The following is an essay by Laurent de Verneuil, curator of the My Blue China: The Colors of Globalization exhibition at Foundation Bernardaud in Limoges, France (June 11 – Nov. 21). The exhibition assembles 13 international contemporary artists who explore the phenomenon of cultural globalization through blue and white ceramic wares. We covered the work of one artist, Bouke de Vries, in another post in this issue.
Above image: Painting by Jan de Vliegher. Photograph courtesy of Dominique Provost.
My Blue China : The Colors of Globalization
“I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china,” — Oscar Wilde
Recent cases of withdrawal into cultural identity have led many artists to ponder the phenomenon of cultural globalization. My Blue China sheds new light on the issues at hand, bringing together the works of thirteen internationally renowned contemporary artists selected for their ties to the history and culture of blue-and-white wares. The subject is an obvious choice for an exhibition at the Fondation Bernardaud, given its prominence in the annals of tableware and decoration.
Yet My Blue China ventures well beyond decorative arts, for it documents the extent to which contemporary art is open to, and draws inspiration from, the story of blue-and-white wares. Inspired by its various forms – the Willow Pattern*, Delft, Sèvres, Wedgwood and majolica – the artists incorporate these universal motifs into their painting, sculpture, digital photography, video or installation art. They show us just how much the blue-and-white tradition permeates and refreshes the esthetic and identity-based preoccupations that are still so persistent in the present context.
The blue-and-white trade was a major element in the history of commerce between China and Europe, but it involved a much larger network. The first blue-and-white wares from the Middle Empire to reach Europe arrived in Italy from the Middle East via the silk and spice routes. The cobalt blue needed to produce these wares was imported from Persia until the 16th century. Working out of Macao, where they had a trading post, the Portuguese became the first importers of these rare commodities.
The Chinese did business directly with the Spanish in the Philippines. Starting in the 17th century, the Dutch began to mass-produce imitation of blue-and-white earthenware in Delft. The Germans followed suit with porcelain at Meissen in the first half of the 18th century, followed by the Italians, French and Austrians in the latter half.
While the production centers in Delft and Meissen were driving trade, Victorian England saw the beginning of an unprecedented trend towards the popularization of blue-and-white wares, the Willow Pattern being the example that is best known today. Manufactured in the 18th century, this purely Western adaptation is a far cry from the original Chinese style, at best a pale imitation and at worst a distortion. Yet it was thought to be typically Chinese, which says a great deal about preconceived Western ideas on the subject of China. This form of chinoiserie reflects the Western vision of the Orient and the Far East, indirectly revealing European dreams of grandeur and hegemony.
In his famous epigram, “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china,” Oscar Wilde both paid tribute to and satirized this craze for exotic refinement, warning against resorting to imitation. It’s a fact that the Far Orient as depicted on pieces of Willow china or in Hokusai woodcuts only existed in the artist’s mind.
The notion, imprecise and multi-faceted, still has the power to sustain and fire the imagination of many like-minded artists. It remains one of the oldest but most long-standing illustrations of cultural globalization, for the history of humanity is about cultural mixing and opening borders. The blue-and-white tradition features in these annals, heralding the advent of a borderless world on the way to standardization and raising questions of imperialism or ethnocentrism. In short, it is an eloquent instance of acculturation, hybridization and globalization, phenomena to which we stand witness today.
Laurent de Verneuil, Curator of My Blue China
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