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"The Potter’s Tale" Exhibition Guide

This digital guide provides access to all of the descriptive wall texts and labels that were mounted as part of the special exhibition, The Potter's Tale: Contextualizing 6,000 Years of Ceramics. Click on the thumbnail images to learn more about each object included in the installation. A downloadable pdf of these materials is also available below for your reference.

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Maker Unknown (Persian), Bowl
Photo Credit: 

Laura Shea

Introduction

Ceramics have transformed the world. For thousands of years, humans have shaped and fired clay into practical, social, artistic, and ideological objects that can be found in almost every culture around the globe. Important social and scientific information imbedded in manufacturing techniques and decorative motifs of ceramics has been passed on for generations, exchanged between cultures, and has revolutionized people’s way of life. This exhibition highlights the Art Museum’s ceramic collection which spans six continents and six thousand years. Looking through the lens of cultural and technological influences and exchanges, this showcase seeks to reveal the depth and diversity of the collection and the power these wares possess in shaping our functional, social, and esthetic lives.

Curated by Aaron F. Miller, Assistant Curator of Visual and Material Culture Yingxi (Lucy) Gong '13, Art Museum Advisory Board Fellow

This exhibition is made possible by the Susan Davenport Page 1931 and Margaret Davenport Page Fales 1929 Art Fund. 

Download the pdf.

Technology & Production

As the fragmentary pieces in this case demonstrate, there are three primary types of ceramics: earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain. These categories differ based upon both the clay and the temperatures at which the vessels are fired in the kiln. Earthenware is fired at the lowest temperatures, and as a result, is the most porous and susceptible to cracking. The higher temperatures used for stoneware and porcelain also require specific varieties of clays and other minerals to allow the process of vitrification to occur, in which the silica in the clay becomes glass. Both stoneware and porcelain are impermeable to liquids, but porcelain is distinguishable by its pure white, semi-translucent body.

The ceramic variety is only part of the story. Many wares are glazed for both functional and aesthetic reasons. Glazing is particularly important for earthenware, and acts as a sealant to ensure that the contained liquids and foodstuffs aren’t absorbed into the porous body, which would result in breakage. Different glazing compounds (lead, tin, salt, manganese, and more) produce various colors and textures in the firing process. Both before and after the application of the glaze, pigments and thin clay slips can be added to create diverse and dazzling motifs. 

From the Apothecary’s Shop

The Museum is in many ways a collection of collections. These spec- tacular albarelli and drug jars highlight a much larger assemblage gathered over a lifetime by Joseph J. Hammer. Both shapes of these earthenware ves- sels were used in apothecary shops and in the home to store various wet and dry medicines and herbs. The examples here are coated with a white or blu- ish tin-based glaze. This technique evolved in the Near East as an attempt to replicate the appearance of porcelain. Spanning the 16th to 18th centuries, these apothecary vessels became canvases for striking and often sophisticated painting. They can reveal aspects of everyday life, from the crests of their no- ble owners to the prescribed remedies for maladies. Drawn from mythology, classical sources, science, folklore, religion, and politics, these designs offer a treasure trove of information. 

Devotion

Religious subjects and decorations in clay have existed for millennia. Small-scale sculptures of deities and other religious figures have long been important devo- tional objects, used widely in private prayer and meditation. Other sculptures of religious scenes and subjects may have served primarily as decoration—a visually pleasing and collectible reminder of one’s own piety. 

Delectation

Religious subjects and decorations in clay have existed for millennia. Small-scale sculptures of deities and other religious figures have long been important devotional objects, used widely in private prayer and meditation. Other sculptures of religious scenes and subjects may have served primarily as decoration—a visually pleasing and collectible reminder of one’s own piety. 

Text Messages

Though function is often paramount, ceramic vessels also display myriad decorations and designs, and sometimes even written messages. Whether conveying national pride, social mores, or other proclamations, ceramics can be conspicuous means for both the serving of food and drink and the transmis- sion of ideas. Sometimes these messages are explicit, other times more subtle. 

Six Centuries of Lusterware

Lustrous glazed ceramics first appeared in ninth-century Iraq in imitation of more expensive vessels made of silver and gold. With the spread of Islam into what is now Spain, these vessels were introduced to a receptive European market. Successive centuries saw new adaptations of these shiny metallic glazes and new variations of form and decoration. From the Early Middle Ages to the present, from the Islamic world to America, the allure of lusterware has endured. 

Mark Hewitt: A Potter’s Tale

This contemporary vessel is at first glance just that—contemporary. However, no work of art is created in a vacuum. This masterpiece of form and design was shaped by thousands of years of ceramic innovation and pottery traditions. The potter, Mark Hewitt, recognizes the influences that have molded him as an artist, from his kiln based on a centuries-old Thai model and his adaptation of Asian glazes, to the forms and decorative motifs of West Africa and the traditions of Europe and America.

