanli period flat bottle emblazoned with the Spanish royal arms. Another, a Wanli period hexagonal baluster jar, bears decoration which Ricardo Rivera Lake, in his Vision de un Antiquario, identifies as for the Mexican subjects. He illustrates a larger jar from his collection with the same design that he found in Mexico many years ago. The two-headed eagle he identifies as the Habsburg arms of the Spanish kings and as for the building in the far distance, he identifies it as either the monastery at Tochimilco, or the monastery at Tepotzitlan, both built before 1550.

The wonderful group of Islamic-market blue and white porcelains, the dates of which extend from the 14th century into the late 17th century, is composed of a wonderful variety of shapes and designs. The Dutch, long predators of Portuguese shipping, captured two of their vessels return from China with a cargo of blue and white porcelains. The resulting auction in Holland created an immediate craze throughout Europe for blue and white wares. Because of the overwhelming demand and the resulting prices of Chinese originals, the Dutch began making tin-glazed pottery copies at Delft to fill the market demand. In those days, any self-respecting Dutch family would commission a painting of a tabletop still-life, which boasted their Chinese (or Delft copy) blue and white charger.

By the late 17th and 18th centuries, the Sino-European trade in porcelain had reached unforeseen heights, to the degree that demands were such that specific markets sprang up in Mexico, Peru, Cuba, America, the Middle East, Russia and every nation in Europe. The global artistic language which developed as a result led to the one of the most imaginative periods of ceramic production anywhere in which an endless range of spectacular and visually compelling pieces was created. From this period are impressive porcelains for the table, such as an imaginative group of tureens, as well as a grand and very large blue and white mantle garniture and plates with a wide variety of European motifs. Whether their designs are muscular Baroque, calculated Rococo frivolity or stately aloof armorials, this collection provides them all.

It is no mystery why the Albuquerque collection came to be: Mr Albuquerque is Brazilian and Brazil, ever since its beginning, has been an integral part of the culture of Portugal, the first European nation to collect Chinese porcelains. This gentleman has created a wonderful time capsule that has never been seen before in public and the Met is honoured to have it on loan.

 

MARTIN BARNES LORBER

 

Until 7 August at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, www.metmuseum.org. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition.