Vietnamese Ceramics from the Menke Collection
August 24 – December 22, 2013
Review by Jane Librizzi
The quiet and self-contained pottery of Vietnam is less dramatic than its more familiar Chinese counterpart, but its charms reward time spent in their silent company-- epsecially when viewed in the soft light of a late autumn afternoon in the Finger Lakes. In lightness and precision, the Vietnamese excelled, creating a technique known as hsieh-yi (to write with meaning).
Vietnam, the country, is a narrow strip of land, one thousand miles long, its eastern border being the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea. Its western border is an upthrust of Mountains, separating it from its neighbors. Bounded by the fertile deltas of the Mekong River and the Red River, Vietnam is a land of tropical nature, of jungles and lush flora of palm trees, bamboo, banana trees - the of ornamentation.
Although China was so much larger and more powerful militarily, its influence on Vietnamese arts was rather benign, stimulating the local artists to greater innovation and commercial competition for export wares. Pottery production began in northern Vietnam, near the border with China, and moved south as villagers were able to make a living producing stoneware.
The Thanh Hoa province and more specifically, Dong Sun were sites of large burial grounds that occasioned major pottery production. In these funereal objects you can see the Chinese influence play out in Vietnamese art as the Vietnamese artists reinterpret the Chinese belief in the survival of the soul after death in various items of tomb pottery, from vases to utilitarian pots and tools for the dead to use in the afterlife. The Vietnamese climate, with its jungles, made the need to protect the tombs themselves against the effects of moisture important, but the practical baked brick construction was then decorated with blue and yellow glazes.
The 13th and 14th centuries were a period when the Vietnamese created especially compelling works, having mastered the process of making ewers and other elaborate shapes from a single body of clay, outpacing their Chinese neighbors. The Chinese guarded jealously their experience working with porcelain while the Vietnamese excelled at delicate brushwork, executed with the lightness of a feather, and the subtle application of glazes. Look closely and you cannot mistake the the blue and white Le Dynasty vase for a Chinese piece; the dragon chasing a flaming pearl makes only a nod - and perhaps a wink – at its Chinese counterpart. The colors are so subtle, typical of Vietnamese taste.
The ewer from Thanh Hoa has a yellowish base overlaid with a transparent glaze while the decorations of a makara and the parrot are finely modeled decorations. The parrot, of course, is a tropical bird, while the makar is a creature from Hindu mythology, a creature half human in front and aquatic in back. Taken together these elements for a sophisticated yet deceptively simple whole. Though more awkward looking, the earlier ewer with elephant head spout is a an example of the popularity of zoomorphic shape, despite the technical difficulties innovated in their production.
The Menke ceramics collection comprises fifty-seven artworks that span a period from the Dong Sun era (700-43 BCE) through the 17th century. Currently on a long-term loan to the Johnson Museum, the collection was the avocation of John R. Menke, a nuclear physicist.