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?

    1 comment:

    1. Dear Chris. Background cloud or helix may have a greater or smaller, depending on the size of the subject on which are plotted the cloud. A Buddhist swastika has the same size and in the small and large objects. I wonder why?