Blue-and-white ceramics (basically cobalt pigment applied to white clay)have been an international phenomenon for a millennium. Originating in 9th century Mesopotamia and in the Islamic world, then Asia, the tradition moved to Europe and finally to the Americas. Many cultures adapted the style and it became one of the most recognized types of ceramic production in the world. Many of the painted images were narrative, causing information about one culture to pass to another as the artwork was exported from one country to another, from Asia to Europe, for example. Acquiring blue-and-white ceramics became almost a mania at times. In the late 18th century the English public was infatuated with the style, leading to the development of the Willow pattern to assuage the desire for it, and European rulers stocked abundant 'porcelain rooms' to show off their collections.
In more modern times variations such as Dutch Delftware, Ming vases and Blue Willow China continue to be revered and collected. And today artists continue to use the blue-and-white motif, using it for personal, artistic or political commentary and translating it in novel and contemporary ways.
Described as a "sumptuous, conceptually elegant show" by The Boston Globe, New Blue and White, an exhibition currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts(MFA) in Boston, demonstrates the myriad ways contemporary artists have dealt with this popular medium, paying homage to the tradition and also taking it into entirely new directions. A wide range of blue-and-white ceramics may be seen, but also a selection of other media such as fiber, furniture and glass. The exhibition highlights nearly 70 blue-and-white objects made by over 40 international artists and designers over the past 15 years, ranging from small pieces to room-size installations, including creations never seen before in a museum setting. These artists' use of abstraction, digital manipulation, contemporary subject matter and even trompe l'oeil presents a very modern take on this popular, long-standing tradition. The MFA has an extensive ceramics collection and many of the pieces in the show relate to older blue-and-white pieces in other galleries.
“The works in New Blue and White show how one remarkable set of material traditions, which have had a profound international impact, can inspire new generations of artists. They make surprising, beautiful connections across times and cultures, helping us understand our history and our present," said Director of the MFA Malcolm Rogers. In the past, blue-and-white works focused on ideas relating to "wealth, power, exoticism, colonialism and commerce," according to an MFA statement. Today's artists focus on similar but modern cultural, social and historical themes. Emily Zilber, the MFA's Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts, explains the main concern of the show: "New Blue and White asks a big question: can we understand the present—and re-evaluate the past—through creative exploration into past decorative arts and material culture? By exploring contemporary expressions of these ideas across media, the exhibition takes a fresh, interdisciplinary look at historical appropriation."
To illustrate and understand these contemporary themes, the show is divided into four sections. "Cultural Camouflage" encompasses works by such artists as American Steven Lee, who is inspired by the blue-and-white ceramics of his Korean heritage. His reinterpreted "Vase with Landscape and Butterflies" (2012) presents a seemingly conventional blue-and-white vase but with deliberately created unconventional cracks and openings that bring up new questions of aesthetics and functionality. Chinese artist Sin-Yin Ho's hand-painted six-foot vases,"Transformation: Motherboard No.1 and 2" (2010), employ the same painting techniques used since the Ming dynasty and evoke the type of floral imagery found in traditional Asian porcelains, but in a modern variation show almost life-sized silhouettes of Adam and Eve, whose forms are filled in with patterns based on computer circuitry, making comparisons of greed, desire and self-consciousness between the biblical story and today's increasingly powerful technological world.
"Memory and Narrative" explores the emotional connections that many people have with blue-and-white objects. Recalling Ming vases from their childhood home in San Francisco, designer sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy of the Rodarte fashion label created a lovely silk and chiffon gown, "Dress" (2011) in several blue and white patterns, accessorized by platform heeled shoes with Ming-patterned uppers "Pair of Women's Shoes" (2011). In a modern riff on the passion of blue-and-white collectors, American artist Chris Antemann's comments on the lust of acquisition—of objects or people—of the modern-day collector, who is depicted in "The Collector" (2011) in a style similar to the 18th century porcelain European figurine. But this one is naked with a woman in blue and white clothing on his lap and surrounded by a panoply of blue-and-white ceramics. In "'Amazone' Kitchen Necklace" (2012) German artist Gesine Hackenberg repurposes an historic, pre-existing blue-and-white plate, punching out holes in it to form beads which are then formed into a necklace. She rethinks the functions of blue-and-white so that the original object is at once destroyed and transformed, given new meaning and new life.
