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    Blue-and-White Islamic Pottery on Chinese Themes Essay

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    The great traditions ol Chinese porcelain have inspired over the centuries a wide variety of imitators. At times in the history of art an imitative tradition, beginning as a backward look toward past glories in faraway lands, takes its own (orm and shape, developing into a major creative force with new directions. Such is in part the case in the Ottoman Turkish tow n of Izmk, where the local potters began beiore the year 1500 to produce pottery wares inspired by Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, whir h also began to appear itself in the inventories of the palace of the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul around the same time. To imitate porcelain, let alone the great Chinese porcelain, has always been an arduous task. Some o( the basic materials can rarely be found outside China. The techniques necessary to fire these materials to a point where they fuse, giving the glasslike smoothness, the translucency, the pure white color, and the characteristic “ring” of true porcelain present a complex challenge today. Tor the Turkish potters of the sixteenth century the challenge was even greater.

    Their solution to the difficulty was to develop an off-white claylike mixture contain- ing a high percentage of silica, which they coated with a thin layer of pure white slip. They covered the slip and its painted decoration with a clear transparent glaze in order to provide a porcelainlike visual effect in their work. |ust as Chinese artisans in earlier times had imitated Islamic pottery and metalwork in the medium of blue-and-white porcclam. by the early sixteenth century, artisans in the Ottoman Empire were beginning to imitate Chinese porcelains in the medium of pottery.1 Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this phenomenon is the appearance of the mottvslkm to imitate Chinese porcelain in Ottoman Turkey. It now appears that this motivation is closely linked to the symbolic value of Chinese porcelain in the Islamic world, not the symbolism of its complex and vaned decorative forms but its symbol- ism as Chinese porcelain, highly prized in the Middle East because of its beauty, rarity, and cost.

    Further, by the time that the Ottoman Turkish sultans had begun to collect Chinese porcelain in the late fifteenth century, the tradition linking blue-and- white porcelain to Islamic royally was over a century old and was widely illustrated in Islamic miniature pointings. To examine both the blue-and-white pottery tradition and its relationships to Chinese porcelain, the collections ol the Boston Museum of Fine Arts provide an excellent vantage point. Not only arc the museum’s holdings in Chinese white quite good, but it possesses eight examples of Islamic blue- and-white pottery related to the Chinese traditions. Evidence for the examination of this problem falls into two basic categories. First arc the imitative works of art themselves, which occur in considerable numbers in the Turkish pottery tradition and in smaller numbers in the sixteenth century pottery of Persia. Second arc the “documents”; these include Chinese porcelains in the Turkish and Persian collections, inventories documenting the growth of these col lections, and the appearance of Chinese porcelains in Islamic miniature painting Together, this evidence presents по» only a picture of the tremendous prestige that the Chinese porcelains en|oyed in the Islamic world but also a picture of how they were perceived and modified by Islamic artists and artisans who saw them.

    The appearance of blue-and-white porcelain in miniature paintings presents a large and diffuse mass of evidence.2 The earliest and one of the richest sources in this respect is a manuscript of the Divan (collection of narrative* poems» by Khwaiu Kirmam, a fourteenth century Persian poet, in the British Museum . The man uscript was completed in the late fourteenth century in Baghdad for a Persian ruler of the Jalayrid family and was illustrated with nine miniatures by a remarkable painter named lunayd. lunayd appears to have been extremely sensitive both to the romantic stories illustrated and to the contemporary appurtenances of courtly luxury that fill many of the illustrations. Consequently, together with the accurate depiction of rugs, costumes, and architectural decoration in the illustrations, Junayd shows nu merous examples of blue-and-white porcelain from China, which he probably en countered at the (alayrid court. The early date, corresponding to A.D. 13%. of the miniatures in the British Museum Divan is important in two ways. First, it indicates  thal despite the unstable state ol politics in Iran at the time, there was already a thriving import ol Chinese porcelains by Islamic courts before 1400.

