Hosted at Australia’s National Gallery of Victoria, Blue: Alchemy of a Colour (November 6, 2015 – March 16, 2016) will show you how a simple color can move the world. The exhibition focuses on the history of cobalt blue pigment and indigo blue dye. It explores how countless artists have developed the use of the color to produce works of art. As proof of the color’s significance, more than art gets wrapped into its story.
Above image: A Chinese dish from the Ming dynasty, ca. 15th century. The dish comes from Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Porcelain and cobalt blue underglaze.
The museum states:
The wideranging cultural meanings associated with the colour blue are reflected in religious and ceremonial works of art created across the world. In the sixteenth century the visual appeal of the blue-and-white palette intensified the global trade between Asia and Europe resulting in an exchange of designs, materials and technology that found expression in blue-and-white ceramics and textiles.
An exhibition guide for the show comes in at an exhaustive 75 pages, but it’s a treasure trove of information for anyone who is in love with the history of ceramics. We’re running a few selections from the show here, supported with information from the museum.
Tiles in the shape of stars and hexagons were manufactured in large quantities to decorate interior and exterior surfaces of religious and secular buildings throughout Persia. This example, made during the Il Khanid period, is decorated with metallic lustre glaze. Lustre ware originated in ninth-century Iraq, and spread to Europe via Egypt, Iran and Spain. The fact that the tile’s floral decoration and calligraphy recall both Persian textiles and luxury manuscripts suggests that common visual sources were employed by artisans working in different media.The calligraphic border reflects the importance of script in Islamic art, whether used as ornament, as talisman or to communicate the word of God.
Tiles like these, with their thick white tin glaze decorated in cobalt blue, were one of the most ubiquitous products of the Delft potteries throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were used in Dutch interiors to decorate fireplaces and walls, especially in kitchens, where they provided an easily cleaned ornamental surface. The tiles were also exported in large numbers, both throughout Europe and across the globe, via the Dutch maritime empire.
This Tang dynasty (618–907) three-footed offering plate or dish is decorated with sancai (three-colour) lead glazes. The term actually covers a palette that could include more than three colours, and in this example cobalt oxide blue glaze, a mineral pigment introduced into Chinese ceramics at this time, has been added to the standard three colours of brown, cream and green. Cobalt would later be used in blue-and-white underglaze decoration, beginning in the Yuan dynasty. The cobalt blue was probably imported from sources in Iran, reflecting the cosmoplitanism of Tang period China.
The Italian maiolica (tin-glazed earthenware) industry developed in response to the popularity of ceramics imported from Spain, where a rich ceramic tradition originally developed under Islamic rule. The decoration of this handled jar produced for the pharmacy of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence shows the continuing influence of the Hispano-Moresque pottery tradition. The underglaze blue decoration of oak leaves and rampant hound is executed in cobalt oxide most likely obtained from North Africa or the Eastern Mediterranean, where it would have arrived via overland trade routes from Iran.
Porcelain was first produced in Japan in the early seventeenth century at kilns in the vicinity of Arita on Kyushu island. Underglaze blue wares such as this jar were made initially, the decorations of which combined elements of various Chinese wares previously imported to Japan. Japanese blue-and-white wares soon developed a distinctive style characterised by freely painted forms, graded ink washes and open spaces in the composition. They were exported to Europe in large numbers from 1657, following the collapse of the Ming dynasty and the disruption to the production of porcelain at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen.
The term lakabi, or laqabi, from the Persian word la’ābī (enamel), is a type of ware produced in Egypt, Syria and Iran on which the decoration is partly incised, the lines of the pattern preventing the coloured glazes, incuding a cobalt blue, from running into each other. Mainly large plates or dishes survive, and this example depicts an enthroned sovereign or dancer accompanied by two musicians and two animals. It reveals Iranian and Chinese influences, particularly in the long-sleeved robe worn by the main figure – a style also seen in Tang dynasty Chinese ceramic figures of Central Asian dancers.
The decoration of this blue-and-white delftware jar is inspired by mid-seventeenth century Chinese porcelain. A rolling landscape inhabited by robed figures is broken on either side by rocky crags, with areas left white to represent mist. The decoration is not, however, a direct copy of a Chinese original; the Dutch artist has absorbed the Chinese style and produced an original, European composition. The relationship between the Dutch ceramic and any Asian prototype is further complicated by the fact that many of these Dutch earthenware imitations of Chinese-style blue-and-white porcelain are not based directly on Chinese models, but on Japanese copies of Chinese porcelains.
Love (not quite) contemporary ceramic art + design? Let us know in the comments.