Saturday, February 28, 2015

Puzzling Evidence - Chinese Cloisonne in the 1960s

What happened in the Chinese cloisonne workshops during the ten years between the organization of the workshops in the mid-1950s and the Cultural Revolution in 1966?

Accounts from various sources (books, online) agree that the condition of the workshops was deteriorated and impoverished after the wars and economic turmoil of the previous 40 years, with many older artists unable to support themselves by their craft - Jin Shiquan, for example, was selling almond milk on the streets of Beijing.  Thus a modest guaranteed income in a state-supported enterprise and the ability to once again create cloisonne was welcome.  Did this result in a burst of enthusiasm and a revival of inventive artistry?

eBay vendor cinnabarlacquerking inherited a warehouse of unopened boxes of Chinese lacquer and cloisonne from his grandfather's business estate.  His understanding is that his grandfather imported these items to Greece during the 1960s for sale in his art and antiquities galleries.  Two shallow bowls from this collection are interesting, indeed:
Features three of the "Four Gentlemen" representing the four seasons - Chrysanthemum, Orchid, Plum Blossom, Bamboo.


JingFa characteristics such as a graceful naturalistic rendering of the flowers, two-tone leaves with blended tonal graduation, pastel hues, rocks composed of jagged concentric wires.  However, the enamel colors are all traditional colors, albeit rendered in lighter tones, and the rocks feature sets of curved parallel lines characteristic of such rock motifs from all the way back to the 1880s-1900s. 

The background pattern of squared spirals seems to be a later adaptation of a traditional motif.  It appears often on contemporary Chinese cloisonne pieces.



The label seems to read "Veritable Cloisonne, Product of Cathay China"

A distinctive floral pattern and granite blue color for the back enamel.

What's not to like about this extraordinary piece?  A folk-art landscape with lively Ming-style horses in an inventive painterly use of traditional enamels - tonal blending, not just crayon-coloring-book type use of enamel.



The background pattern of rounded cross shapes seems to be later than a similar but more sharp-edged diaper pattern likely used around the 1920s.  

Blossom buds wired in older 3-wire style.


A similar back enamel of flowers and wavy lines, granite blue enamel.
A bowl in similar style appeared in an online auction, the seller estimating it to be "late 19th - early 20th century:"
This time the bamboo member of the Four Gentlement is featured.  Less elaborate butterflies, leaf-shading not as tonally graduated, old-fashioned pointed rocks, "bamboo-shoot" pattern in undergrowth.  

Note the tailed clouds, somewhat simpler flower-and-wavy line granite blue back enamel.



Are these pieces the work of an older artist such as Jin Shiquan, adapting past motifs and patterns to new-found artistic freedom in the factory cooperative, or are they from 50 years earlier?
What do you make of this puzzling evidence? 

UPDATE: eBay vendor beril72 has on offer a set of six beautiful small dishes that display some similar characteristics to the larger bowls featured above:
An innovative combination of colorful old-fashioned floral motifs with geometric background patterns. The scroll with tiny leaves appears in prior decades, but the square spirals and the trefoil circles seem more modern.
Creamy turquoise blue and granite blue enamels.

UPDATE:  In an effort to make clearer some motifs I've referred to above:
Vase pair offered by eBay vendor sea-n-sand.  "This set was purchased in China during the early 1950s by a local professor. We purchased them from his estate in the late 1980s."  A more rounded and tightly arranged cross diaper compared to the earlier red jar below.


Small dish with rounded cross diaper whose owner purchased it in Moscow in the 1950s.


Jar likely to date from around the 1920s-30s with a cross background diaper.



A modern beast face jar with very precise scroll diaper.
An ancient late-Shang beast face (Taotie) bronze vessel in the Shanghai Museum.  The scroll background motif goes away back....



Thursday, February 26, 2015

Puzzling Evidence - Pre-JingFa 京 珐 Chinese Cloisonne Style in the 1950s and the Sino-Soviet Split

The Communist Party assumed control of the government of China in 1949.  During the next ten years China was assisted by loans and advisers from the Soviet Union.  However, by 1960 relations had worsened between the two countries, and Khrushchev withdrew the Soviet experts and technicians from China. [see Wikipedia for Sino-Soviet Split.]

