Guan ware is the Southern Song potters’ answer to Ru, the imperial ware of the North. These two wares have defined taste in ceramics like hardly any other wares before or after. These seemingly modest, crackled greenish-glazed stonewares were copied in every period, from the moment they had been created, right up to the present, but never reached. They have gained quasi mythical status.
We know that guan was produced in Hangzhou, the Southern Song (1127-1279) capital, but we do not know all that much else about it. Hangzhou had been declared only a ‘temporary’ capital and was embraced reluctantly by the Song ruling house, who did not want to leave any doubt about their intent to regain control over the northern regions they had lost to the Jin (1115-1234). When the Song moved there, Hangzhou did not offer any of the amenities the court had taken for granted. Suitable palace structures took time to be built, levels of comfort of any kind only slowly improved, and the provision of goods and services could only gradually be assured. The supply of ceramics to the court was only one small aspect of the immense logistic challenges facing the administration, but not the least complex. As the region did not produce any ceramics of a suitably high standard, manufactories able to produce ceramics of the highest order, unmatched world-wide, had to be built up from scratch.
We do not know whether potters from the Ru kilns of Baofeng in Henan followed the Song – forcibly or voluntarily – to the South, but it seems quite possible, since after the move of the ruling house the Ru manufactories declined to the level of provincial workshops, while other kiln centres, such as Ding in Hebei, Jun in Henan or Yaozhou in Shaanxi continued to produce high-quality wares also for the court of the Jin, without any immediately obvious stylistic or qualitative decline. In the South, different raw materials, kiln structures, firing methods and – at least partly – differently trained artisans, made a seamless continuation impossible, and that proved to be a lucky constellation, since it enabled development into a new direction.
Today, Ru and guan ware – the preferred choices of the Song ruling house before and after the relocation – are equally celebrated and equally rare, and probably always were. Yet, it would be difficult to compile a Catalogue Raisonné of the worldwide patrimony of heirloom guan wares, as we were able to do for heirloom Ru wares in last season’s Song catalogue (Hong Kong, 3rd October 2017, pp. 66-77). While Ru represents a fairly consistent body of wares that are closely related in shape, manufacturing method, glaze type and overall style, this is not the case for guan. Although all Hangzhou guan wares are monochrome stonewares with celadon-coloured glazes, just like Ru, the variety of types made for the court in the Southern Song capital is phenomenal. It suggests a lengthy process of experimentation and ambition in Hangzhou, which enriched the palette of ceramic masterpieces, but made it that much more difficult to grasp what guan really is.
We can note a use of different body materials; a wide variety of forms including purely ‘ceramic’ shapes and ones copying other materials; an immense range of sizes from small cups to massive vases; a large palette of successful glaze tones from shades of beige and grey to intense bluish green; an appearance of glazes without any crazing or with thin-meshed, with wide-meshed or with layered ‘ice’ crackle; as well as different firing methods, with and without spurs. Although a kiln producing top quality guan ware, Laohudong, has been located and excavated in Hangzhou, given this variety, it is difficult to believe that it was the only kiln working for the court. And the subsequent connoisseurs’ literature has further obscured the fringes, so that, where beige-coloured wares are concerned, it is now difficult to know where guan ends and ge begins. This, luckily, does not affect the present piece.
In spite of this wide spectrum, the potters of the official kilns in Hangzhou nevertheless perfectly captured in their creations – like great artists and artisans anywhere – the spirit of their times. The Song dynasty (960-1279) was marked by two contrasting Confucian concepts of thought, one conservative, personified in particular by Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072), who advocated a revaluation of ancient tradition as a source for moral principles and a guideline for righteous behaviour; the other reformist, propagated by Wang Anshi (1021-1086), who proposed idealistic reforms to achieve an ideal social order, and himself practiced an exemplary simple, frugal lifestyle.