Hewitt comes from a long family tradition of pottery making. He was born in Staffordshire, England, a major center of ceramic production. Like the region, his family has long ties to the ceramic industry. With a personal style deeply rooted in the history of glob- al ceramics, Hewitt also plays an important role in the future of the medium. The surrounding objects illustrate the depth of the artist’s foundation in ceramic history.

 

Enduring Traditions

It’s not unusual for ceramic traditions and centers of manufac- ture to endure for generations. In a sustaining cycle, masters took on apprentices who learned the requisite skills and in-turn took on apprentices of their own. Across the globe, styles of pottery such as Kutani persisted in this way. Additionally, in today’s world, ideas and techniques are exchanged through global travel, education, and the emergence of the internet. This modern fluidity of information often results in the borrowing of ideas, combination of styles, and experi- mentation. Contemporary vessels like these reveal a marriage of both the old and the new. 

Blue & White: A Global Love Affair

Contact between cultures through trade and conquest has fa- cilitated the spread of ideas, raw materials, and manufactured goods. China has historically had a profound influence on this global exchange, exemplified by the widespread distribution of blue-and-white porcelain. The kilns of Jingdezhen and other ceramic centers manufactured large quantities of the thin, white, durable ceramic. These highly-prized wares began leaving China’s borders by camel, wagon, and seagoing vessels in the 12th century, and their distinctive color scheme has permeated artistic traditions ever since.

Potters in the Islamic world and the West pursued the secret of the elusive technique for centuries. Blue-and-white porcelain was exported to the Islamic world, Africa, Europe, and the Americas, and its initial rarity and exorbitant price naturally resulted in imita- tion. This centuries-long aesthetic love affair with both the material and the color scheme launched ceramic varieties such as stonepaste, delftware, bone china, and pearlware to name a few. Many of these ceramic types were painted with blue and white motifs directly copied from Chinese examples. 

Garniture

Garniture sets are groups of decorative objects that were produced in sets of three, five, or seven that were designed to be placed on furniture or mantles. These sets were purely decorative and intended for prominent display. As trade increased between Asia and the West, silks, tea, and porcelain became available to a wider range of society and the significance of owning these once exotic objects changed. In early 17th-century Europe, owning any porcelain vessel was an important indicator of status, but by the mid-18th century it was much more commonplace. This occasioned a growing demand for more eye-catching varieties such as these. 

Snuff Bottles: Ceramics in Miniature

Introduced to China from Europe in the 17th century, snuff (powdered tobacco) was commonly used for its supposed medicinal qualities by the Chinese elite. Porcelain snuff bottles were first produced at the end of the 18th century, when the demand from the general public dramatically increased. By the 19th century, snuffing (nasal inhalation) of the powder and the collecting of associated bottles, had spread among the social classes, becoming a popular nationwide activity. Later, these miniature vessels also attracted the attention of Western collectors. The featured bottles came from the Josephine Purtscher Fellows Collection, which contains over 170 Chinese snuff bottles of diverse materials, subject matter, and manufacturing techniques from various periods. 

Cultural Exchange

Material goods have long been traded between East and West. In Europe, and eventually in America, Chinese porcelain was highly prized and avidly collected. Eastern potters capitalized on the Western interest in porcelain by making wares that responded specifically to Western tastes. Some of these ceramics retained a distinctly Asian flavor, while others instead utilized Chinese interpretations of European designs. Aware of the popularity of porcelain in the West, European potters began producing their own versions, which often combined Eastern and Western designs and motifs in one vessel. The result of this cultural exchange can be seen in these ceramics—from both China and Europe—that are decorated with a rich amalgamation of disparate artistic traditions. 

Eggshell Bowls

Intricately hand-painted porcelain bowls like these are thinned in a shaving process that results in vessel walls so slender and delicate they are practically translucent when held to the light. Although the bowls’ bases are decorated with a Qianlong period (1735-1795) reign mark, these vessels are likely early 20th-century homages. It is not uncommon in Chinese art to see earlier marks on later pieces as a form of veneration. 

Stories in Fragments

The Museum galleries are filled with examples of ceramics excavated in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Some of these objects were recovered intact, others were found shattered and reconstructed later. In most cases, archaeologists find only a few scattered fragments of centuries- or millennia-old ceramics. Fragmentary artifacts can tell us a surprising amount about life in the past. Sometimes, a broken vessel can even illuminate more about the context in which the complete object was used, how its purpose changed over time, and how the item was eventually lost or discarded.