Southeast Asian Ceramics: Passion for Form

Southeast Asian ceramics, Drum, bronze, 23 x 28 cm,1st century BC, Dong Son Culture, Vietnam

The concurrent exhibition, Passion for Form (from the MacLean Collection) blends seamlessly with Southeast Asian Ceramics from the Collection of James E Breece, III, because of their two different approaches to the early arts of Southeast Asia. The Passion exhibition concentrates on the inventiveness and power of form, vis-à-vis its ‘presence’ and its ability to convey an almost architectonic balance. The Breece exhibition concentrates solely on ceramics, yet both contain numerous examples of Chinese influence.

The Maclean Collection

The Maclean Collection displays quite clearly that three-dimensional form, regardless of material, can exist independently, in and of itself. Decoration, however, does not exist all by itself, per se, without the anchor of form and was once described as fluff, thus the boneless chicken of the creative process. Harsh, but in a way, true. Decoration, however, when combined with form, is no longer just decoration. It is, when aesthetically applied, a complement. Form is what this exhibition is all about because form can reveal its culture, its age, its purpose, its cultural place and sometimes, a specific message.

Southeast Asian Ceramics

Many of the ceramics are fine examples of pre/post-Han influence. There are some small bronzes, but the most impressive are the Khmer religious images and ritual objects. One is a standing 12th-century Lopburi image of the standing Buddha wearing typical Khmer costume, with bodhi-leaf diadem and with both hands in the protective abhaya mudra, an iconography rarely seen beyond Lopburi. Another bronze of the same ilk is a seated triad of the Buddha Shakyamuni flanked by his bodhisattva Prajnaparamita and Avalokitesvara, crisply cast and enhanced by a deep, lustrous patina.

In all cases, the forms involved, even the small Khmer bronze of Vishnu standing on the shoulders of his vehicle Garuda, specifically radiate a need for personal reverence. The use of nimbuses and rope outlines combined create an overall format and ‘presence’ that exudes an aura of divine holiness. The standing Buddha is symbolic of protection and the triad symbolic of the reality that Enlightenment can be achieved on earth.

There are three non-Buddhist bronzes, two being close versions of Han-dynasty bronzes, a hu with a chain suspension handle and a covered cylindrical box (zun) on three bear feet. The first two could almost be from China’s Han dynasty, but their forms give them away as being not quite ‘right’ as their forms and decoration betray them as non-Chinese. The third is a 2nd-century rain drum from the Thai area of the Dong Son Culture, with animist decoration of shamen, animals and fish. Cast with two pairs of suspension rings for hanging and a sunburst tympanum, saw tooth bands and shamen, its form is pure Dong Son and could be spotted as such across the proverbial room.

The Breece Collection

The Breece Collection displays the influence Chinese ceramics have made on local traditions in Southeast Asia. They are long famous and prized, now beginning its second millennium, and have clearly influenced ceramic styles in the order of   expansion from Korea to Southeast Asia, Persia, the Ottoman Empire and finally, Europe. This massive influence also touched peripheral cultures along the way, scattering Chinese shapes, glazes and decoration among them all and often incorporating local styles, motifs and methods of production.

Chinese ceramics did not appear to have had any early effect on Southeast Asia, even though the Tang dynasty (618-906) did include the northern coast of present-day Vietnam in the area of Hanoi. It was only the coming of the Song dynasty, in 906, did matters reverse and stylistic influence of the Ruyao, Yaozhou, Cizhou, Zhejiang, Qingbai and later, Longquan kilns, begin to appear.

Southeast Asian Ceramics in Public and Private Collections

These Southeast Asian ceramics are generally under-represented in public and private collections world-wide and rather than being appreciated as academically important creations of specific cultures, that had once been considered to be provincial ‘knock-offs’. The sole exception had been some of the late 15th/early 16th century, blue and white, export porcelains of the Chu Dao kilns which were shipped overseas from the port of Hoi An. Thousands of pieces of this Vietnamese blue and white ceramics were auctioned in October 2000 at Butterfields (now Bonhams), San Francisco, as Treasures of the  Hoi An Hoard. The prices for the large baluster jars were, at the time, considered astronomical (although many lesser lots remained unsold). However, nothing like them has appeared on the market since, but it seems that today’s overpriced item is probably tomorrow’s bargain.