It would seem that these two schools of thought are also reflected in the period’s aesthetic ideals. Two very different trends can certainly be perceived among guan wares, where two styles seem to rival with each other: on the one hand, the evocation of the past through archaistic works that follow in shape and design archaic jades and bronzes and tend to be stately and imposing; on the other hand, a proposition of something radically new, a contemporary style that convinces through clarity and precision of its outlines and proportions, and minimalism in shape and design. Such works – like the present washer – convey a fresh and airy spirit that can equally be detected among the monochrome lacquerwares of the period, an art form that had only just begun to be appreciated. With this new aesthetic concept Song arts and crafts were incredibly advanced, about a millennium ahead of their times, as this style brings to mind ‘Bauhaus’ ideals of simplicity and functionality, as they became dominant in 20th-century Germany and beyond. This also explains why they remain to be so influential on artists and artisans today.
While one might think that in the Song, works evoking the past would have been ranked higher than innovative items, it is interesting to note the relative grading of old and new styles at the Song painting academy during the reign of Emperor Huizong (r. 1100-1126). Wai-kam Ho relates the guidelines set for grading exams, where students were given the task to interpret in their paintings a given poetic quote (Wai-kam Ho et al., Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting. The Collections of the Nelson Gallery – Atkins Museum, Kansas City, and The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 1980, pp. xxviii-xxix): A ‘Lower Grade’ was given to ‘the ability to make imitations or copies that are close approximations to the true character of the original’; a ‘Middle Grade’ to those, in whose paintings ‘the seeming imitation of old masters [was] amplified and transcended’, while the ‘Highest Grade’ was reserved for students who were able to perform the task ‘without imitating any ancient masters’. In other words, even the intrinsically conservative arbiters of taste at the Song painting academy ranked highest the ability to create something new, providing of course that it fulfilled certain criteria, among which they stipulated that ‘forms and colors are rendered naturally’.
The present washer, with its emphasis on tonal variation and patterns of crazing reminiscent of those manifested by nature in beautiful stones, embodies this modernity. Hardly a shape could evoke the stylistic identity of the Southern Song as well as the mallow shape with its soft and pleasing outline, without any sharp edges. The simplicity of newly devised Song forms is already evident in Ru ware, for example, in the Northern Song (960-1127) washer from the collection of Alfred Clark, sold 4th April 2012, lot 101 (fig. 1), to which this guan example would seem to be a Southern Song echo.
Its soft outline evokes contemporary lacquer ware rather than metal prototypes, even though close lacquer comparisons are rare. Mallow-shaped lacquer dishes generally are depicted with the ‘petals’ overlapping in S-shaped curves, but one similar black lacquer dish is in the Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, Tokyo, albeit with seven petals: see the Museum’s exhibition Sō Gen no bi. Denrai no shikki to chūshin ni/The Colors and Forms of Song and Yuan China. Featuring Lacquerwares, Ceramics, and Metalwares, Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, Tokyo, 2004, cat. no. 19 (fig. 2).
With its combination of seven rough spur marks and an unglazed foot ring, on which it does not seem to have been standing in the kiln, the present dish was probably produced fairly early in the Southern Song, when different methods of firing were tried out, as related washers and dishes generally show either an unglazed foot, or a glazed foot and spur marks.
Only one close companion piece appears to have been published, a washer in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, of very similar shape and size, also with an unglazed foot and seven spur marks, but the glaze fired to a more opaque greyish green and showing a denser crackle, and the body fired to a darker brown. In spite of damage to its rim, that washer has been repeatedly illustrated and exhibited by the Museum, and had been sent by the Chinese Government to the International Exhibition of Chinese Art at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935-6, and is included in the Illustrated Catalogue of Chinese Government Exhibits for the International Exhibition of Chinese Art in London, Shanghai, 1935, vol. II, pl. 80; is it also illustrated in Gugong Song ci tulu. Nan Song Guan yao/Illustrated Catalogue of Sung Dynasty Porcelain in the National Palace Museum, Southern Sung Kuan Ware, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1974, pl. 56; it was included in the Museum’s major guan exhibition in 1989, published in Song guanyao tezhan/Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Sung Dynasty Kuan Ware, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1989, cat. no. 94; and more recently in the exhibition Gui si chenxing. Qing gong chuanshi 12 zhi 14 shiji qingci tezhan/Precious as the Morning Star. 12th-14th Century Celadons in the Qing Court Collection, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2016, cat. no. II-30 (fig. 3). The National Palace Museum also owns a related washer of water caltrop shape, with the petal-shaped sides pointed at the rim, ibid., cat. no. II-28.
