In my last post, I discussed a silver plate from Sassanian Persia that was discovered in a Chinese tomb, and is now on display at the museum as part of the exhibition Art in a Time of Chaos: Masterworks from Six Dynasties China, 3rd–6th Centuries. In the same case is displayed a ceramic flask from the same period, also discovered in northern China.
The story of Chinese ceramics from the Six Dynasties period told in the exhibition is mostly about the advancement of ceramic technology in the south at the time, allowing for the first mass production in Chinese history of high quality celadon glazed ceramics, which became the gold standard for ceramics around the world for the next thousand years.
At the same time, ceramics from the north are equally fascinating for the evidence they show of foreign influence, all the main elements of which can be found in this marvelous little flask. Foreign influence is immediately evident in the decorative scheme of the flask, which shows a foreigner (probably Persian) flanked by two lions, a classical Persian motif. However, the influence goes far beyond that. The very shape of the flask is not a traditional Chinese shape, but rather comes from the flasks used by horse riders in semi-nomadic Central Asian culture. These flasks would not have been made of ceramic, but rather of metal, and this is further apparent in the way the flask is constructed. The figure and lions are of course carved in relief on the surface of the vessel, but the effect is quite different from the applique decorations found on southern celadons from the time, and rather imitates the repoussé technique used to decorate the aforementioned Sassanian silver plate, in which the design was hammered out from the back. Even more interestingly, the flask is made to appear as if it is assembled from individual plates, which have been joined together with rivets, in an illusionistic fashion again imitating foreign metalwork.
The flask in the exhibition is a famous discovery, and I had seen photos of it many times before it came to Honolulu, so none of this was unexpected, although having it side by side with the silver plate did confirm the flask’s interest as an example of how foreign metalwork influenced Chinese ceramics in the north in a wonderfully concrete way. However, as with everything in this exhibition, the flask did have one delightful surprise in store when it was unpacked. All the photos I had seen previously only show the flask from a frontal view, but when we opened it up we realized that the sides are decorated with elephant heads, their long trunks extending down to shape the curves on either side! This reminded me that there is truly no substitute for seeing an artwork in person, one of the reasons traveling exhibitions such as this one are such an important opportunity.