A Chinese vase found its way to Moscow during this decade, of which the seller states:

“My mom bought it in Moscow in 1950’s. At that period of history China and Russia were very friendly and mom said all stores were stuffed with Chinese goods, but they were all of several kinds:  cloisonné , lacquer, silk, embroidery. Living in Soviet Union, where people were not allowed to travel, she never saw anything like that before. She really liked cloisonné enamel and collected several pieces, before China and Russia stopped being friends. She came in USA in 1990 and brought her collection.”
The rolled rim seems to appear only occasionally on pieces from earlier decades, but later becomes a JingFa hallmark.  Spirals form the background.
eBay vendor buy1fromFred has a cloisonné mantle set on offer that shares some design composition and motifs with the Moscow vase:

Notice the squared vase rims with crisp edges, "crinkle" cloud backgrounds.  Duplicate patterns, not mirror-symmetry as in JingFa pieces.

Cloisonne pieces illustrated in the post about the mysterious TianHe workshop also share motifs pre-dating the JingFa style established in the late-1950s:



  • Stereotyped peony flower featuring a symmetrical arrangement of petals (as if two wires were bent at the same time, then applied on opposite sides) and dot or droplet-shaped motifs in the center of the flower
  • Two-tone leaves with a dark center and lighter edge, with no tonal blending
  •  A rock base from which the flowers emerge featuring distinctive comma or drop-shaped “bamboo shoot” motifs
  •  An amber overglaze on the rocks at the base and/or the ruyi motifs surrounding the lip
  • Background motif of either spirals or a sort of crinkly stretched cloud motif
  • Back of the vase undecorated, a subsidiary floral motif  emerging from the rock base on the front and curving around to the side of the motif (instead of appearing separately, floating in space, as in JingFa products)
  •  Butterflies – no birds

  • Amber overglaze for motifs at base and rim; "bamboo shoot" commas in the "rocks," cloud of teardrops for flower centers, two-tone leaves, squared vase rim.

    Elongated "crinkly" clouds form the background motif, two-tone leaves, squared rims with crisp edges.
    It’s hard not to see this overall design solution as a continuation of features common in the 1920s-30s, but adapted to accommodate a workforce diminished by the ravages of the 1930s and 40s.  The use of a frontal motif and background covered entirely with clouds, for instance, rather than an overall design covering the entire piece, would be easier for a workshop reduced to one or two artists and a crew of less-skilled workers: the more capable artisans did the “hard” part of drawing and applying the central motif, while the others did the monotonous but simpler task of bending and applying the little background wires.  
    The formulaic floral designs likewise indicate someone following a pattern rather than drawing an original design – neatness of execution taking precedence over inventiveness, because there was no longer much demand for inventive artistry.  
    Vase on left has "CHINA" hand-scratched on base, vase on right is stamped "Made In China".  Both probably date from around or before 1920. Notice the comma-shaped "bamboo shoot" motifs on the red vase and the lack of background motifs (the pattern covers the surface so thoroughly that the enamel doesn't need to be stabilized with little clouds and such). Squared rims.

    The precision and detail are remarkable - the vase is only 8" high, and the wires are very fine.

    Filling one color of enamel into a uniform background would also reduce the amount of work necessary compared to the more intricately wired designs of past decades. The very background motifs used also indicate a diminished expertise, as they consist entirely of little spirals and clouds.  The T-fret or Wan (Buddhist swastika) pattern of former decades disappears, possibly because it's a tricky motif that requires a fair amount of artistic ability to apply, mere neatness is insufficient.  I’m guessing most of us have a difficult time even figuring out how the wan pattern works.
    Vases with Wan t-fret backgrounds likely to be from around 1930.  The floral design wraps completely around each vase.  Notice the two-tone leaves, stereotypical symmetrical rendering of the petals, and the centers.  Rather bulky squared rims. Vase on left is stamped "CHINA" on the base.
    Tales of the sorry condition of the Beijing cloisonne workshops following the chaos of the 1930s and 40s made me wonder, how did they keep hanging on during the nearly 10 years between 1949 (Communist takeover) and 1958 (Beijing Enamel Company organized)?  To whom were they selling? Foreigners had been expelled from the country, and tourism was at a standstill.   Perhaps the existence of an export market to the Soviet Union might explain how the workshops managed to survive?  What about workshops in Tianjin?