    Second, the paintings of lunayd and his followers exerted an enormous influence on Persian painting of the following century, and the depiclion of Chinese porcelain in con nection with princely entertainments became an established tradition in Persian painting. By the first half of the sixteenth century, new dimensions were added in Persian miniature painting to the depiction of blue-and-white porcelains. Not only did Chinese porcelains continue to embellish scenes of courtly entertainments but they were sometimes seen in considerably less prestigious contexts. In a famous minia ture in the Fogg Museum, originally Intended as an illustration for a manuscript com missioned by the Safavid Shah Tahmasp around 1540, the painter Mir Sayyid ‘Ali shows a large blue-and-white Ming bowl being put to rather prosaic use, as a recep taclc for wrung-out laundry in a nomad encampment . Comparatively rare depiction o( the expensive Ming ware outside the context of a courtty feast suggests a sort of visual joke. The sophisticated courtiers who saw the painting were no doubt amused by the depiction of the relative simplicity and naivete of their wealthy but uncultured nomadic cousins who would put such an expensive objeci to such a homely use. In the Ottoman court, examples of the use of porcelain in a courtly context were preserved in large albums of paintings from earlier times, which were used by the court artists as pattern books and sources of designs and inspiration. In these albums appear a number of paintings showing Chinese porcelains.1 They dearly document the importance of the Chinese porcelains in an Islamic context and were Intended for a limited group of upper-class viewers, for whom the objects depicted had an im mediate familiarity and significance. The inventory documents of the Ottoman Turkish archives tell another interesting story.

    An inventory of 1486 made for Sultan Bayezid II (1480-1504) mentions no Chi nese porcelain. But in 1495 the palace inventory in Istanbul lists five pieces of porc e lain. and by 1501 the collection had grown to include eleven pieces, including five bowls and two plates. By 1505, a year after the death of Bayezid. the collection In cluded twenty-one pieces, and In 1514 it was augmented by sixty-two pieces brought back by Selim I after his defeat of the Persian Shah Ismail at Chaldiran and the sack of the Persian capital at Tabriz.4 Under Suleyman I, Selim’s successor (1520-1566). the collection grew steadily. Documents attest to the Sultan’s growing collection of por celain and also record that near the end of his life a return to the stricter tenets of Islamic orthodoxy was accompanied by the melting down of his gold tableware and the exclusive use of ceramic wares. Today, two of the largest collections of Chinese porcelain in the world outside of China itself are that in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul and the collection formerly housed in the Safavid family shrine in Ardebil and now in Tehran.

    In both Turkey and Persia ruling sovereigns commissioned spe cial buildings to house their porcelain collections. In Istanbul achim khaneh (China house) was built in the mid-sixteenth century, while the great collection of the Ardebil shrine in Iran was dedicated in its special building by Shah ‘Abbas the Great in 1611.1 This evidence alone attests to the prestige and populanty of Chinese ceramics among Islamic sovereigns in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Under such cir cumstances, it was perhaps inevitable that the costly and prized Chinese ceramics should have a great impact on indigenous Islamic pottery traditions. In the case of the famous Ottoman Turkish ceramics, now generally recognized as having been made tor the most part by the many individualized and specialized ateliers of the town of Iznik, the Chinese impact ranges all the way from outright copies of Chinese prototypes to Turkish stylizations of Chinese designs in which the origins are only dimly apparent through examination of progressive stages in the transmutation of the original.

    The most subtle and at once the most stunning of the Ottoman innova tions was to use the inspiration of the general formal arrangements of decoration of Chinese porcelain, while adapting them first to an international Islamic style of the  early sixteenth century and then to the highly individual and original Ottoman deco rative vocabulary of stylized flowers and elaborate leaves. At one time it was felt that the bulk of the blue-and-white Ottoman pottery echoing Chinese themes was pro duced during the first quarter of the sixteenth century, but the Boston examples help to point out that despite the development of new techniques and new colors, which tended to lead Ottoman ceramic decoration away from close attention to Chinese prototypes, the persistent fascination with blue-and-white porcelain led to a contin uing tradition of Ottoman blue-and-white imitations and dose paraphrases through out the sixteenth century and beyond. An example of an Ottoman attempt at outright imitation of a Chinese original is the large blue-and-white plate illustrated on the cover and in figure.

