Saturday, August 1, 2009

Sir Percival David at the British Museum

Upon much reflection it seems to me that among the hardest aesthetic qualities to describe in words are the instinctive judgment of shape, feeling for pure form, and exactness of proportion that characterize the very greatest Chinese ceramics—much harder still because of the unique combination of overall simplicity of design, the complexity and exactness of decoration (actually indivisible from the form), and to some degree a paucity of absolute points of reference, other than neck, shoulder, body, and foot. By what miraculous process of learning and practical synthesis, for example, did the anonymous Qing dynasty artists of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province attain the astonishing result you see here? Look at the total assurance of that slightly upward swell in the body, the exquisite lines of the profile, so perfectly matched with the volume, and the daring contrapuntal harmonies of angled spout and slightly tapering handle in relation to the whole—not the slightest hint of any awkwardness or discontinuity at the joins. Look at that unctuous underglaze in the palest, almost imperceptible blue, not too glassy, not too dull, and fired with absolute evenness and consistency. Look at that brilliant crowning flourish of the shapely little handle on the perfectly sunken lid, with its intriguing hint, moreover, toward organic asymmetry at the joins. See how the maker and decorator work hand in glove to produce a seamless elision of shape and motif, ground and surface, branch and void. Those overglazed trees (rendered in doucai, the “interlocking colors” of sage green, eggplant, and brown) are the suihan sanyou, the “Three Friends of Winter,” in other words a pine, some stems of bamboo, and branches of prunus picked out so exactly in flecks of red enamel—the auspicious plum, the first blossoms to arrive after the Chinese new year. See the confidence with which those nervy clusters of lines, the principal decorative motifs, and the bold composition cleave not merely to each other with such effortless felicity, but to the defining shape of the finished vessel—a ewer, for domestic use, less than five and half inches tall. Lesser wares tossed to the export market in this period were by comparison skinny, lumpy, fussy, wobbly, crusty, or fat. This is the real thing, made expressly for someone who knew exactly how great it ought to be. If you had to define the highest achievements of human culture and civilization you could do far worse than to allow this little object to do all the talking. And the newly refurbished galleries in which you can see this and many other masterpieces of Chinese ceramic art from the collection of Sir Percival David in the Sir Joseph Hotung Centre for Ceramic Studies at the British Museum are among the most thoughtfully arranged, and, incidentally, beautiful that I have seen for many years. Two weeks afterwards the small hairs on the back of my neck are still standing on end, and refuse to stop tingling. There is a wholly intriguing remark at the beginning of the second sentence of Regina Krahl’s essay in the museum’s elegant new “highlights” publication. About the original scholarcollector Sir Percival David, second baronet, a member of the wealthy Sassoon banking family, who died in 1964, she writes: “Little is known about his personal or professional life.” Given the scale and quality of his achievement, and that of his partner and amanuensis, Lady David, I wonder how on earth this is possible?

1 comment:

  1. just got back from being gobsmacked by the objects and their presentation ... enjoying your illuminating description enormously ... thanx