    When the workshops were eventually re-organized as a state-run export industry, did the Beijing Enamel Factory (JingFa brand) adapt these old stereotyped designs into a more naturalistic style for the flowers, coupled with a distinctive new tidy cloud pattern for the background that could be efficiently applied with geometric precision? The little JingFa clouds are so uniform – unlike the little spirals and stretched crinkly clouds from prior decades - one has to wonder if somehow a machine was invented to produce them?

    Monday, February 23, 2015

    Puzzling Evidence – The Beijing Enamel Company’s 北京珐琅厂 JingFa 京 珐 Label Bird and Flower Design

    eBay vendor mudainew has on offer a vase that seems to be a nice early rendition of a favorite JingFa composition:


    This design appears over and over and over again on a variety of items:
    •  On one side, a large floral design
    •  On the opposite site, a small floral design
    •  A jaunty flying bird, or sometimes a butterfly
    •  Jagged rocks in a distinctive motif of concentric wires and shaded, blended enamel colors
    • Neat and tidy rows of a distinctive cloud motif as the background pattern (diaper)
    •  Blossom buds rendered in a distinctive bending technique using a single wire 
    •  Pairs of vases or covered jars are rendered in exact mirror symmetry
    •  Use of bright orange and red and pastel enamels not seen in the earlier half of the 20th century
    •  Smoothly blended enamels shading from light to dark within a design motif, such as leaves or petals
    • Naturalistic depiction of the flowers 
    Compare this composition with floral cloisonne vases from earlier decades:
    The symmetry is approximately mirror image.

    The enameled "CHINA" base mark indicates a date later than the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890, which required a country of origin mark on items imported into the U.S.


    Close examination reveals that these vases, although similar in color, display two different methods of rendering the blossom and branch design - for example, in the flower buds and the woody stems.  The background of spirals seems to be a 1920s-40s style.  The words "Made In" were required by a 1920 Tariff Act amendment for the country of origin stamp.
    JingFa products:

    “I bought this and many other items from one individuals estate. He being the first and only owner of this vase since the 70's when he visited a factory in China and watched them craft this exact vase, stage by stage over a week or so period long process before he was able to take it home. He says it was a fun experience to which this was his souvenir.” eBay seller buy1fromFred July 2013
    The seller states that the labels were applied by the original owner when she purchased the vase.
    The seller states that he brought this vase back from a visit to China in 1983.



    The beige vase is interesting for it's theme - the classic "Three Friends of Winter," plum, bamboo, and pine.  Another Hu-shaped vase appears in a following post on 1960s Chinese cloisonne.



    Granite black enamel on base instead of the more usual blue.


    Note the ornate necks and feet, impeccable craftsmanship. 1980-90s products?
    When were these items made?  The Beijing Enamel Company was formed in 1958 according to this article on their Web page. It was a state-supported industry responsible for production of fine cloisonné for sale abroad  for the purpose of earning valuable foreign exchange [see extended quote at end of this post].  

    Foreign exchange, of course, is when you want to buy something from another country and have to use their currency for payment.  You have to swap your money for theirs – buy their money.  But what if they don’t want your money, because there’s nothing they can use it to buy?  It’s not as if you can just waltz out and buy a burger in Alaska with the Hungarian forints left over from your visit to your relatives in the old country, right? The solution, of course, is to start making things that foreigners will want to purchase with the currency you sold to them (“Look at this great embroidered tablecloth I bought in Budapest!”).  This of course quickly gets more complicated when an international floating foreign exchange market such as we have now develops.   But China’s big problem after 1949 was how to purchase the modern technology they needed, and how to earn the foreign exchange required for these purchases – “We need rubber and steel for tractors, what can we swap for them?”  In the 1962 book Escape from Red China the author, Robert Loh, quotes Mao, "One cent of foreign exchange is equal to one drop of human blood."
    Alas, in 1958 one of China’s best prospects for a supplier and trading partner, the United States, was cut off by a trade embargo put in place as a result of the Korean War in 1950.  For various unfortunate reasons this embargo did not end until twenty years later, in 1971.  The Beijing Enamel Factory’s website describes how their production earned foreign exchange during the 1970s and early 1980s.  After Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and support for development of Special Economic Zones along the coast, production then shifted from traditional crafts to … everything else that any international customer might desire.  Boom!  We all know what happened next.  China now has a foreign exchange reserve of nearly $4 trillion.

