From the Ming Dynasty to the Dutch kilns and the European love for all things Asian
Just like every other person who comes from a multicultural background, I was surrounded by diverse visual information. A doll dressed in traditional Greek folk clothes and a couple of Balinese bronze statues where all somehow harmonically placed on a Chinese piece of furniture by the intuitive aesthetic eye of my mother. The geishas on that paper wall fan and the van Gogh right next to it were just how things where, and in my child's eyes there was no difference. Besides, the rest of the family had the same thing going on! Growing up I learned how to distinguish between cultures but what of the things different cultures actually share?
Studying world art history you find how much of this visual information was embedded in you from TV, immigrant influence, fashion, having met a few world citizens and in my case my house. Neighbouring countries have historically shared techniques and style through immigration and countries far away from each other through trade. Vice versa too. The paths too are diverse, sometimes it took years for a style to spread, sometimes an abrupt and violent event made it happen overnight. And even artistic and technical innovation, often had its roots in imitating and perfecting a foreign tradition.
In this article I won't elaborate on the ugly side of colonialism and the terrible effects on the colonized people. Nor do I by any means, mean to romanticize the dramatically unfair and uneven profit between colonizers and indigenous peoples. This is merely a look into how Asian art influenced European art aesthetically, with utmost respect for all those who suffered under western colonialism.
Art history and political history have been on a parallel path. Most of the times stylistic changes and technical innovations took place because of the way we fared. A technique spread across a trading route, a style imitated after conquest. Artistic diversity couldn't be less diverse than human diversity. The more you get to know about art the more you realize how much we have in common, no matter how far apart we live.
Delft ware are the products of such political and cultural situations. During the Dutch Golden Age, trading routes between Asian countries and the Netherlands where established and expanding. All the new exposure to Asian art quickly became a trend among those who could afford it and its mark was going to be left on multiple artistic applications by many European artists. Imitation and inspiration from the famous white and blue porcelain ware, was going to establish a whole new Dutch pottery style, unique in it's dutchness but also part of the wider family of white and blue pottery found in so many different cultures around the world.
Asian pottery in Europe
The first tin glaze potters in the Netherlands, were Italian settlers in Antwerp in early 16th century, and after them the craft soon spread throughout the entire country but with most kilns being concentrated in the city of Delft. That first century saw many shifts in techniques, materials and styles. However the Dutch east India Company trading with the east, during the Dutch Golden Age introduced the exceptional Chinese porcelain craftsmanship into Europe. Chinese art which produced an immense amount of different techniques and styles in pottery is a human achievement which served as a sign of high status for every wealthy household.
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Kaolin which derives its name from Gāolǐng an area close to the Jingdezhen potteries, is the main ingredient for porcelain clay. There are several deposits of Kaolin around the world and it's use is what offers the white colour and hardness. From the 14th century and on, the Chinese started using cobalt oxide imported from Persia, to create the blue pigment and perfected the style ever since. Hand painted floral designs as well as figures and sceneries where among the images usually found on those beautiful items. The craft saw some changes in techniques and styles all the way to the 17th century when the export of porcelain with the West started.
The downfall of the Ming dynasty however and the subsequent rise of the Qing, brought political turmoil which resulted in changes in the trading relations of the time. The distruction of the kilns of Jingdezhen (the porcelain capital) along with the interruption of Chinese porcelain trade in Europe, resulted in two outcomes: The introduction of Japanese ware and the Dutch shifting their own earthenware into resembling the Chinese style.
During this period of Chinese trade instability, Dutch potters started to imitate Chinese porcelain by creating a cheaper low fire tin glazed alternative that beautifully and adequately satisfied the demand. This means that even though the term "Delft Porcelain" is quite common, it actually isn't real porcelain as it isn't made by kaolin based clay but of a common clay, tin glazed instead.
Those items were very popular in Europe at the time and where a subject of collection and adoration among the rich as much as the Chinese imports. The Oriental influence in art was on the rise and this drove dutch potters into embracing the white and blue ornamental and most commonly floral style of the Chinese imports. From vases and plates to tiles, the delft style soon became synonymous with white and blue. However there are also poly-chromatic Delft ware, equally beautiful and sought after.
At the time there was a vast number of kilns but today only one of those original makers exist, the Royal Delft (De Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles) which still hand paints their products in the traditional way. Visiting the factory is a must if you ever find yourself in Delft, but since those authentic and collectible items tend to be a bit pricey there's so many shops there that offer different grades of quality from original hand painted antiques all the way down to the silkscreen souvenir type.
The other outcome of the halting of Chinese trade was the import of Japanese Imari porcelain into Europe. Imari ware was actually made in an area called Arita, but shipped from the port of Imari (hence the name) to end up in Nagasaki where the Japanese traded with the Dutch East India Company during sakoku, the isolation era. This way these beautifully crafted porcelain products where massively produced for export to Europe where during the mid 17th century up until mid 18th they enjoyed high demand and popularity. Imari ware is now more correctly called Arita ware.
After the political scenery in China settled and trade between them and the Netherlands was back to business, Imari ware were considered too costly in comparison. Instead there were Chinese Imari style ware made, as well as new Dutch earthen ware that resembled this style too.
From East to West
With the influence of Asian art through trade, many European potters not just in the Netherlands but also in Spain and Italy started orientalizing their products. Delft ware established their own unique identity but this identity is interlinked with the European passion for everything Asian. Sometimes the resemblance makes Dutch and Asian pottery indistinguishable to the eye of someone unfamiliar with either of them. Yet the very distinguishable differences of the familiar eye narrate several chapters of history.
Intercultural influence is a visual calendar of how we humans have intermingled throughout our history. How we have been sharing, (whether willingly or by force) creating a collage of different perspectives, turning them into the modernity of the time.
Everywhere we turn we see this patchwork of blurred borders in every aspect of culture.
The continuously evolving reshaping of traditions is what makes art a living organism powered by our need for progress...
Fun fact about Delft:
Can you recall the iconic scene in Werner Herzog's remake of Nosferatu where Lucy walks through the dancing crowd at a large city square with a beautiful Renaissance building in the middle? That's Delft and its City Hall! If you go there now, there's cafes on each side of the square and of course (what else?) numerous Delft ware stores.
About the pictures:
Please note that none of the pictured Delft, Imari or Chinese wares is antique. They are all modern day recreations that are representative of the described style.
The pair of Ming vases is a public domain picture of antiques.
All images in my blog are taken by me unless stated otherwise and I give no permission for any of the content (image or written) to be copied without my approval.