Two Dragons Dancing among Waves
This jar, with its superbly harmonious combination of form, carving style, design and glaze colour, is a characteristic product of the period, when Tang Ying (1682-1756) was supervisor of the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen, and could have been produced in the late Yongzheng period (1723-35) just as well as in the early Qianlong reign (1736-95). It was a period when the expectations on a piece of porcelain were set to the highest level ever, every aspect of a vessel was precisely calculated and planned, down to minute detail, but at the same time, every object was regarded as a work of art in its entirety. The present piece, which is a particularly satisfactory example, is a major monochrome vessel.
Ceramics with celadon glazes never lost their attraction, from the very first moment they began to be produced, almost four thousand years ago. Remarkably, over this long period ever new ways could be found to set in scene the wonderful glaze colour. With the present jar, which stands in this long tradition, the potters again discovered a new format. Although the shape with its generous, well-rounded outline that curves harmoniously towards the rim, would seem to be a classic jar form, vessels with similar proportions had previously only been created in very small format; and whereas dragons among waves and clouds were an eternal subject to decorate carved vessels, the style of the present piece is exceptional.
Pairs of dragons, one dominating, the other slightly subordinate, were not depicted in this lively form before the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Until then, it had been common to show two dragons as a more or less identical pair and to arrange them symmetrically on the surface to be decorated, as auspicious symbols. On porcelain, dragons began to come alive through the artist Liu Yuan (c. 1638-c. 1685), an accomplished painter, calligrapher, wood and stone carver who, during a brief period in the Kangxi reign, from 1681 to 1688, was employed by the court to design porcelains for the imperial factory at Jingdezhen, when Zang Yingxuan was its Director. Liu’s dragons were powerful animals splashing about among waves and shooting through clouds in a seemingly naturalistic manner. On Kangxi porcelain, they were, however, usually depicted as single animals.
The illustration of such animals in pairs was perfected under Tang Ying. The harmonious interaction between the two creatures, dancing around each other as they dive and rise from the waters, is a design challenge that was more commonly restricted to two-dimensional ‘canvases’ such as moonflasks (fig. 1). The tour-de-force of depicting such a lively scene in the round, as on this jar, is a triumph of porcelain design. No particular meaning has been proposed for such scenes, but it would seem that it could only refer to the Emperor and the Heir Apparent.
Inspiration may have come from a type of massive, wide-mouthed celadon jar of the Yongzheng period, such as one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, from the Qing court collection, illustrated in Zhongguo taoci quanji [Complete series on Chinese ceramics], Shanghai, 1999-2000, vol. 14, pl. 214, and also in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Monochrome Porcelain, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 135 (fig. 2). The Yongzheng jar, however, has deeper and sharper carving, which on the Qianlong example has been softened and the impression thus completely changed, to become much more subtle and to highlight the tonal nuances of the glaze colour particularly well. With the dragons’ faces executed in higher relief than the rest, the impression of the animals emerging from among the clouds has been perfectly evoked, while the background designs are so vigorously rendered that the clouds seem to quiver and the waves to splatter, thus reinforcing the ‘movement’ of the animals.
Outstanding among celadon porcelains is the present glaze colour. A clear watery blue-green, which is difficult to reach, as it requires pure reduction firing, was achieved on some of the celebrated wares from the Longquan kilns of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). Thereafter, the technique appears to have been lost, as it is not known from celadon wares of the Yuan (1279-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) periods. In the Qing dynasty it was revived again on some of the finest porcelains of the Yongzheng reign, but remains rare, is generally restricted to smaller vessels, and seldom found on pieces with relief-carved decoration. On the fine white porcelain body produced at Jingdezhen the blue-green takes on an even more brilliant, translucent tone than it did on the heavier, less refined body available at Longquan.
Related carved celadon vessels of the 18th century generally have deeper carving and a less bluish glaze, such as, for example, a tianqiuping in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, illustrated in Oriental Ceramics, the World’s Great Collections, Tokyo, New York, and San Francisco, 1980–82, vol. 11, col. pl. 29. Compare also another celadon tianqiuping carved with a much tamer dragon design in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Monochrome Porcelain, op.cit., pl. 137 (fig. 3). Another very similar jar was sold in these rooms, 24th November 1987, lot 119, and one with polished base and effaced reign mark at Christie’s Hong Kong, 2nd November 1999, lot 580.