Friday, May 14, 2021

My Imari Cat - Chinese or Japanese?

There is a certain amount of mystery surrounding this porcelain cat, with his enigmatic expression and puzzling past life. If cats have nine lives, I am not sure where he has spent the others prior to making an appearance in mine. Apparently this is a piece of ‘Chinese Imari’ as it has a qian yi tang mark on its base, perhaps dating back to the early 20th century. Despite having hunted around on internet for similar feline specimens, all those I have come across are either quite different in shape and design to this one/suspiciously modern-looking but vaunted as ‘vintage’ /generally cheap and tacky-looking. None of them really offer any solid description regarding origins, even though most of these are/were being auctioned off – some at exorbitant prices !
I have to say, with a certain amount of pride, that not one of these other models was on the same standing as mine ; the cat’s whiskers indeed ! He certainly thinks so, with that strange smile, and odd gaze! His colours are bright and well defined as they offset each other, but not in a shoddy, gaudy manner ; the painted floral detail is fine and delicate ; the glaze is fairly matt as opposed to shiny and superficial ; his porcelain mass is satisfyingly weighty. The only thing lacking is his story and the history of other Imari cats or other creatures like him. He too came from an auction house, but delivered without any kind of concrete information, strangely enough. However, whatever the particular trajectory of my cat, Imari porcelain in general exemplifies the centuries’ old exchange of ceramic style and technique between the Asian countries of China, Japan and Korea and the Middle East.
Porcelain is of course a Chinese invention and is typically referred to as ‘china’ in everyday English usage. The name Ming generally conjures up the image of some priceless vase used as a prop or piece of incriminating evidence in some whodunnit story ! However, the Ming dynasty was in fact just one of several successive dynastic periods that produced ceramics that would go on to dominate world trade - from the Song (960–1279), Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. From the 13th century, with its vast kilns Jingdezhen in Southern China was to become ‘porcelain city’. Much of this porcelain from the Yuan period was exported to the Middle East, and was adapted to and likewise influenced by the desire for ceramics enhanced by decorative motifs in blue glazes. Indeed, blue-and-white porcelain was manufactured en masse with its signature underglaze developed from the cobalt ‘Islamic blue’ exported from Persia.
From the Ming period onwards, Jingdezhen made imperial porcelain and the kilns were controlled by the emperor, but the taste for blue-and-white ware extended far beyond China and was to sweep across the Western world. Porcelain pieces initially came to Europe across land via the Silk Route, but Portuguese merchants later brought greater amounts back in seabound vessels. Yet despite an ever-growing supply, porcelain still remained the preserve of royalty and the rich, primarily in Portugal until the Dutch started to ship Chinaware massively to Amsterdam, the ‘world’s harbour’. The insatiable appetite of the affluent West for exotic ceramic goods and a whole range of other equally luxurious Asian artifacts was such that when, in the mid 1600s, the new Qing government closed ports following the demise of the Ming dynasty, the Dutch East India Company (VOC), turned to Japan as an alternative supplier.
From the mid 13th century, the tea-drinking culture that had originally been brought back to Japan from China by a Buddhist monk took a firm hold in Japanese culture, with the ritual of the tea ceremony leading to a demand in fine imported Chinese ceramic ware. During the Momoyama period (around 1573 – 1603), Japan set up its own porcelain production, aided by the arrival of expert Korean potters with their skillful use of the noborigama or 'rising kiln'. In the early 17th century, many of these artisans settled in an area that was found to be rich in kaolin clay, around the city of Arita. In this manner, Imari porcelain was born – named after the shipping port from where it left for Nagasaki. Initial Imari ware (Shoki-Imari) was based on blue-and-white porcelain and was sometimes referred to as Arita ware. This was so popular that many Europeans copied it on tin-glazed earthenware, Delft Blue from the Netherlands naturally being the main one to come to mind.
Japanese Imari style evolved over time as the blue underglaze was highlighted by a rusty reddish and a brilliant gold. In the same manner, this Imari style with its trio of colours was imitated throughout the West and was to be manufactured in Meissen in Germany, Chantilly in France, Delft in the Netherlands, and by Spode, Derby and Minton to name just a few in England. Imari pieces were typically decorated with flowers, birds, mythological creatures and auspicious symbols in line with the Japanese appreciation of both the natural and supernatural worlds and often inspired by textiles. Enamel decoration of porcelain, using an overglaze technique developed from the 1650s. This sub-type of Imari ware, known as Kakiemon (named after the persimmon fruit, kaki), employed soft red, yellow, blue and turquoise green colours to great effect and was highly popular and influential. So much so that when China’s porcelain trade picked up again for export at end of the reign of emperor Kangxi (1662-1722), it took full advantage of the European taste for Japanese design. It also profited from Japan’s own trade restrictions due to an isolationist foreign policy ! Thus Chinese Imari was born – based on both Japanese Imari and Kakiemon and drawing from their respective successes. Compared to Japanese Imari, the Chinese variety is said to have a thinner glaze, a brighter blue underglaze and a more translucent red enamel overglaze... Although Japan’s trade with the Dutch continued, its exports declined. Production costs were far higher than those in China, making the competition far too powerful to rival and so by 1740 this first period of Japanese exportation came to an end.
Japanese Imari did surge back into the Western markets from the mid 19th century when sakoku ('closed country') ended and exports were able to resume during the Meiji era. This of course coincided with the fascination of all things Japanese as Japonisme swept the West, influencing not only fine and decorative arts, but also architecture and landscape gardens. Japanese objets d’art became luxury objects of desire and a craze for collecting and displaying pieces fired trade. In many respects the long-reaching impact of Japonisme on Western aesthetics mirrored that of Chinoiserie which had reached a peak in the Rococo style of the mid-18th century, and thus continued the Asian influence. But where does that all leave my Imari cat ? Can he be considered to be more Japanese than Chinese ? Were such animal figures popular in Japan or China – or both ? I still don’t really have any clear idea but maybe that is part of his charm. Either way, I am dreaming of going back to museums and historical centres to see visions of blue-and-white, regardless of origin and have set my sights on Amsterdam…

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please share your ideas...