Monday, January 4, 2016

Puzzling Evidence - The Evolution of the Fish Scale Pattern in Chinese Cloisonne

Finding a piece of Chinese cloisonne for sale whose owner remembers when and where they purchased it is a rare occurrence.   eBay vendor bainbridgeislandgirl has on offer an elegant little pale blue bottle that she purchased in Hong Kong while living there with her family 1964-1966. 

1964-66 is an interesting date.  Chinese cloisonne workshops were in decline for over a decade 1937-1949 due to the War with Japan, World War II, and the civil war.  Craftspeople were dead or had fled to the countryside, necessary materials such as copper and glass were in short supply. The glassworks at Boshan, where many enamels were produced, were devastated and left nearly derelict by the wars.  During the reorganization of the government under the Communist Party in the early 1950s, craft workshops were rehabilitated, older artisans were recruited, and academics and students from art schools were assigned to modernize production.  The Beijing Enamel Factory was officially collectivized in 1958. Between the early 1950s and the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, experimental and inventive cloisonne designs were produced, and techniques modernized (for example, by use of gas instead of coal to fire the kilns, resulting in fewer pits and smoother enamel). But then the Cultural Revolution diverted these talents and resources into "approved" themes (featuring peasants, the Red Army, and Chinese opera) and traditional designs such as dragons were discouraged.  By the late 1970s and into the 1980s, after China and the United States had resumed trade relations and the Cultural Revolution was over, export cloisonne accounted for a large percentage of foreign exchange earnings.  Although there seems to have been a rebound of effort to modernize traditional Chinese themes for discerning clients, mass production requirements for export resulted in very stereotyped and repetitive designs, mostly featuring flowers and birds. Thus this little bottle is from a time when older craftsmen were still alive and working under comparative freedom to create well-crafted pieces using modernized versions of designs and techniques that they had mastered during the 1920s and 30s, before the curbing of the Cultural Revolution.

The evolution and demise of the fish scale pattern during the 20th century seems to track the lifetimes of these older craftsmen before they retired or died in the 1980s, and demonstrates the high level of artistic skill that they had achieved.  

The beginning appears to be a pattern applied to stabilize the enamel around the bases of pieces with more elaborate designs, especially monochrome arabesques popular around or after 1900.  Someone then noticed that the fish scale pattern itself could produce an elegant and subtle design, possibly especially appealing to well-to-do male clients in the military, diplomatic service, or business and banking enterprises.
The card reads "HENG HSING LUNG, Manufacturers of the Best Cloisonne Wares, Prices Most Reasonable, Satisfaction Guaranteed, 16 Hatamen Street, Peking China."  In 1928, when the capital was moved to Nanjing, Peking was re-named Peiping.

Fish scale pattern used at the bases of the arabesque vases.

Pattern applied to entire vase.

Late 19th-early 20th century censers of fine workmanship.
Details of censer

Not all efforts to use the fish scale motif as a background diaper were entirely successful, often highlighting just how difficult the pattern is to apply, as irregularities are difficult to conceal and immediately picked up by the eye.
Precisely worked fish scale applied to bases.

Less carefully worked fish scale applied as base and collar fill.

Reminds me of a leg with fishnet stocking...

Faux "Great Ming Period Made" seal, a favorite on bowls that seem to date from around the 1920s.  The wobbles in the fish scale diaper are easily seen.

Smoking accessories seem to have been a favorite application.
This Cigarette Case is named to Michael Tschetter and is marked April 15, 1936, Peking, North China. The case is Cloisonne enamel and measures 3 3/8” X 4 1/8”. Tschetter enlisted in the Marine Corps on 22 June 1922. He first served on the U. S. S. Oklahoma, the U.S.S. Pennsylvania and then three tours in China. His first tour at the American Legation, Peiping from 1929-1932, his second at the American Legation, Peiping from 1933-1936 and his third tour, Chinwangtao, Tientsin and Shanghai 1939-1941. During WWII he served in Battery "B", Twelfth Marines, Third Marine Division from 1943-1945 as Gunnery Sergeant and First Sergeant. -- U.S. Militaria Forum

Not every craftsperson was capable of precision.

The brass box on the left contained a 1935 flyer from the De Xing Cheng shop in old Beijing.  It and the square box upper right are from the same collection, as is the cylinder box shown next.

A fine box by Lao Tian Li
By the 1930s, simpler monochrome designs seemed to prevail, using only scales, the occasional line, a ruyi pattern around the collar, or a sparse floral design.  The application skill is nonetheless high, featuring graduated patterns to fit the shapes and minimal irregularities.

At some point, accent lines seem to be replaced by rows of tiny circles (curiously, this is a characteristic motif in early 20th century Japanese cloisonne). Was this the preference of a particular artist or workshop, or a later evolution of the design?
The overall shape, narrow rim, copper body and base, and what seems to be a remnant of a paper label - indicators of an older pre-1949 piece?
A rare example of blue goldstone (aventurine) enamel, not seen prior to the 1960s.  The rolled rim is a characteristic JingFa design feature, as is the creamy blue base enamel.

An older style heavy squared rim and rather blocky body, contrasted with a sleeker JingFa style.

Label typical of 1970s JingFa products, "Made in Peoples Republic of China."  By 1979 the United States had recognized the mainland government as "China," and the island Republic of China as "Taiwan."  Do these Peoples Republic of China labels thus become disused during the 1980s, replaced by "Made In China" labels?
Pieces of impeccable workmanship seem to be products of either the early 1960s or late 1970s.
Pink bats in center and on stem.  Carefully crafted pedestal dishes seem to cluster around the 1960s-70s decades.

The center medallion seems to be a more modern design than examples from the 1920s. The base motif is also similar to that on the little bottle at the start of this discussion.  This seems to argue for a production date of about  50 years ago, rather than 90 years?
Ashtrays typical of the 1960-70s.
Vase pair consistent with Cultural Revolution peasant worker themes.

And then the motif largely disappears, relegated to edging and carelessly crafted export items, possibly because old masters are now gone and the subtlety of the design is not in accord with current tastes, thus not remunerative of the artistic talent and skill it takes to master it?

UPDATE: eBay vendor stanley9905 has on offer a nifty vase in a beautiful red enamel and unusual "modern" shape:
JingFa style rim.  An experiment from the 1950s-60s?

UPDATE: A boxed vase pair, with insert describing the cloisonne process.  Readers may compare this to an early 1980s JingFa brochure.

UPDATE: An interesting old-fashioned Ming-style sea-horses bowl, with the 1912 Republic of China flag.  It seems to be a close match to a blue version with a fang Ming mandarin hat logo.  This logo is attributed by the Pierre Uldry collection book to the second half of the 19th century.  Puzzling evidence, yes? [a later post discusses these fish scale patterned bowls]

A similar bowl in blue.  The mark featuring a peacock feather mandarin hat and characters "fang Ming" (in Ming style) appears on two other pieces pictured on page 360 of the Pierre Uldry collection book.  One of these pieces is also a bowl with sea-horses.  They are described as copies produced in the second half of the nineteenth century.

1 comment:

  1. Very informative poster! Thanks! I have a couple of brush washer bowls with fish scale, always wonder if they were produced before or after 1949. One is very similar with the green plate in picture 8, and one is with the brown washer bowl in picture 10.