THE figure, on hard-paste porcelain painted with enamels and gilt, shows a general sitting on a prancing horse. The costume is gold and bright crimson with rococo scrolls of base picked out in black.
This entirely decorative porcelain figure made in Germany is typical of post-18th-century ceramics in Europe. The Meissen factory in Germany invented it and introduced many of the sculptural conventions and subjects still followed today. The earliest examples were often used as table ornaments for grand meals, replacing figures formerly made of sugar paste and wax.
The work measures 29 by 28 centimeters.
It is part of an exhibition of European porcelain highlights from the Shanghai History Museum dubbed “East Wind Blowing Westwards.” The exhibition is under way in a surprising place — at Gate 90, Terminal 2 of Pudong International Airport.
Opened on June 4, this is the first museum-within-an-airport in China. The idea is to offer passengers an ideal place to kill some time during a long layover, an alternative to eating and shopping.
It is open 24 hours a day.
“A stream of people come and go at this departure terminal for international flights everyday, and they usually arrive in advance. Thus we hope there is a place for them — albeit limited space — to enjoy their time with culture charms,” the curator of this exhibition, Zhang Lan, tells Shanghai Daily. Zhang is also director of the Shanghai History Museum.
The plan is to hold new exhibitions at the small airport museum twice a year.
“The airport museum is likely to be expanded if it gains wide endorsement,” says Zhang.
Standing inside the 150-square-meter museum in the waiting lounge is something of a challenge, as the aisles are barely wide enough for passengers who come with luggage and pushcarts.
“At first we wanted to hold an exhibition to tell the history of Shanghai, but the museum is too small to present a full collection expressing the whole idea,” Zhang said.
Zhang and his team then came up with the idea of a porcelain exhibition. “This renders a more direct aesthetic experience and is deeply influenced by both China and Western culture,” Zhang says.
The exhibition will run for half a year, showcasing 53 daily-use ceramic items made after the 18th century with brief descriptions in Chinese and English.
Connection between East and West
“The development of European porcelain and the art of Chinese porcelain are inseparably connected,” Zhang says.
Dating from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), China started to export ceramics to Western countries. This trade soared in the early part of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) when Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) lifted a ban on maritime trading.
It was estimated by the Dutch East India Company that about 3 million pieces of chinaware reached Europe every year during Kangxi’s reign.
The exported porcelain was specially commissioned for foreigners and was called “white gold.” Fifty grams of the fine chinaware could be traded for 50 grams of gold.
The Westerners never discovered how to make this perfectly fired and glazed ceramic.
“Even during the epochal time of the Renaissance, the Europeans were merely able to make potteries and iron items,” Zhang said. “It was in 1710 that the Meissen factory in Germany finally got the hang of it.”
Secrete of china making
In addition to the craft and firing skills, the secret of china making is its material — Kaolin clay, also called china clay. The clay originated from Gaolin Mountain in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, where virtually every exported porcelain began its life.
Kaolin clay is infused with a mineral substance, mica, which makes it harder when formed into porcelain. In Meissen, crafts people found a suitable substitute.
Later in the 18th century, various factories sprouted in Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands creating luxury dining wares, porcelain figures and other ornaments. European aristocrats and monarchs often regarded porcelain factories as a sign of prestige.
“Many of those chimneys in Britain left during the Industrial Revolution used to belong to porcelain factories,” Zhang says in jest.
The early European works looked awkward due to blind imitation.
“You see this blue-and-white porcelain plate with typical Chinese elements — the willow, pavilion, birds — all look weird,” he says, pointing at a porcelain teapot. “It is because the craftsmen hadn’t been to China before and didn’t understand the whole scene. Plus, the porcelain is still a bit coarse on the surface since they hadn’t fully grasped the key of firing temperature.”
From slightly rugged chinaware to sophisticated porcelain figures, in this small-scale exhibition visitors can see the course of European porcelain gradually improving to create a new fashion.
“Through this exhibition, I hope passengers will have more understanding and interest in culture,” Zhang says.