When the Chinese Republic was founded in 1912, it was no wonder that the lotus flower, revered in Chinese culture for rising unblemished out of murky waters, became a dominant theme throughout this emerging nation’s art in the following decades. The preceding fifty years had seen China lurch from the stranglehold of Western imperial powers to the overthrow of the centuries old Qing dynasty in the Xinhai Revolution resulting a delicate political balance that would descend into a brutal civil war through the 1920s, 30s and 40s, punctuated only by the additional conflict of the Second Sino-Japanese War. To the country’s ceramic artists, no strangers to the political aspect of their work as expressions of China’s most revered art form, the lotus must have seemed a particularly apt emblem of their nation: a tremulous flower, pure but delicate, emerging from a foul pool only to be buffeted by brutal elements.
Lot 1669 in the Asian Works of Art Auction at McTear’s is just such an example: dating from the Republic period, this piece has been finely enamelled with lotus sprays and scrolls as the dominant aesthetic theme. Many ceramics which come for sale throughout Britain and further afield are dated as ‘Republican’, much of the time erroneously, so how can we determine that this piece is of the Republic Period and why is this a desirable date of attribution?
To answer the first question, it is a matter of quality, quality, quality. Amongst the constant tide of Chinese ceramics on the open market at any one time, it is easy to lose sight of the important details that make one piece a better work than the other. When inspecting Lot 1669, one can see the delicate shading of enamels from one colour to another and from colour to pure white within the individual lotus leaves – these leaves on later pieces are either of one colour or are clumsily graduated with no subtlety of tone between the shades used. Secondly, the outlines of this piece are confidently and sinuously drawn with no abrupt edges or pauses, these blooms seem organic and natural – later pieces are contrived, done from a scheme and without the vision of the individual. Finally, when observing the piece overall, the reticulation which exposes the inner core has been picked out with similar surety of hand, the foot has been neatly trimmed and the vase has been well potted. Later imitations display clumsy piercing work without the necessary technical prowess, the feet are broader and the overall shape more substantial and less refined.
While the Republic period has been overlooked by many scholars, dealers and collectors in recent decades as the prices of fine Ming and Qing wares escalated to near astronomical levels, over the past ten years a reassessment of the technical and artistic quality achieved by Republican artists has taken place as those priced out of the above markets looked to a later period. While the output can be uneven, the heights achieved by such artists as those who produced Lot 1669, almost certainly in the ceramic centre of Jingdezhen, is now appreciated as of very high quality and so the Republic ‘label’ has become much desired amongst the bracket of collectors seeking more ‘affordable’ but still well executed Chinese ceramics.
Artistically, this piece looks both forward and back, the lotus being the future with the remaining motifs a revered, idealised past. The mark is that of the Qianlong Emperor (reigned 1735-1796) who has been recorded in the sources as the greatest patron and connoisseur of the arts of the imperial period, with this form of a rotating exterior enclosing a core one of the highest technical achievements of porcelain during his reign; the pierced central shape is that of the lingzhi fungus, a much-repeated motif associated with immortality in the Sino-Buddhist tradition for over 2,000 years and the trigrams (pierced horizontal lines to the upper and lower sections of the body) hark back even further to the Archaic period of China when the indigenous tribes produced bronzes bearing this geometric detail of exquisite quality. In these nods to a celebrated past, one can imagine that the artist wishes to transpose these qualities of eternal life and emphasis on artistic achievement to his burgeoning nation.
If we place ourselves within the white-hot political and artistic crucible of the Republic period, we can see in this vase a vision of a China past and future, at once both complimentary and contradicting; the course of events during the mid and latter parts of the 20th century would prove at first brutal, then uncertain and, finally, aspirational. Whether they that produced this vase, Lot 1669, would agree with the political direction of modern China, or whether we do ourselves, it can certainly be argued that the lotus has risen.
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