The long and colorful journey of enamel

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Illuminating Chinese art history with their splendid hues, these wares bear witness to cultural exchanges going back centuries.

What would be the most apt words to describe the domestic ambience of a literary-minded man living in 14th-century China, during the Ming empire (1368-1644)? To a modernday person who has dabbled in the country's aesthetic history, likely candidates would be "sober" and "demure", bearing in mind the succinct lines and dark colors of the now-hailed Ming-style furniture.

Well, all the writing tables, armchairs and wardrobe cabinets on display in one of the Chinese galleries on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York prove they would be right.

But only partially, says Lu Pengliang, assistant curator of the museum's Asian art department. In a sequestered space on the third floor, Lu has quietly amassed a clamorous show, with nearly 100 pieces of Chinese enamelware, almost all dating to the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. With bold colors bordering on boisterous and patterns intricate to the point of intoxicating, the exhibits, from fruit plates and flower vases to incense burners and snuff bottles, beckon viewers with a flight of fancy into history.

"The sheer number of Ming and Qing enameled wares that have been found and the multitude of purposes they served testifies to their role: people lived with and amid them," says Lu, who titled the display Embracing Color: Enamel in Chinese Decorative Arts, 1300-1900.

The exhibition opens with a prelude, in the form of a bluish-white porcelain vase from around the 13th century. With its swirling carved pattern silenced by a glacial sheen, the vase exudes a calmness and a composure that China's elite literati valued.

"Polychrome porcelain enjoyed an elevated status in Chinese art history for a long time," Lu says, pointing to a collector's manual from the late 14th century, which described cloisonne enamels as "out of place in a scholar's study" for its perceived visual excess.

Yet 68 years later, in a revised version of the book, the new author reversed his predecessor's judgment, calling cloisonne enamels of the imperial court "delicate, sparkling and lovely". What happened in between the two editions was the royal family acquiring taste for color, which in turn led to the new aesthetic's adoption throughout society, Lu says.

"In a sense, it was more about who set the standard for beauty than about beauty itself. This is not to discredit the technical tour de force that had allowed this to happen."

Cloisonne enameling, used in the West since ancient times, entails affixing thin metal strips to the pre-drawn surface of a metal object. This creates many small compartments — the French cloisons means partitions — into which a paste of finely ground, colored glass and water is placed. The piece is then fired, turning the glass into enamel and fusing it with the metal. Often the enamel shrinks, and a second or even a third application and firing is needed to fill the cloisons completely.

Contemporary writings of the Ming era traced cloisonne enameling, believed to have been introduced to China in the late 13th century, to the Arab empire (632-1258) and the Byzantine empire (395-1453), in the latter case the art peaking in the 12th century. While the Byzantine cloisonne often used gold featuring miniature-sized religious objects, Ming cloisonne had colors bursting on the copper surfaces of daily wares, with the standing edges of the copper strips polished and gilded to contrast with the objects' signature turquoise and lapis blues.

The blues, which gave rise to the Chinese name for cloisonne enameling, jingtailan (jingtai is the reign mark for the seventh emperor of Ming, and lan means blue), were made possible through imported and later domestically produced cobalt pigment, one of the few that can withstand extremely high firing temperatures. In fact, it was the same pigment that led to the production of chinaware painted in underglaze blue, a famed category of Chinese porcelain whose blue-white combination bears a clear Islamic influence.

Not unlike cloisonne, such wares, known as qinghua (blue flower pattern), were initially considered vulgar, before being celebrated and made in large quantities at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in the mid-14th century. When cloisonne enameling had its own moment soon after, its saturating colors overflowed onto porcelain.

"This was no accident since porcelain had always been what China was known for in ancient times," says Lu, whose Chinese color story is partly centered on cloisonne and partly on porcelain. "Both involved enameling. While cloisonne was never realized on the surface of porcelain, it did every bit to inform its chromatic overglaze."

In the same way copper strips were used with cloisonne, the underglaze blue was employed to draw the outline and provide partition for the varied colors of the overglaze, added during a second firing.

Within those well-delineated spaces, Lu sees an amalgam of influences, ones that had come from far and wide.

Found on several exhibits in the current display is a lotus scroll pattern composed of repeating lotus flowers set within meandering, intertwining tendrils. Now considered archetypal Chinese, it is mostly likely to have traveled the Silk Road from the West, where it had been modeled after acanthus, a plant commonly used to make foliage decoration.

Also traveling the ancient route were Sasanian silverware and pilgrim flasks. The former found their way into a 16th-century porcelain ewer whose red enamel had taken a cue from Chinese lacquerware. The latter, having quenched the thirst of Sogdian merchants and others who had trekked the long road, were reinvented as a pair of luxurious 18th-century cloisonne bottles, both sides densely populated with dragons and tigers, horses and monkeys, alluding unabashedly to the secular pursuit of fame and fortune.

Elsewhere, cloisonne assisted in the spiritual quest, as in the form of a 15th-century base that once supported a three-dimensional ceremonial mandala that probably comprised models of temples and colored sands. If visual intensity could help focus attention and induce piety, a belief central to certain mandala designs, then cloisonne is well-suited to the job.

For Lu, the mandala base testified to the fervor of the Ming court for Tibetan Buddhism. Similar objects have been found in stupas in Tibet and are believed to be the Ming rulers' parting gifts for visiting Tibetan monks, he says.

On a Ming Dynasty cloisonne bowl the Eight Treasures of Tibetan Buddhism — a lidded jar and conch shell being two of them — jostle for space with a miscellany of emblems derived from Taoism and other indigenous beliefs. These include ingots, rhinoceros horns and the Three Peaks, cloud-wreathed worshiping sites for Taoist practitioners.

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