    Another account from the Beijing Enamel Factory [click on the Google translate button] relates how Qian Meihua worked to renovate the cloisonné production process and to establish an assembly line system to increase the levels of skill and efficiency.  Rather than one master overseeing a shop of journeymen and apprentices, cagily keeping trade secrets close lest his workmen become competitors, she was determined to modernize cloisonné manufacture and publish manuals to make the process open to anyone who wanted to pursue this type of artistry.
    You can watch this CCTV video [skip to 3:00 to avoid the intro] and see that she and her co-workers succeeded – each separate task in the production sequence is now done by skilled technicians.

    This standardization of tasks likely accounts for such design features as
    •  exact symmetry, because the wire technicians are copying a drawing, not applying wires freehand;
    •  multiple copies of a design, because wires are glued together and bent 8 to 10 at a time, so all pieces match exactly;
    • a uniform field of identical background clouds, as neatness and exactness were performance criteria for the technicians responsible for this part;
    • the comparatively simple flower and bird/butterfly designs of the 1970s becoming more elaborate, colorful, and ornate as the company artists and technicians expanded their skills and new enamel colors were developed [JingFa color brochure from the 1980s]

    Many of the above examples are likely from the 1970s and 1980s, when it became possible for more people to visit China.  But what happened during the earlier 15 years of the Beijing Enamel Factory, from the mid-1950s through the 1960s?  What sort of things did they produce then?
    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    Gluttons for punishment might find interesting some of the Web resources I read while working on this post:

    AMERICAN BUSINESS AND THE CHINA TRADE EMBARGO IN THE 1950S by Kailai Huang, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts

    PBS: The American Experience: Nixon’s China Game, Timeline for  1971-74

    景泰蓝产地:北京珐琅厂的历史与沉浮
      1949刚解放时,我国百废俱兴,一些设备、钢材主要依靠进口,那时国家物资匮乏,没有什么能够换取大量外汇。唯有工艺美术品换汇率较高,北京就利用自 己的民族特色,用景泰蓝、牙雕、玉雕、金漆这样的特色产品打开市场。当时北京市珐琅厂成了北京市的出口创汇大户,有一半的外贸产品都是景泰蓝,行销世界五 大洲100多个国家和地区。进入八十年代后,景泰蓝出口达到顶峰,1980年和1981创出历史最好水平,年均出口创汇1000多万美元。

    Google translate:
    National Museum of China:  Cloisonne Origin: Beijing Enamel Factory's history and the ups and downs

    in 1949 when the newly liberated our country Baifeijuxing, some equipment, steel mainly rely on imports, then the national shortage of materials, nothing can exchange a lot of foreign exchange. Only the higher arts exchange rates, Beijing will use its own national characteristics, open market with cloisonne, ivory, jade, gold lacquer such specialty products. Then export large Beijing Enamel Factory became Beijing, half of the foreign trade products are cloisonne, marketing the world's five continents in more than 100 countries and regions. After entering the eighties, cloisonne exports peaked in 1980 and 1981, reaching a record level, with an annual export volume of more than $ 10 million.

    In December 1978, during the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee Congress of the Communist Party of China, Deng took over the reins of power.
    Beginning in 1979, the economic reforms accelerated the market model, while the leaders maintained old Communist-style rhetoric. The commune system was gradually dismantled and the peasants began to have more freedom to manage the land they cultivated and sell their products on the market. At the same time, China's economy opened to foreign trade. On 1 January of that year, the United States recognized the People's Republic of China, leaving the Republic of China's Nationalist government to one side, and business contacts between China and the West began to grow. In late 1978, the aerospace company Boeing announced the sale of 747 aircraft to various airlines in the PRC, and the beverage company Coca-Cola made public their intention to open a production plant in Shanghai. …
    To reassert his economic agenda, in the spring of 1992, Deng made his famous southern tour of China, visiting Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and spending the New Year in Shanghai, using his travels as a method of reasserting his economic policy after his retirement from office.

    On his tour, Deng made various speeches and generated large local support for his reformist platform. He stressed the importance of economic reform in China, and criticized those who were against further reform and opening up. Although there was a debate on whether or not Deng actually said it, his perceived catchphrase, "To get rich is glorious" (致富光荣), unleashed a wave of personal entrepreneurship that continues to drive China's economy today.