I’ve never been a blue person; there is no blue in my house except for my turquoise dining room which I think of as green. When I went through my transferware phase, I collected red (pink) and white rather than the more attainable blue and white, and in the summer time, when it seems like all of my favorite shelter magazines feature blue and white portfolios, I leaf quickly through. That said, I have been quite taken by the latest installation of the Peabody Essex Museum”s ongoing “FreePort” exhibitions, through which contemporary artists engage with and respond to the museum’s collections, creating completely new works in the process. FreePort [No.005]: Michael Lin takes the traditional blue and white of Chinese export ware and runs with it, as Mr. Lin has emblazoned the armorial and heraldic crests of porcelain produced in China for the European market on the staircase walls and floors of the Museum’s Asian Export galleries. The effect is modern and baroque at the same time.
And then, as if these vibrant blue-and white walls and floors were not enough to make us look at plates in a completely different way, Lin also produces a mass of “Mr. Nobodys”, the first Chinese representations of Europeans, with their anonymity enhanced by the massing, and their commercial qualities (we are talking about the Chinese export trade here) enhanced by the fact that you can buy one in the PEM Museum Shop.
For comparison’s sake, another Mr. Nobody from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. This one, however, was produced in England in the later seventeenth century.
The motifs and the figurines are interesting examples of cross-cultural exchange, an important dynamic in world history. I can’t imagine a better way to (literally) illustrate it. The Lin installation reminds me of another artistic expression, Blue and White by the Silk Road Ensemble, a multimedia performance that traces the migration of blue-and-white porcelain around the world.
This is a big task, because there are a lot of varieties of Asian-influenced blue and white porcelain and pottery: delftware, fritware, transferware, just to name a few. Blue and white earthenware is everywhere, crafted in very diverse forms, over many centuries. Here are two particularly disparate examples: Iranian rasps in the form of shoes from the eighteenth century, and an image of omnipresent “oriental” planters from Victorian England. Because I was so inspired by Lin, I tried my hand at my own blue and white Salem fabric design via Spoonflower with limited success: Samuel McIntire’s sheaths of wheat look a bit too tropical in blue! Obviously Christopher Dresser’s stenciled ceiling (a nice counterpart for Lin’s walls and floors) is much better.
Fritware and late 19th century songsheet, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; design for a stenciled ceiling, Christopher Dresser, Studies in Design, 1876.