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Letter from New York – Oriental Ceramics in November


14th-15th Century Northern Vietnamese Stoneware Covered Jar
14th-15th Century Northern Vietnamese Stoneware
Covered Jar

Last month in New York City I checked out three institutions exhibiting oriental ceramics: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Asia Society and Japan Society. Only the encyclopedic Metropolitan, the "Met", displayed Southeast Asian ceramics, along side its comprehensive Chinese, Korean and Japanese collections. The upstairs Southeast Asia galleries showcased a representative selection of old Thai stonewares from Si Satchanalai, Sukhothai and Lan Na. There was a vitrine of brown Khmer Empire pots (11th-13th centuries). The Vietnamese wares showed the best. They had the brightest colors and the most diverse shapes. The Southeast Asian ceramics, however, were overshadowed by the large number of Khmer Empire (802-1431 C.E) sculptures from Cambodia and Thailand. Maybe because I had not been in the Met for several years, the numbers and striking quality of its Khmer statuary surprised me. One wondered whether the Met may be starting to compete with Musée Guimet's iconic collection of Khmer stones in Paris.

The Asia Society had a special exhibition of Liao Empire (947-1125 C.E.) material. The spectacular "Gilded Splendor" show is the fruit of recent scholarship and tomb archaeology. Most of the objects came from state collections in Inner Mongolia. The Liao and Song Chinese ceramics displayed were notable and at times brilliant. While derivative of Chinese designs, the most magnificent pots were large snow white, bag-shaped flasks whose relaxed saggy contours showed their nomadic saddle-bottle origins.

The Japan Society's "Contemporary Clay" exhibition surveyed the latest trends in that nation's vibrant ceramic traditions. Japan has the most working potters anywhere, according to the catalogue. The 100 works by 40 potters ranged from traditional vases to sea animal shapes and hard-edged open structures, all done with eye-catching technical virtuosity. Nonetheless, they all expressed their traditional kiln roots.

Both the Japan and Asia Societies' websites do a good job of introducing their shows. A good website is becoming increasingly common and critical to successful museum shows. Indeed, the Freer-Sackler's spring 2007 show of Southeast Asian ceramics in Washington will make its comprehensive catalogue only on-line. A first for the Freer-Sackler. We will see this trend more and more. (11/11/06)

David Rehfuss
Washington Oriental Ceramic Group

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