Monday, 2 December 2013

Glorious Innovations – Imperial Porcelains of the Kangxi Era by Anthony Lin (Part 1)

Compiled from Arts of Asia (July-August 2001)

        The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) is often referred to as the Manchu dynasty. The nomadic Manchus were made up of various affiliated tribes whose horsemanship, hunting skills and fearsome courage breached all Chinese resistance in conquer. The three great rulers of the empire, the Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1736-1795), not only brought unprecedented prosperity and power to the Middle Kingdom, but became the greatest collectors and patrons of Chinese art and culture.
        Of the three, Kangxi was without doubt the most formidable, both in his piercing intellect and his openness to new ideas and thoughts. Succeeding the throne at the tender age of seven, he was educated and immersed in the classical Chinese tradition, becoming the most ‘Chinese’, yet independently curious and enlightened ruler of his millennium. He practiced calligraphy assiduously, writing a thousand words every day and ‘diligently read all kinds of books for fifty years’. His curiosity about the West brought about a revolution in the arts and sciences of the time.
        Impressed by the missionaries’ knowledge of science, the letters and the arts, Kangxi employed Father Fedinand Verbiest (1623-1688) as his personal tutor. A complete survey of the land was made according to principles of astronomy and the Imperial Atlas of China was compiled and completed in 1718. His fascination with scientific methodology and invention was mirrored in his love for chiming clocks. Western enamels were sent to the court as tribute and gifts inspiring in Kangxi an abiding love for these brightly coloured wares. In 1680, the Imperial Workshops were established. Kangxi’s quest for innovation was to bring about the most prodigious transformation to the ceramic arts.
        Spurred on by Emperor Kangxi’s determination to produce enameled wares in the European style, technological advancement progressed apace. After about 1715, the perfection of colours such as pink derived from gold, opaque yellow and white as well an overglaze blue finally gave the ateliers the arsenal to produce a new genre of porcelain and enameled wares that was to surpass all other polychrome Imperial wares made before the 18th century. By the end of the Kangxi reign, the unparalleled creation of new styles and wares had laid the foundation on which the Imperial ceramic arts of the Yongzheng and Qianlong periods were built. Nothing that cane later was to equal the variety, complexity and sophistication of Kangxi Imperial wares.

Imperial Style in Kangxi Ceramics
       In the Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns, large numbers of blue and white vases produced were imitations of the Yongle and Xuande period (Ming Dynasty). Song revivalism was also rampant, with the recreations of the great Song monochrome glazes of the Ru, Guan, Ge, Jun and Ding kilns. Archaic bronzes of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties were imitated on porcelain with iron-rich glazes.
        During the Kangxi period, the only major decorative technique that reflected the past was a recreation of the great Ming doucai enameled wares of the Chenghua period (1465-1487). The closely copied ‘chicken’ cups (below) bore either Kangxi reign marks or apocryphal Chenghua marks. Only very close scrutiny of the minor differences in the enamels and the particularly unctuous ‘touch’ and tone of the glaze on the Chenghua originals betray the later copies. 

Doucai enamelled 'chicken' cup

Chenghua six-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period

Diameter: 8.3cm

Doucai enamelled 'chicken' cup

Kangxi six-character mark in underglaze blue

Diameter: 8.2cm

Apart from the remarkable novelty in shapes, the other abiding impression of Kangxi wares is of a preference for light, and even minimal, decoration in overglazed decoration. In the new decorative styles developed for famille verte, doucai, ‘three coloured’ biscuit enameled and underglaze blue and copper-red wares, restraint and airiness in decoration was an overriding consideration. On the great series of ‘birthday’ dishes reputedly made for Kangxi sixtieth birthday celebrations, the influence of Song and Yuan album leaves of birds and flowers is particularly notable.

Famille verte 'birthday' dish with an eagle on gingko branch

Kangxi six-character mark in underglaze blue

Diameter: 25.4cm

Famille verte 'birthday' dish with bird on flowering tree, 

the porcelain decorated with anhua dragons around four characters

hong fu qi tian

Kangxi six-character mark in underglaze blue

Diameter: 19.5cm 

Two other very popular new designs found on the ‘birthday’ dishes include the delicate portrayal of Daoist fairies in procession on a series of dishes (below) as well as shallow bowls. The lightly penciled style of painting is further reference to the romantic style of the Song era.

Famille verte dish with Daoist fairies and a deer-drawn carriage

Kangxi six-character mark in underglaze blue

Diameter: 25cm

Another group of dishes and small saucers painted with peaches are among the most exquisite of all the ‘birthday’ porcelains with a very different and ingenious use of the iron red and green enamels to suggest different shades of the fruit.

Small famille verte 'birthday' saucer 

Kangxi six-character mark in underglaze blue

Diameter: 7cm

The restraint and elegance of these compositions is mirrored in the delicate style of the Chenghua period doucai wares extensively copied at this time. A large number of Chenghua designs were copied in the Kangxi period, the originals of which appear to have been lost. 

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