In the rapidly changing world of cultural handicrafts and artistic production, surviving techniques in the decorative arts are all too few and far between. Cloisonné, meaning ‘partitions’ or ‘compartments’ in French, has been adopted by a number of countries as part of their artistic heritage. This has led to a rich collecting history for both Eastern and Western connoisseurs who are drawn to intricate pieces produced by a series of complicated steps.
Starting with the molded vessel being affixed with copper wires set in a series of intricate patterns, these ‘partitions’ are then filled with different colored enamels before being fired in a kiln, often as many as three times. They are then ground and polished to achieve their smooth and gilded-like surface. The result is a vibrant, ornamental, and finely detailed piece to be preserved and displayed, such as the monumental vases and oversized fishbowls from the private collection of a distinguished American gentleman, currently on offer at Great Gatsby’s Auction Gallery on September 21 and 22, 2019.
Although first developed in Near Eastern jewelry, with the earliest surviving pieces dating from the 12th century in Cyprus, cloisonné was believed to be used regularly by Byzantine artisans in the 8th century, and many of the techniques they used still shape the way cloisonné is made to this day. Through multicultural trade and exchange, cloisonné wouldn’t reach China until the late 13th century, yet it became one of the most highly prized techniques within the Imperial court.
Beginning with its origins during the Yuan Dynasty, cloisonné techniques developed and matured during the Ming Dynasty, most notably during the reign of the Emperor Jingtai. The Emperor was particularly fond of cloisonné, drawn to the deep cobalt blue ground on certain pieces, so much so, that cloisonné adopted the nickname ‘Jingtai Blue’ in China during this fruitful heyday. Pieces produced during the Jingtai Period are believed to be some of the most valuable and collectable on the market.
Cloisonné continued to flourish and be favored by the emperors who followed, like those during the Qing Dynasty, who founded a royal cloisonné factory to ensure production for the palace. Cloisonné pieces became synonymous with power, status, and wealth, thanks to the array of colors and the craftsmanship needed to create large-scale pieces that would surely seem out of place in a more traditional or scholarly home.
The monumental baluster form vases on offer at Great Gatsby’s Auction Gallery display a colorful array of traditional and significant Chinese symbols. Starting with those decorated with an Imperial Yellow ground, the body contains a gorgeous cartouche depicting a peacock on rockwork, which symbolizes beauty and dignity, and also relates to the Queen Mother of the West who is often shown astride the many plumed bird with ‘100 eyes.’ The reverse side displays a phoenix – auspicious and connoting the Empress – doves, quail, ducks, and pheasants, which represent long life and fidelity, courage, happiness, and good fortune, respectively.
The second pair of monumental vases features the Eight Precious Things, or Eight Symbols of Good Fortune in Buddhism, which comprise a wish-granting pearl, a stone chime, a pair of rhinoceros horns, coral, a wish-granting scepter, an ingot, double coins, and double lozenges, while the body of the vases are decorated on one side with pheasants standing on rockwork amidst peonies and chrysanthemums, and the reverse side with cranes and spotted deer amidst lotus, peony, prunus, and camellia, all against a cobalt or ‘Jingtai Blue’ ground.
Dragons, one of the most coveted, recognizable, and important creatures in Chinese mythology and symbolism, represent an array of qualities and omens, such as goodness, wisdom, power, adaptability, and good fortune. The five-clawed dragon, present on the body of the oversized fishbowls on offer, represent an even more specialized image of courage and might, a design once deemed treasonous if used outside of Imperial circles in China.
Consider this your opportunity to bring an awe-inspiring element to your personal ‘palace,’ as the pieces on offer are sure to delight even the most seasoned and discerning of collector.
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