"Abstract Interpretations" shows artists using abstraction to transform the aesthetics commonly associated with blue-and-white. Using different approaches such as digital manipulation and shifting scale or shape, they expand the boundaries of traditional forms of visual language of color, contrast, iconic pattern, well-know vessel forms and modes of display. Using digital manipulation for his piece "Spin" (2010), British artist Robert Dawson puts images of the famous "Willow" pattern onto bone china plates, making each in the series appear to be revolving in turn faster and faster, and as a result in turn getting blurrier and blurrier until the last one is a complete blue and white blur. Using large blue Ben-Day-like dots—similar to those in comics and in the paintings of Roy Lichtenstein—on a white background, with non-traditional large, undulating abstract seaweed or tunnel-like forms,in his "Work 0808" (2008), Japanese artist Harumi Nakashima blends the traditional colors in non-traditional sizes and forms to suggest organic movement and growth.
Blue-and-white has often been associated with politics and the ruling class, but since it has also been used in domestic art, artists have used its seemingly innocuous nature to sneak in political and social issue messages, the focus of another section, "Political Meaning." Both of these aspects are used by Dutch artists Neils van Eik and Miriam van der Lubbe in "New Dutch Blue" (2003). Their porcelain and transfer windmills at first resemble tourist souvenirs, but upon closer inspection one spots multicultural imagery from countries where recent immigrants to the Netherlands originated, such as Ethiopia, Japan and Morocco, suggesting that Dutch society today can adapt well to outside foreign influences. British artist Caroline Cheng commissioned thousands of stained blue porcelain butterflies to be made by artisans in Jingdezhen, China's porcelain capital, and used them to cover a traditional kimono in her piece "Prosperity" (2010). Playing with the Chinese words for “prosperity," or “good fortune,” it is said that she subtly connects "the abundance of her ceramic garment to the vitality of contemporary China." In "Scott's Cumbrian Blue(s)—A Willow for Ai Weiwei, Wen Tao, Liu Zhenggang, Zhang Jinsong, Hu Mingfen" (2012), British artist Paul Scott focuses upon the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and his associates when they were arrested and disappeared in 2011. Working with a pre-existing 19th century Willow pattern platter, Scott erased the fleeing lovers usually seen in the middle of this traditional pattern and substituted them with an empty outline of the artist, also placing sunflower seeds in the background, referencing the ceramic seeds used in his much publicized show at the Tate Modern. And in his "Spode Works Closed, Shops" (2011), he salvaged half-finished, abandoned objects found on the closed Spode (a former leader in the British ceramics industry) factory floor and imposed his own prints featuring the closed factory gates, commenting on "the politics of globalized manufacture."
More work by artists in the exhibit shows the diversity of themes and styles inspired by blue-and-white. American Tommy Simpson was inspired by the 19th century Japanese Arita ware porcelains to create his whimsical painted wood piece of furniture "Blue Lagoon" (2009). Paradise-like scenes are incorporated in both old and new, but Simpson's have a distinctly 21st century feel. Another very modern piece, "Walk the Plank" (2012), is a surfboard created by Australian ceramist Stephen Bowers and American furniture designer Peter Walker. Using handmade, hand-painted, hollow-core surf board, Paulownia wood, fiber glass, acrylic paint, stainless steel and rubber, it alludes to the Willow pattern and Chinese themes of romance, danger and escape, paralleling contemporary themes of piracy and adventure. In "Delft B-Set Dinnerware" (2001), Dutch artist Hella Jongerius a key figure of a neo-Decorative Movement in contemporary design, shows interest in the history of decoration, here specifically blue-and-white objects from Delft, a city in the Netherlands famous for its Delftware ceramic production, using unusual ornamentation such as thread and plastic ties.
American Charles Krafft's "Disasterware" series ("Mad Cow Creamer" 2005, and "Frag Grenade" 2012) mixes the blue-and-white Delftware traditions with violent or disturbing imagery to commemorate such events as war and the Mad Cow Epidemic to implement his view that it is important to remember such negative but important historical occasions. Thai artist Vipoo Srivilasa created blue-and-white "artifacts" intended for his own tomb, with narrative ornamentation referencing his migration from East to West. One piece, "Canopic Jar," (2012) is named after the vessels ancient Egyptians used in the mummification process. Chinese artist Li Lihong two "Apple-China" (2007) porcelain pieces, blending the blue-and-white tradition with the modernity of Apple computer logos, makes various comments on the culture of China today. Working with ceramic workshops in Jingdezhen, China, the ceramics capital of China since the Tang dynasty, British artist Felicity Aylieff experiments with changes in scale, shape and 'new Ming' blue glazes on white porcelain in "Five Storeys—Chinese Ladders II (2009).
New Blue and White, Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, through July 14, 20013
www.mfa.org/exhibitions/new-blue-and-white (Note: includes a slide show showing some of the artwork and a video talk by the show's curator)