Comparisons are otherwise extremely rare; but it is interesting in this context to look at a probably slightly later vessel of this mallow flower shape, the famous, somewhat larger piece in the Sir Percival David Collection in the British Museum, no. A46. This piece lacks spur marks, has shallower sides and thus represents a dish more than a washer, and has a more opaque, milky blue-green glaze; see Illustrated Catalogue of Ru, Guan, Jun, Guangdong and Yixing Wares in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, rev. ed., London, 1999, p. 64 and back cover (fig. 4).
The present washer is superbly potted, crisply shaped and yet fluid in its outlines, the thick glaze thinning towards the rim, the surface inviting the finger to follow the curves. The very glossy glaze has the most exquisite blue-green colour, a gelatinous lustre and a pleasing, satiny texture. The simplicity of the shape and the absence of any decoration are severe on the craftsmen as they are not forgiving of any defects; but they serve to highlight the elegant web of the luminous crackle. The piece appears as if carved from a boulder of a lustrous jade-like stone. New official commissions of such seemingly modest ceramics suggested cultured patronage rather than wasteful consumption and at the same time conveyed evidence of a continuation of imperial taste and style from the Northern to the Southern Song.
Pieces such as this guanyao washer enjoyed an unbroken history of appreciation by sophisticated connoisseurs, both for actual use or just for delectation. Their appeal was of course not lost on the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795), one of China’s greatest self-proclaimed art lovers. The Huojidang [Archives of the Imperial Workshops] for the Qianlong period tell us that in 1744, one guanyao mallow-shaped washer with zitan stand, which the Emperor ranked as ‘top quality’, was ordered to be sent to the Qianqinggong, the Palace of Heavenly Purity, one of the main palace buildings in the Forbidden City, after a fitted brocade box and wrapping cloth had been made for it; in 1745, the Emperor had another such washer sent to the Yuanmingyuan Summer Palace, to be stored there in a treasure box; in 1749, he ordered that a drawer be made for the stand of such a washer, perhaps to house a small album of paintings and poems by the Emperor himself, as we know he had done for a piece of Ru ware; and in 1773 four such washers with zitan stands were apparently displayed on curio shelves in the Jingyanggong, Palace of Great Brilliance, one of the side halls of the Forbidden City, which today also houses a display of works of art.
In more recent times, this washer belonged to two of the most important Asian collectors of Chinese art in the twentieth century, Edward T. Chow (fig. 5) and T.Y. Chao (fig. 6), and figured in two of the most memorable sales in Hong Kong, which have made auction history. Edward T. Chow (1910-1980), one of the most renowned dealers and collectors of Chinese art, began at an early age to work in this field and to assemble his collection, first in Shanghai, later in Hong Kong, and eventually in Switzerland. His expert knowledge of Chinese art, his high aesthetic standards and his relentless demand for quality made him one of the favourite addresses for the major collectors of the time, such as Sir Percival David, King Gustaf Adolf of Sweden, Eiichi Ataka, J.M. Hu, or Barbara Hutton, many of whom he managed to advise and as such to play an important role in the formation of collections as, for example, also the Meiyintang collection. The sale of his own collection in three parts at Sotheby’s Hong Kong and London in 1980 and 1981 created a splash in the art world and heralded an explosion of prices in this field. The Edward T. Chow collection remains one of the most coveted provenances for a piece of Chinese art.
T.Y. Chao (1912-1999), shipping magnate and leading real estate developer of Hong Kong, had collected Chinese art for decades prior to the Chow sales and besides porcelains, also sought out classical paintings and calligraphies as well as jades. An exhibition of one hundred Ming and Qing porcelains from his collection was held at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 1978. Recognizing the rare opportunity the Chow sales provided, he became one of the major buyers there, despite the very high prizes. Many pieces from the Edward T. Chow sales therefore re-appeared on the market in 1986 and 1987, when the T.Y. Chao collection itself was offered in two auctions, also at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, echoing the success of the Chow sales.
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