    When com pared to its Chinese prototype (fig. 4), one can see how the Turkish artist flattened and formalized the floral arrangements of the Chinese original, while adhering closely to the formal arrangement of the porcelain decoration. Two values of the same warm blue are used. One is applied in opaque lines on the plate, while the thinner coating allows the white slip to show through, creating a lighter blue. The almost fluffy quality of the flowers in the Chinese original is flattened in the Turkish copy, which imparts a sense of texture rather by tiny teardrops of dark blue in the middle of each petal. The total effect of the Turkish plate is much more what might be characterized as an arabesque. In the details of its execution the Boston plate is so closely related to a firmly dated group of Turkish pottery in a “Turanian” Islamic style of the first quarter of the sixteenth century that its attribution to that time must stand unquestioned.* If we turn to another Turkish copy of a Chinese original, this time a footed bowt in the Metropolitan Museum (fig. 51. on first glance we arc confronting a similar copy of the Chinese original. Like the Boston plate, the Metropolitan bowl exhibits a flaw less white ground, with painting in two values of blue under a clear and brilliant ovcrglaze. Like the Boston example, the Metropolitan bowl hasacusped rim, echoed in the containing lines of the rim decoration and the central field. But here the re semblance ends. The New York example is much closer to the Chinese original. Its coloring is a black.

    Not the relatively warm blue of the Boston example. The Harness ol the decoration on the Boston plate has been eliminated in the New York plate through the use of stippling in tiny dashes of blue-black on the flowers, and through direct attention to the prototype the artist has achieved a much fuller dupli cation of the Chinese design. The Metropolitan plate belongs not to the first quarter of the sixteenth century but rather to the second, a period of intense and wide ranging technical experimentation in Iznik, when the Turkish ceramic artisans had broken away from the earlier Turanian style and possessed the technical means to produce a truer copy of the Chinese original. The range of influence of Chinese porcelains such as the Boston example in figure 4 is very wide, not only over time, but from atelier to atelier within the vast complex of shops and kilns that made up the erroneously termed iznik “factory.” The design is interpreted in a quite distinctively Ottoman manner, with all of the stems proceeding from a single source and a sage green color added, in a dish from  the second quarter of the sixteenth century in the Godman collection in Horsham, England. A plate from the third quarter of the century in the louvre, this time with a pale blue ground, eliminates the bouquets of flowers around the central composition and exhibits complicated floral “palineltes” surrounded by many tiny blossoms.

    The louvre plate has also changed one of the six major flowers of the Chinese design mio a small dump of leaves and buds, from which spring the stems that bear the five palmettes and smaller floral sprays. A second Turkish plate in Boston, which dates from the second quarter of the sixteenth century, also shows direct relationships to a Chinese prototype, with its central bouquet dominated by a large lotus tlower and a highly stylized border of tight little whorls interspersed with curled white shapes In the Chinese example these forms can be identified as a depiction of waves on Ihe sea interspersed with crests of foam. Despite the degree of stylization seen in this Turkish plate, the border in almost identical form is eventually used in thousands ol iznik plates from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, tenaciously maintained out of respect for the Chinese prototype. If the Boston example shown in figure 8 is compared with a similar Turkish plate in the Metropolitan Museum variations arc again seen in the way Turkish arti sans adapted the onginal design. The Metropolitan plate adds a lobed “collar” in Ihe cavetlo, and the central design more faithfully reflects the variety of flowers in the Chinese original.

    In each of these examples we are probably observing a variation in the individual artisan’s interpretation of an original; the care taken in the Metro potitan example in the cusping ot the rim and the greater accuracy of its adherence to the prototype reflect a more literal interpretation of a well-known Chinese porce lain type. The ultimate “Turkification” of this particular porcelain design is seen in a panel of late sixteenth century tiles (rom the Victoria and Alberi Museum , which were in fact imitations of Iznik ware, produced in the proyincial Ottoman city of Damascus. The central palmette has taken on a completely stenciled appearance only implied in the Boston plate, while the surrounding flowers have metamorphosed into Turkish tulips and carnations.