There are two Southeast ceramics here that reflect pure Vietnamese style, both cylindrical storage jars, one in brown stoneware with incised designs and one with two-toned designs of peafowl and dragons, cleverly executed with the designs created in low-relief moulding and highlight red with brown against a painted white ground. They are both from the Ly-Tran dynasty (1009-1400) and mark the pivotal point from which Chinese styles and techniques begin to dominate, ie, the early years of the Song dynasty.

After separating from China in 938, the Vietnamese began making their ceramics with new indigenous styles and production techniques. The Chinese-styled ceramics catering to the colonial ruling class were no longer made and new wares reflecting traditional Vietnamese society and culture were popularized. Buddhist motifs were often reproduced on the ceramic vessels, which mostly included lotus and chrysanthemum, but hibiscus, peony, fish, birds, and animal motifs were also featured.

The colour brown was also introduced to enhance the white and ivory-white glazed wares. Celadon pottery was also popularised in the Ly-Tran dynasty (1009–1400), reflecting Vietnamese Buddhist art. These ceramics are recognized as they ranged from a very light green to leaf green to a brownish or yellowish green. The ceramics produced during this period are nearly identical to similar Song wares, thanks to diplomatic relations between the two.

A Visit to Baphuon

I myself had never considered early Chinese influence in Southeast Asian ceramics until a visit to Baphuon a few years back. The temple complex was built around 1050 as the state temple of Udayadityavarman II dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Near the ritual pool, in the area of the temple’s kitchens, I spotted a number of small shards strewn everywhere. Most were typical Khmer brown bodied, but there were white and pale celadon pieces as well. The whites resembled a Dingyao-type ware and the pale celadons appeared to follow a Yueyao tradition, but I had questions of whether they were locally made or imported. This exhibition is beginning to answer those old questions.

There are examples of Southeast Asian ceramics that seem to be direct copies of Chinese originals and sometimes seem to be odd marriages of Chinese-inspired shapes and certain colours of glaze.  Whichever, they are all products of Southeast Asian inventiveness of design.

There is a 13th-century Tran-dynasty chrysanthemum bowl directly copying a Ruyao original, as well as lidded ewers with carved or painted decorated taken directly from Yueyao and Cizhou and Qingbai style moulded bowls with incongruous caramel and deep chocolate glazes, again from the Tran dynasty. From there, there are large, exuberantly decorated underglaze blue and polychrome-decorated early Tran large dishes, including one of a Swatow type as well as a Thai Islamic/Yuan-inspired, large, 15th-century green and black-glazed stem dish from Sukhothai, one of only three known to exist.

Sukothai and Southeast Asian Ceramics

The old Siamese capitals of Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai were famous for their pottery production. These kilns flourished between the 14th and 16th century and have only been excavated in the late 20th century. In Si Satchanalai, the pottery excavated is primarily greyish-white stoneware with a grey-green coloured celadon glaze. Decoration was typically achieved by carving the ware, and consisted of floral designs, such as chrysanthemums. The most common forms of ceramic excavated at these kilns are bowls, dishes, boxes, ewers, kendis, bottles, and jarlets.

Another common type of ware found is one that consists of an iron-black painted underglaze with animal motifs. This type of pottery resembles the form and technology of Vietnamese ceramics from the Tran, Le, and Mac dynasties and Chinese ceramics from the Yuan and Ming dynasties.

Though they were significantly less popular than the Chinese blue and white ceramics of the Ming dynasty, these wares reached a height of export throughout Asia during this period.

These Southeast Asian wares are finally coming into their own, their artistic quality is becoming more and more recognised and exhibitions such as this one will help greatly in creating a wider understanding of and appreciation for this corpus of artistic importance.


Passion for Form and Southeast Asian Ceramic, until 20 July, at Heritage Museum of Asian Art, Chicago,