Lot 3608
  • 3608

AN EXCEPTIONALLY FINE BLUE AND WHITE 'ROSETTE' MOONFLASK, BIANHU MING DYNASTY, YONGLE PERIOD

Estimate
30,000,000 - 40,000,000 HKD
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Description

  • porcelain
superbly modelled after a Middle Eastern metalwork prototype, with a flattened spherical body with two domed sides resting on a rectangular footring with rounded corners, surmounted by a waisted neck and small bulb-shaped mouth, flanked by a pair of gracefully arched handles extending from the upper neck to the narrow sides plainly decorated with two lines, each main side of the body brilliantly painted in rich cobalt blue with linked ruyi heads overlapping elongated petal lappets interspersed with trefoil flowers, all radiating out from a central wheel-shaped medallion and enclosed within a classic scroll border along the edge, below a foliate scroll band of asters and carnations collaring the lower mouth, the lobed terminals of the handles similarly adorned with floral sprays

Provenance

Collection of Edward T. Chow (1910-80).
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 19th May 1981, lot 408.
Idemitsu Museum of Art, Tokyo.

Literature

E.T. Chow and F.S. Drake, 'Yung-lo and Hsüan-t’e: A Study on Chinese Blue-and-White Porcelain', Journal of Oriental Studies, vol. IV, nos 1-2, 1957-58, reprint, 1961, pp. 108-116, pls VII-VIII.

Catalogue Note

Pride of the Potter, Ambition of the Painter
Regina Krahl

The abstract nature of the ‘gothic’ rosettes on this and similar flasks must have seemed revolutionary, when the imperial kilns first came up with this design in the Yongle period (1403-24), and although similar interlaced motifs were also used on contemporary blue-and-white bowls, they stand out among the more typically nature-oriented designs of that reign.

The complexity of this motif becomes apparent only when following the individual lines, which alternately pass over or under each other according to a very strict pattern, and thus form a perfectly interlaced three-dimensional unity. The mastery of the porcelain painters executing this design with a brush is as admirable as is that of the potters assembling this form from horizontally aligned sections; but as they were all working to direct orders from the court, the imperial craftsmen were not easily discouraged by challenges. While both its form and main design are foreign, this flask represents one of the classic styles of Yongle imperial porcelain. The only concession to Chinese taste are the narrow floral border of delicate carnations and asters around the neck and the pretty floral sprays on the handles, which owe nothing to foreign inspiration and seem designed to soften the strict formality of the main design.

Flasks of this type come in two somewhat different shapes, in different sizes, with two different rosette designs, and either unmarked or with Xuande reign mark (1426-35). While the present type, of taller form and with a more elongated bulb, is more often unmarked and may represent the earlier Yongle version, smaller flasks with a more pronounced pear-shaped bulb are more frequently found with a Xuande reign mark and probably represent the later form. However, both shapes come with and without reign mark and were probably made in both periods.

Subtler stylistic differences and their presumed significance for dating were discussed in an article by E.T. Chow and F.S. Drake, published in 1961 (op.cit.), by comparing several flasks from the Percival David Foundation and from the collection of Edward T. Chow. The present flask, then in the possession of Edward T. Chow, was included as a classic example of the earlier style, attributed to the Yongle period. Chow and Drake pointed out many differences in material, shape, design, and painting style, through which the two periods can be distinguished and unequivocally came down on the side of the earlier, Yongle, version as being more graceful in form, more careful in its painting manner, and more intense in colour.

Their judgment is indeed beautifully exemplified by the present piece, where the superimposed bands of the rosettes are carefully interlaced, and the blue – characterised by Chow and Drake as “particularly fine” – is unusually vivid, contrasting clearly with the white body, both being emphasised by a very glossy glaze. On later examples, it is noticeable that the painters no longer concentrated on the way the lines are interwoven, thus creating a flat two-dimensional design that could be completed much more quickly. Chow and Drake also mention that on the later shape the foot was slightly adjusted, probably in order to make the flask stand more securely, but to the detriment of “aesthetic value” and consider the “harmonious roundness” of the earlier shape “a source of great aesthetic enjoyment”, which “seems to mark an original creative act or inspiration”.

This double-handled, oval-sectioned shape is probably derived from pottery vessels that can ultimately be traced to the 18th Dynasty of Egypt (c.1543–1292 BC), but continued to be popular there for centuries. Examples from 6th/7th century Roman Egypt were known as St Menas flasks since, filled with oils or holy water, they served Christian pilgrims to the tomb of St Menas near Alexandria as souvenirs, which gave rise to the term ‘pilgrims’ flasks’. It was around that time that such flasks (bianhu) arrived in China, probably with Sogdian merchants, and were copied in lead-glazed earthenware. When the Jingdezhen potters became interested in this shape in the Yongle period, they adapted it in various ways, with nature designs well matched to a more rounded form and this formal design perfectly suited to this somewhat angled shape. The sources of this rosette design are more difficult to trace, although the geometric construction suggests a Persian or Arab origin.

A flask of this design, reconstructed from sherds excavated from the waste heaps of the Ming Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, was included in the exhibition Jingdezhen chutu Ming chu guanyao ciqi /Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1996, cat. no. 65; a similar complete flask in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, is illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, ed. John Ayers, London, 1986, vol. II, no. 616; one in the Umezawa Kinenkan, Tokyo, is published in Fujioka Ryoichi and Hasebe Gakuji, eds, Sekai tōji zenshū/Ceramic Art of the World, vol. 14: Min/Ming Dynasty, Tokyo, 1976, col. pl. 144 and fig. 23; another was included in the exhibition The Mount Trust Collection of Chinese Art, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1970, cat. no. 83.

Two related flasks are in the Palace Museum, Beijing, from the Qing court collection, one of similar form as the present piece, but of Xuande mark and period, the other unmarked, but of smaller size and with more prominent bulbous neck, both illustrated in Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum], vol. 1, Beijing, 2002, pls 84 and 85, and both attributed to the Xuande reign; two unmarked flasks, one of each shape, are in the Shanghai Museum, also attributed to the Xuande reign in Lu Minghua, Shanghai Bowuguan cangpin yanjiu daxi/Studies of the Shanghai Museum Collections : A Series of Monographs. Mingdai guanyao ciqi [Ming imperial porcelain], Shanghai, 2007, pls 3-20 and 3-21; two unmarked flask of the smaller shape from the Ardabil Shrine are in the National Museum of Iran, Teheran, one illustrated in Oriental Ceramics: The World’s Great Collections, Tokyo, New York, and San Francisco, 1980-82, vol. 4, col. pl. 58; the other, probably once on display in the Chehel Sotun, Isfahan, is illustrated in Misugi Takatoshi, Chinese Porcelain Collections in the Near East: Topkapi and Ardebil, Hong Kong, 1981, vol. III, p. 349 centre right.

For contemporary blue-and-white bowls with similar abstract interlaced motifs around the inside or outside, see four bowls of the Yongle period in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Geng Baochang, op.cit., pls 61-4.
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