    The roots trom which the composition springs in the Boston and New York plates have changed into a small trilobed caliper. Another Turkish plate, in a private collection, carries the design of the Chinese porcelain into the realm ol Ottoman court painting . The borders have disappeared en tirely, and the artist has given to the forms, dominated by the central palmette. a restless and sinuous movement, rendered in dark blue, a brilliant turquoise, a sage green, and a thin purple, contained within a black line. The deeply serrated leaves and the small buds, which emerge as cockades from several of the flowers, reflect a style arising not from Chinese porcelain decoration but from the fantasies executed by album painters in Ihe Ottoman coun atelier itself in Istanbul. Two more Turkish plates in the Boston Museum, one without a flat rim and the other exhibiting the amiliar wave-and-foam border, show yet another series of adaptations of Chinese originals.

    The central medallion in the rimless plate, deeply indented and colored gray-blue within strong cobalt blue outlinings, is a Turkish stylization of a Chinese form representing a view directly down upon a lotus flower, while around it are tour bouquets of flowers springing from tiny pots or vases. The other example presents only an abbreviated central medallion and three floral arrangements, countcrpointcd by three elements resembling crossed pairs of skis, emerging from under a cloudlike central design, whose origin is unknown. The border, the medallions, and the tloral arrangements are all known in Chinese porce lain decoration, but they are combined in the two Boston plates in a manner not seen in the Chinese tradition. In these examples from the third quarter of the six teenth century, Turkish artisans have moved toward freer adaptations of porcelain originals, combining the elements in new and original ways. Two more blue-and-white Turkish pottery plates in Boston demonstrate further liberties taken with Chinese themes. In the first, two floral sprays more commonly seen as tiny с avetto dec orations in Chinese porcelain have been enlarged and balanced with two sinuous snakelike cloud scrolls around a tiny central rosette to form the main elements of the field decoration of the small but elegant plate. The flowers themselves are soltly executed in cobalt blue with tiny touches ol reserve white delineating the edges of the petals, and one large petal extends like a tongue from the center of each flower.

    In a Turkish lamp dating from the fifteen eighties m the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, the flower and the cloud band seen on the Boston plate have been transformed through the artist’s imagina tion into a tiny garlanded lion’s head, with the tongue” becoming the snout of the lion and two large round eyes added for good measure. The Boston plate shown in even further removed Irom any resemblance to Chinese porcelain, shows  a tour-lobed central field decorated by four small cartouches each containing three tiny flowers. The backgrounds of the cartouches and the spandrels forming the (our lobes are filled with perfunctory “curls” doubtless deriving from the wave-and-foam border in its Ottoman incarnation. The abbreviated rim design of curling leaves on a scroll vine is on the other hand an almost direct quotation from early fifteenth cen tury Chinese porcelain. In each of these cases, the blue-and-white Ottoman pottery plate Is now far removed from its Chinese inspiration and has taken on a character of its own. The first plate  with its great attention to texture in the flowers, probably dares from the middle of Ihe sixteenth century, while the second , exhibiting far (ess relationship to Chinese porcelain, probably dates from around the year 1600.

    A final example of blue-and-white Ottoman pottery reflecting inspiration of Chinese porcelain  differs from the six Boston examples seen to this point in that it incorporates a black line in the design in addition to the use of blue pigments. The fourfold design uses a variant of the “tongued” flower already encountered, this time in very pale blue outlined with a crisp greenish black line, and embraced by its own stem and by a spiky leaf. The greenish tinge in the black line, the great brilliance of the transparent overglaze, and the similarity in drawing to two famous mosque lamps in British collections datable to around 1550 help to place this remote Turkish relative of Chinese porcelain close to the middle of the sixteenth century * The last part of the sixth decade of the sixteenth century saw in Turkey the intro duction of a new color, a bright red. into the repertoire ot the Iznik ceramic-makers.

