Jar, Vietnamese, 16th century
This large ceramic jar is one of the most spectacular example of painted Vietnamese ware known. At just over two feet tall, it is exceptional not only in size but also in the complexity of its decoration and its near perfect condition. Four mask bosses protrude just below the rim, four unglazed openwork panels depict a crane flying through swirling mists, and four painted mythological creatures – two winged horses and two qilin – appear in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels. The cut-out bisque-fired roundels of cranes, backed with another offset panel of clay, add shadows and an unusual sense of depth. The decorations – all symbolic of luck and prosperity – are deftly rendered and have not been retouched or overpainted. Apollo Magazine, a journal for decorative arts and an important voice in the art world, named this jar one of the Top 10 Museum Acquisitions in the World for 2011.
Over the past 6000 years, Vietnam has created the most sophisticated ceramics tradition in Southeast Asia. Besides borrowing from China, Vietnamese potters explored indigenous tastes and developed their own production techniques. The smooth gray-white clays of the Red River Valley made for ceramics that are light and thin-walled, which artists then painted, engraved, and carved with decorations.
China ruled Vietnam, its close neighbor, for 1000 years – from the beginning of the 1st century AD to the 10th century – thus exposing the Vietnamese directly to its civilization and ceramic tradition. Vietnamese potters, however, did not simply copy Chinese ceramics; rather, they combined their own methods with Chinese ones in original ways. They experimented with new ideas and integrated features from cultures such as Cambodia, India, and Champa. The industry developed distinctly Vietnamese characteristics during the native Ly and Tran dynasties (1009 – 1400). The Vietnamese have traded wares through the centuries from Egypt to Japan, and all over Southeast Asia.
The Vietnamese have always been profoundly aware of nature. Dense tropical forests, lush rice paddies, rushing rivers, and the colorful flowers, animals, birds, and fish that inhabit them have long been part of the vocabulary of daily life. This variety of flora and fauna translates well into art, especially ceramics. The decoration of bowls, plates, cups, jars, figurines, and containers of all sorts offers a glimpse into what the Vietnamese considered important, significant, or amusing through the ages.
A steady stream of gifts and Museum purchases over the years has resulted in a collection that not only provides an overview of Vietnam’s rich ceramics heritage but is also one of the three most important collections of its type in North America.
—Dr. Don Wood, senior curator and curator of Asian art, with Tyler Pratt, education intern, summer 2013
Explore in depth!
Vietnamese ceramics show the influence of Chinese imperial rule but retain a unique national style. Take a look at these resources in the Museum’s art research library, and check out these links to explore Vietnamese and Chinese ceramics in depth!
Dragons and Lotus Blossoms: Vietnamese Ceramics from the Birmingham Museum of Art, 2011
The Elephant and the Lotus: Vietnamese Ceramics in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2007