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Virtual Tour with Carol Frankel

The recently renovated and expanded Asian Art Museum reopened only a few short weeks before SAM had to close due to COVID-19. In this virtual docent tour, Carol Frankel takes us through one of the reimagined galleries—the Color in Clay gallery overlooking Volunteer Park. Carol Frankel has been a SAM docent since 2007. After 25 years at the University of Puget Sound, she became a docent and found her real interest in Asian art. She travels regularly to Japan to visit friends and seek out new and interesting places. When not sleuthing out some Asian art object, she cooks with her grandchildren by FaceTime if not in person.

Many may find this gallery, which is organized solely by color, perplexing. It is filled with several objects, none of which have a label. For me, it’s the most rewarding room to explore, with so many interesting and thought-provoking opportunities. To help narrow our virtual tour, we’ll focus on two colors: blue and white. 

We’ll start by looking at blue pieces. Blue can be the most desired and difficult color to achieve in textiles, paints, and ceramics. While we’re focused on this precious hue, you may be surprised that our first three objects are primarily brown, green, and cream.

These are sancai 三彩  ware. The name literally translates to “three colors.” A railroad company named these precious objects! There were Tang dynasty tombs still in-tact all over China in the 1920s when the Longhai Railroad started developing rail lines throughout the country. In the process, they dug up many tombs and ceramic pieces. The most prevalent were glazed in three colors: brown, green, and cream. These works were sold to museums all over the world under the name “Tang Dynasty Sancai.” 

So why are these on our blue-themed tour? If you look closely, you can see touches of blue and whenever we see blue in Chinese ceramics we can assume it uses cobalt that came from West Asia—also known as the Middle East—where the element was prevalent. This confirms that in the 7th and 8th centuries CE China was trading across the continent. (Additionally, we can see the evidence of trade with the west in the facial structure of the wine merchant.) 

The development of glaze was a notable achievement of the Tang Dynasty, but most important in our exploration of blue and white pottery was the move from the darker clay popular in China at that time to the whiter clay, which eventually led to porcelain. At the end of the gallery, you can see how this change in materials created a spectacular lack of color.

We’ve now seen blue and white separately, and if you were to look to your left in the gallery, you would see the colors combined. 

We have now skipped ahead maybe 700 years to the Ming dynasty in China. The Ming blue-and-white objects are what some consider the pinnacle of ceramic ware. In the gallery is a large Ming plate, pictured above, surrounded by blue and white examples from Vietnam and present-day Iran (the origin of the cobalt blue glazes used in the sancai ware).  

While Persia had the natural resources to create a deep, rich blue, what they didn’t have was the white clay available in China. Their clay was dark and in order to create a good blue and white, they had to first glaze the piece with a white glaze! If you were to look at the unglazed foot of each of these pieces (the back of the plates), you would see a dark gray clay, whereas the accompanying Chinese ceramic’s foot shows a bright white. You can also notice differences in the glazes of these two cultures. While the colors are similar, the lines are slightly different. Look closely at the Persian works and you’ll notice the blue glaze is somewhat blurry and the Chinese blue and white edges are crisp. In China, potters learned to mix the cobalt glaze with some of the indigenous kaolin clay and were able to obtain the sharp edges seen in Ming ceramics.

The world really opens up through the lens of only two colors. Once the museum reopens, you can return to the Color in Clay gallery and explore using another color combination as a vehicle to consider materials, trade, history, and fashion.

– Carol Frankel, SAM Docent

Images: Installation view Color in Clay gallery, Asian Art Museum, 2019, Jueqian Fang. Figure of foreign merchant holding wine skin, 8th century, Chines, earthenware with sancai (tricolor) glaze, 14 5/8 x 10 x 6 1/2in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 38.6. Tripod plate, 8th–9th century, Chinese, earthenware with sancai (tricolor) glaze and incised decoration, 1 7/8 in., diam. 7 1/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.49. Phoenix head ewer, 8th-9th century, Chinese, earthenware with sancai (tricolor) glaze and molded decoration, 12 5/8 x 4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 44.8. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Silk Road, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., September 16, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Silk-Road-trade-route. Jar, 9th century, Chinese, porcelain with white glaze, 8 3/4 in., Silver Anniversary Fund, 59.121. Dish with the eight auspicious Buddhist symbols, late 15th century, Chinese, porcelain with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration, h. 1 9/16 in., diam. 7 1/2 in., diam. bottom 4 5/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 51.85. Dish with foliated rim and Chinese landscape, late 15th to early 16th century, Vietnamese, stoneware with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration, diam. 13 1/4 in., Mary and Cheney Cowles, the Margaret E. Fuller Fund, and the 1999 Maryatt Gala Fund, 2000.118. Plate, 16th century, robably Iranian (Persia), Mashhad, stonepaste with underglaze-blue, black, and sage-green decoration, h. 2 3/8 in., diam. 12 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 57.17. Plate, 17th century, Iranian (Persian), stonepaste with underglaze-blue decoration, 2 1/2 x 13 7/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 48.146.

Object of the Week: Xing ware-type

Sometimes I find myself struck by the contemporaneity of ancient objects, how something made hundreds or thousands of years ago can embody an aesthetic or message relevant to today. Take this Chinese Xing ware-type ewer, for example. Created during the 10th century, the porcelain vessel—with its white glaze and spontaneously placed markings—feels, to me at least, like it could have been made this past century, alongside works by artists such as Lucy Rie or Mary Heilmann.

Ceramics have no doubt made a comeback in the art world, a trend which suggests that the once rigid division between art and craft (and therefore ceramics) is no more. As art critic Roberta Smith rightly articulated in 2009, “It can’t be said enough that the art-craft divide is a bogus concept regularly obliterated by the undeniable originality of individuals who may call themselves artists, designers, or artisans.”[1]

Though today we might be less inclined to differentiate between artists and artisans, in 10th-century China there would have certainly been a distinction between makers commissioned by imperial courts and those who produced commercially. Xing ware, produced in what would today be China’s Hebei province, caught the attention of the Tang imperial court and epitomizes Tang-era porcelain: the purity of its clay was unusually low in iron and titanium oxides (contaminants) and very fine grained. Fired in the kiln at 1250 degrees Celsius or higher, this porcelain was unparalleled in its sturdiness, translucence, and pure white color.

Similar in form to late Tang dynasty ceramic ware, this ewer is especially unique due to the greenish-brown splashes of glaze on its porcelain-white body. Used as a wine bottle, this vessel bears similarities to many late Tang wares, though it was unlikely to have been produced in a Xing kiln.[2] Perhaps it is the simplicity of form and coloration that makes this work feel so modern, or, conversely, that so many contemporary ceramicists find (for good reason) inspiration in the rich ceramic traditions of China, where porcelain was perfected and produced exclusively for centuries.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Roberta Smith, “Crucible of Creativity, Stoking Earth Into Art,” New York Times, March 19, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/20/arts/design/20dirt.html.
[2] The shape and glaze of this ewer is similar to Xing porcelain, but the clay texture is not nearly as fine. For more on this work and Chinese porcelain more broadly, see Julie Emerson, Jennifer Chen, and Mimi Gardner Gates (Porcelain Stories: From China to Europe, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), 38.
Image: Xing ware-type, 10th century, Chinese, porcelain with white glaze on white slip, green-brown stripes, 5 1/2 x 2 13/16 in., Thomas D. Stimson Memorial Collection, 51.122