    The new polychrome palette, later enhanced by a brilliant green, was influential in moving Turkish potters away from a reliance on the inspiration of Chinese porcelain into a new stylistic vocabulary of brightly colored tulips, carnations, hyacinths, roses, and experimental forms derived from textiles and manuscript illumination A brilliant example of the new style in the Museum of Fine Arts shows a decoration of sprays of the stylized flowers dominated by a large blue decorated tulip. But a vestige of homage to Chinese porcelain remains in the cusped edge of the plate, a testimony to the persistence of old influences in the face of new styles and a change in taste. In the seventeenth century, the Iznik ateliers underwent a marked decline, caused in part by the deterioration of quality resulting (rom mass production and in part by royal decrees requiring them to sell ceramic tiles at low prices despite a dramatic inflation in the cost of production. A late example from the middle of the seventeenth century in the Museum of Fine Arts still shows the remarkable persistence of the inspiration of Chinese porcelain in the iznik workshops. The plate is deco rated almost entirely with a black line, with only tiny accents of green, turquoise, and a now muddy red. It it dominated by what appears to be a large stylized leaf and some smaller leaves and tendrils, shown on a background of black spirals and contained within a corrupted version ot the wave-and-foam border.

    In fact, this otherwise undistinguished object is an extremely stylized paraphrase of an early fifteenth century Ming porcelain design, in which a dragon is portrayed in reserve while against a stormy sea. The dragon has disappeared from the Boston plate, his craggy outlines metamorphosed into leaves and tendrils, but some sense of the fury and energy of the Chinese design remains in the late Turkish product with its compass-drawn lines, poor colors, and flawed glaze. One last example of Islamic pottery under the influence of Chinese porcelain brings us back full circle to direct imitation of a Chinese design. The Museum of Fine Arts recently acquired a large blue-and-white pottery dish  that at first glance would appear to belong with the very first Turkish plate cxamind. The decoration consists of three large underglaze-painted peony blossoms in cobalt blue, executed again with very soft brush strokes and with skillful attention to the effect of thinning of the blue pigments to translucency over the white slip. These large blossoms are accompanied by smaller blossoms and spiky leaves. Beyond the cavetto of the dish with its frieze of tiny leaves and flowers is a border that, despite the absence of whorls, or perhaps because of it, immediately declares itself as the familiar border of waves and foam.

    In common with the blue-and-white pottery ex amined thus far, blue underglaze painting is employed on a white slip, on a body of off-white silicaceous material. Unlike the Turkish examples already seen, however, the glaze is relatively dull and is marked in many places by an irregular craquclurc; the interior of the foot-ring is unglazed Stylistically, the softness of the forms and the relatively light outlining of the leaves and petals show a different kind of adaptation of Ihe Chinese design from that of Iznik, and the bottom of the cavetto is decorated with a carelessly executed frieze of hooked forms not found on Turkish examples. This last example is in fact not of Turkish production but comes from northern Persia. The porcelain prototypes for this type of design have been dated to the early fifteenth century, and it appears that the Boston plate may be dated to around the year 1500. forming part of an extremely rare group of Persian wares probably pro duced in the neighborhood of Tabnz about this time.»

    It is rather surprising, given the fondness for porcelain evidenced in Persian miniature painting, that more wares of this type have not been found. Perhaps the technical means present in the Otto man Empire that enabled the Turkish potters to create very close reproductions of Chinese porcelain by the second quarter of the sixteenth century were lacking, and the imitations were not deemed of sufficient likeness to the original to be worth the effort. The same tradition did reproduce some attractive blue-and-white pottery in Persia, most notably a large dish in a private collection with a design of birds and cloud bands within a stylized wave-and-foam border, but the patronage necessary for a continued and expanded production was lacking, possibly due to the greater availability in Регяа in the early sixteenth century of the blue-and-white porcelain Itself. The eight examples of blue-and-white ware examined here illustrate only part of one chapter in the continuing impact of Chinese artistic traditions on Islamic pottery making over many centuries, beginning with the import of T’ang ceramics into the lands of the ‘Abbasid caliphate in the ninth century A.D. and persisting into the first decades of our own century in the ceramic manufactories of Istanbul and Tehran. Rather than terming these Islamic works cither “copies” or “derivatives” of Chinese originals, perhaps we might best regard them as “compliments” paid by Near Eastern artisans and patrons to a sister culture to the east.

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