June 29, 1959:
“A Potter near his modest cot
Was shaping many an urn and pot.
He took the clay for the earthen things
From beggars’ feet and the heads of kings”
- Rubaiyat (Bodenstedt translation)
Sixty-one pots, jugs, bowls, jars, cups and vases from the 5th millennium B.C. up to the 20th century A.D. have been assembled from outside collectors and the Brooklyn Museum’s own rich collections to show techniques of ceramic decoration in an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, June 30 through August 30. Egyptian, Cretan, Greek, Primitive, Oriental, and European and American ceramics will be grouped not according to period or place but rather by the method used in decoration. The exhibition, installed to direct the viewer on a set route, has been organized by Mr. George Lee, Curator of Oriental Art, who considers it frankly experimental. He will seek audience reactions through questionnaires to ascertain whether more such exhibitions on other generic subjects - such as a study of shapes and forms - may be of value in future.
The introductory room in the exhibition will show the very simplest forms of decoration on single surfaces only, effected by relatively low firing. Incised, impressed and burnished designs are displayed here on 14th- to 15th-century jars from Central America; on Egyptian jars of the 5th and 4th millenniums B.C.; on Japanese and Korean vessels of the 4th to 9th centuries, and on American Indian ceramics of the 16th and 20th centuries.
Slip: The next step in decorating was to add to the basic surface, first with a single slip - a thinned out version of the original clay with color added - painted onto the surface or into which the pot was dipped. Soon multiple slip painting developed. These forms of decoration are found nearly everywhere, and from many periods ranging from the 5th millennium B.C. in Egypt and the 16th century B.C. in Crete to the 19th century A.D. in the American Indian Southwest. Sometimes the potter incised through the slip to show the original surface as the design element. The Peruvians and the Greeks, both in the 5th century B.C., developed a slip clay plus color plus another component thought, in the case of the Greeks, to have been sour wine, which produced a glossy surface quite close to a glaze effect.
Glaze: To create a continuous and less porous surface, a binding flux was developed thus giving birth to glazes which were handled fairly easily by many civilizations. In one exhibition case may be found low-fired glaze wares covering eight centuries and coming from China, Japan, Iran and New Jersey. Underglaze decoration took the form of variegated slip, painted slip or incised designs revealing the glaze through the slip, as shown in examples of the 9th to 10th centuries from Iran, of 18th-century Japan and of 18th- and 19th-century Europe and America.
Overglaze gave lustre to design. Originating in the Near East, this lustre and contrast in pattern, sometimes in gold and silver, came from the use of metallic oxide in the glaze. Italian and English Majolica ware probably also came originally from the Near East. Western overglaze in some instances used tin oxide to suggest the Oriental porcelain grounds which the Westerner could not make. Examples shown come from Iran in the 13th and 17th centuries and from 17th-century England and Italy.
Stoneware: High-fired stoneware pottery includes 18th-century Wedgwood of black basalt imitating earlier Mediterranean wares, and New England jugs which became common all over the U.S. The best stoneware came from the Far East and set a standard for the West up into the 20th century. Stoneware with underglaze designs is shown in examples from China of the 9th through the 13th centuries.
Porcelain: Here too the Far East was inventor, and dominated the field. The somewhat translucent white, close-grained, high-fired porcelains are represented by wares from China of the 11th to the 18th centuries as well as by a West Virginia pitcher of 1904. Blue and white decoration became particularly popular in underglaze painting on Chinese porcelain and was imitated in the West. Interestingly juxtaposed are three such vases displaying virtually the same shape and the same design elements: one, which can be thought of as the “original,” was made in China about 1630. On the overthrow of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, Dutch trade shifted to Japan where imitations of Chinese vases were more easily available than the originals. The second vase shown is Japanese of about 1660, and the third is a Dutch 1675 imitation of the Japanese imitation.
Overglaze enamel colors were based on metallic extracts which were fired onto the porcelain after several previous firings. Similar patterns are found in the displays of Far Eastern and European wares of the 17th and 18th centuries. Multiple glaze firing was introduced in the 15th or 16th century, though the clay ingredients and simple firing techniques of porcelain (a term probably originated by Marco Polo, from “porcella,” a white clam shell) were known in the 10th century.
All work exhibited is of clay base only, no faïence, gourds or other base materials being included. Clay being inevitably breakable, it was only when settled family life started and nomadic life stopped that its use became prevalent.
Photographs and check-list available: Betty Chamberlain
The Brooklyn Museum’s painting “Welcome Home,” by the well-known New York satirist Jack Levine, has been so much in demand that it has hardly had time to hang on its home walls since the Museum bought it in 1946. A political-social burlesque depicting a “stuffed shirt” Army General, the painting has just been selected by the United States Information Agency to go to the American National Exhibition in Moscow this summer. This will be the General’s fourth trip outside the country and his seventeenth visit to loan exhibitions. In this itinerant course, medals have been pinned on the work: Second Prize at the Carnegie Institute in l946, Second Prize in last summer’s Biennial in Mexico, D.F.
Another outstanding painting from the Museum’s collection, Max Weber’s “Music,” will accompany the Levine to Moscow.
ADVANCE ANNOUNCEMENT OF SUMMER EXHIBITIONS:
June 30 through September 6:
“MANY A POT AND URN,” an exhibition of the techniques of ceramic decoration, will be the Museum’s major summer show in the Special Exhibitions Gallery on the first floor. Pots from many periods and places will be on view, including the EgyptIan, Cretan, Greek, Primitive, Oriental, and European and American up to the 20th century. Juxtaposing the same techniques from different parts of the world and from different times, the exhibition will demonstrate methods of decorating plain surfaces by incising, carving, burnishing, impressing etc.; and methods of adding slips, paint, under and overglaze to surfaces. The exhibition will be an experiment in visual teaching; if response warrants, other teaching shows in other fields will be organized.
May 26 through August 30:
EUROPEAN PRINTS BY OLD AND MODERN MASTERS, and MODERN DRAWINGS, selections from the Museum Collection, 2nd floor.
Brooklyn Museum Archives. Records of the Department of Public Information. Press releases, 1953 - 1970. 1959, 019.