The early Tang dynasty (618-907) is unparalleled in the baroque opulence of its works of art, which runs through all media. It was a time when Chinese emperors surpassed each other in the display of luxuries, and when ostentatious works of art in gold, silver, tortoise shell, mother-of-pearl, foreign glass and other valuable materials were in use at court. While only few of those works have survived – outside the Shōsō-in of the Tōdai-ji in Nara, the storehouse which preserves some of the personal belongings of the Japanese Emperor Shōmu (r. 724-749) – China’s sancai (‘three color’) wares provide a splendid echo in pottery of the luxury world inhabited by the court and the aristocracy and convey a vivid impression of the spirit of the time.
The four Tang sancai vessels here assembled speak, each in its own way, of the joie de vivre in the early Tang period, a delight in ornamentation and color, a style developed to its full maturity, when the inventiveness of the potters aimed at pushing a medium to its limits. Their vast repertoire of shapes and designs was inspired by metalwork, glass, textiles and any other fine materials they encountered, and absorbed motifs and design concepts that had arrived in China via the Silk Road from Central Asia and lands further west.
When glazed pottery first became popular for burial items in the latter part of the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220), it was horses, farm animals and birds, as well as practical items of daily life, such as watch towers, grain stores, mills, wells, stoves, looms, storage jars and incense burners, that were reproduced in ceramic form, to provide the deceased symbolically with the necessities – as then perceived – in the afterlife. In the period between Han and Tang, when the country was divided and the seat of China’s political power had shifted to the south, glazed pottery, produced mainly in the north, became rare. When it reappeared at the end of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589), in the Northern Qi period (550-577), it had fundamentally changed. Imported by Sogdian traders, whose art had itself assimilated styles from Bactria further south and from the Sassanian empire further west, it displayed completely new aesthetics, ultimately derived from Hellenistic, Persian and Indian art.
The adventure of this rich ornamentation had an overwhelming influence on Chinese artisans who eagerly incorporated new ideas and motifs into their own repertoire. In the Tang dynasty, earthenware pottery adopted completely new styles and functions, as purely practical considerations receded into the background and gave way to ambitions to make ceramics delectable. In the course of this development, pottery vessels, originally only considered as humble replicas of more valuable goods, became works of art in their own right, original in design and demanding in craftsmanship. Never did Chinese potters create more luxurious and ingenious ceramics from earthenware clay than at that period. There can be no doubt that elaborate pieces such as the four vessels presented here were expensive already at their time of production. Several kilns seem to have been involved in the production of sancai ceramics, but the Gongyi kilns in Gongxian, Henan province, now appear as the most important, as the kiln site has yielded evidence for the widest range of classic shapes, decorative techniques and motifs.
Compared with Han prototypes, pottery also became richer in color, mainly through the use of a white slip over the dull beige clay, which not only brightened up the green and amber-yellow glaze tones, but also – covered with a transparent glaze – added a near-white glaze color to the repertoire and thus gave rise to the sancai color scheme. Sancai from then on became a staple in Chinese ceramics and remained popular long after many additional glaze colors had become available. It continued to be used until the end of China’s imperial past, being gradually transferred from earthenware to stoneware and eventually to porcelain.
Fluid forms, such as the squeezed mouth of the ewer, lot 77, the applied knobs of clay on its handle, and the raised rings, particularly around its neck, were borrowed from Roman or Near Eastern glass, which represented one of the particularly prized foreign luxury goods.
Glazes with merging outlines, and motifs reserved in white in a contrasting glaze, such as seen on the basin, lot 74, seem to be imitating, in style and probably also in technique, wax-resist textile designs. The effect can be similar to the mother-of-pearl and amber inlays in plain lacquer or tortoise shell. Motifs such as the central rosette on this piece are now known to have been produced by impressing pottery stamps, examples of which have been discovered at the Gongyi kiln site.
Applied palmettes, foliate and arabesque designs, motifs taken from the animal and plant world, elements of Buddhist imagery such as the ubiquitous lotus petals and pearl bands, as well as apotropaic monster masks and medallions, as seen on the two ewers, lots 75 and 77, and the rhyton, lot 76, had already appeared on Northern Qi ceramics and were now translated, in more stylish form, into the decorative language of Tang pottery. They clearly allude to jewel-like encrustations or lush repoussé motifs on metalwork. Granular relief surfaces, such as seen on the green phoenix-head ewer and rhyton, are reminiscent of the pearl beading favored in silver, but the way this pattern is used here evokes even more strongly abundance in nature: on the ewer, it is emerging from an outer hull that appears to have split open, recalling a fruit bursting with seeds; while on the rhyton, it appears to pour forth from a horn of plenty.
The rhyton in particular, which is styled like a cornucopia overflowing with riches, seems like a perfect symbol for the plethora of opulence enjoyed and displayed by the ruling elite in the first half of the Tang period. This life style was radically cut short through the rebellion of An Lushan in 755/6 which, although ultimately unsuccessful, shook the dynasty to its core and had a most sobering effect on Tang society. It ended the halcyon days that these pottery vessels seem to incarnate and to preserve for posterity.
This charming bowl represents one of the most successful and prolific designs on Tang dynasty wares, with many variations in both color combination and execution known. The floral rosette formed of eight petal-shaped lappets, which was impressed on the clay body when it was still damp, was probably inspired by silver ware with traced decoration although the motif was well known also in other media, such as textile. Furthermore, the white spots around the rosette on this piece are reminiscent of the ring-punched ground on contemporary metalware. See, for example, a silver box and cover, cast on one side with a six-pointed rosette with a further six petals, unearthed in Hejiacun, Xi’an, and included in the exhibition Dai Tō Chō-an Ten [Exhibition of Chang’an the capital of Tang Dynasty], Kyoto Cultural Museum, Kyoto, 1994, cat. no. 56.
A closely related basin, from the collections of Eugene Bernat and Dr. Ip Yee, sold in these rooms, 7th November 1980, lot 58, and again in our Hong Kong rooms, 19th November 1984, lot 140; one with blue glaze instead of green was included in Chūgoku Tōji Meijin Ten [Exhibition of famous pieces of Chinese pottery and porcelain], Matsuoka Museum of Art, Tokyo, 1983, cat. no. 13; and another from the Lord Cunliffe collection, sold in our London rooms, 1st-2nd April 1974, lot 29.
Compare also basins with a similar central motifs, but lacking the white spots on the ochre ground, such as one in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, illustrated in Mario Prodan, The Art of the T’ang Pottery, London, 1960, col. pl. XVII; another in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, published in Three Colour Glaze Pottery of the T’ang Dynasty, Hong Kong, 1977, vol. II, pl. 89; and a third from the collection of J. Spaulding, sold in these rooms, 23rd-24th May 1974, lot 272.
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