Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Puzzling Evidence - Chinese Cloisonne in the 1930s-1940s Under Japanese Occupation

A puzzling inscription on this cloisonne vase seems to have been solved by contributor "Super" at the Asian Arts Forum, who suggested,
"報社 means a newspaper publisher and 武徳 is the name of this newspaper publisher. If you would google 武徳報社, one would learn that after the Japanese had occupied Beijing, China in 1940, there was a cartoon publisher named 武徳報社 in Beijing, China, apparently under the direct supervision of the Japanese military, which had been publishing the "Beijing Cartoons" or "Beijing Manhua" 北京漫画 since 1940. ... All these made me believe that while the person to whom this vase was gifted was indeed a Japanese, probably somebody who had something to do with the "Beijian Manhua" magazine, however I believe the carvings were possibly being carved in Chinese and the vase was made in Beijiang, China at around 1946."
Suggested translation: "Gifted to Mr. Kudo, January 5 1946, Takenori Ho-sha [magazine publisher Beijing 1940s]."  The Japanese surrender in World War II occurred September 2, 1945.
The artistic evidence presented by this vase seems to support Super's analysis.
Below are 3 small Chinese cloisonne bottles or vases with a similar beige or mustard background enamel, one featuring a similar high-shouldered shape with clouds, another with a "crinkle cloud" background diaper like the vase under discussion.  Note how the pose of the dragon is similar in all.  All vases feature two identical dragons each, facing each other across a "flaming pearl of wisdom" motif.
These vases seem likely to date from around the 1930s-40s.The "CHINA" mark on the center vase only indicates the vase was produced after the 1890 McKinley Tariff Act for exports to the United States.  There likely could have been an additional paper label with the "Made In China" country of origin statement required after 1920.  

Other vases featuring dragons among swirling clouds show a notable consistency in the overall design composition, whether they were produced earlier or later in the decades between World War I and II (circa 1915-1945). 
1890-1910 -style on the left, zingier Deco-era red vase, vase with "crinkle clouds" background diaper, high-shouldered base with gray clouds.  Note how the dragons are similarly positioned around the different base shapes.  The vase on the left displays an old-fashioned design for rainbow clouds and rocky island among waves at base, whereas the other pieces are clearly trying to appeal to a different fashion.

In comparison, some examples of Japanese cloisonne featuring dragons, likely produced sometime between the 1890s-1920s:
Gray clouds and enamels, with fine tonal graduation.
Large scaly feet, the 3 claws depicted separate from toes.  Thicker body, bristly head with distinct eyebrows.  Long red flames or lightning bolts flickering around the body.  No rows of teeth, just a few fangs. 
Comparison of inscription vase with a Japanese pair.
The composition of the design on the inscribed vase is awkward, featuring dragons rising vertically from around the base, rather than coiling horizontally around the shoulder. The huge feet are so out of proportion! Likewise the small heads on thick bodies, which more resemble a python or anaconda.  Nor is the execution especially careful - for example, notice the breaks in the red jawline, which any competent artist would have at least matched up into a smooth curve.  The two dragons do not match - a Japanese design characteristic, whereas pairs of Chinese dragons are always nearly identical (possibly due to the cleverly efficient method of bending two wires at the same time to make identical motifs). The curving flame lines emerging from shoulders and body seem to be more typically Japanese, even if they're colored pink instead of red. The depiction of separate scales and claws on the feet also differs from the more typical Chinese method of toe and claw in a single wire line.

The vase with the inscription thus seems to show an attempt to graft a Japanese-style dragon into Chinese cloisonne, as if the artist were avoiding most of the Chinese dragon design canons and trying to come up with something from scratch. Why?

The biography of cloisonne master Jin Shiquan relates how he fled back to his home village when the Japanese occupied Beijing in 1937, fearing enslavement to labor camps in Japan or elsewhere.  So if master craftsmen and artists were fleeing, who was left to man the cloisonne workshops under Japanese supervision during the war years?

UPDATE: A boxed bottle vase pair with a base inscription that a correspondent translates as:

"The inscription on the base of the red vase reads:  供, 支那派遣軍總司令官  -  Gong, Zhi-na Pai-qian Jun Zong-si-ling -  “For provision to the ‘Shina’ Expeditionary Forces General Commander”

This inscription indicates the vase was made for the Japanese commander of military forces in China.  Zhina (支那), pronounced Shina in Japanese, was a derogatory term to the Chinese, and was employed because the Japanese wouldn’t use the normal Chinese names for China."

The online auction in which this set appeared described them as: 

"Pair Antique Chinese Cloisonne Presentation Vases 9''x4.5''. Coral red ground with blossoming lotus flowers on each side. Engraved calligraphy inscription on the bottom of each vases. One has dent on side. They come in fitted silk box with silk stands. 19th century, Qing dynasty."

What do you think?

UPDATE: Another inscribed Chinese cloisonne vase, which Asian Arts Forum participant Bill H kindly translated as:

"This reads down as "Mongolian Autonomous State Government" (Meng gu zi zhi bang zheng fu - 蒙古自治邦政府). The Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region was declared under Chinese communist control in 1947, a couple of years before the People's Republic of China was declared. I believe that this mark refers to Inner Mongolia, but you may have to do some research on the subject to verify that assumption."

When I did a search on  蒙古自治邦政府 what resulted was Mengjian, "an autonomous area in Inner Mongolia, existing as a puppet state of the Empire of Japan under nominal Chinese sovereignty."  Wikipedia

The style of the cloisonne seems very 1930s.  It's nicely made, with an unusual feature of a band of yellow enamel cloud motifs instead of the more typical floral motifs, as well as a simple field of these little clouds around the neck instead of a more elaborate lotus scroll. The artist took the time to work individual scales on the dragon's belly instead of a zigzag line.  The simpler design is a dignified composition, well fitted to the underlying shape of the vase.  Was this the intent, or was the artist merely using the clouds diapers to save time?

Does the inscription indeed refer to the puppet state, or to the later 1947 内蒙古自治区 Nei Mongol Autonomous Region?  What to make of the puzzling evidence of this vase?

For comparison, another vase that seems likely to be from these 1930s-40s decades displays a more typical floral pattern as part of the shoulder design.

Lotus scroll around neck.  Note also the chunky rim.
Another example of this vase shape with more old-fashioned detailed treatment of neck and collar, smaller and more finely proportioned rim.
Another old-fashioned vase with intricate details and fine proportions.
And for further comparison, a supremely elegant and intricate vase likely from an earlier decade.

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