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Earth turned ethereal
By LENNIE BENNETT
SARASOTA -- Clay is the stuff of some of history's oldest artifacts, vessels and statuary shaped by hands that reach to us from some 12,000 years ago. Its appeal was obvious: available, maleable with no need for tools, strong when dried. And from earliest times, humans, being what they are, could not resist improvements and embellishments even to simple utilitarian objects.
Those people were our first artists.
"Of Hands and Fire: Masterpieces from the Koger Collection of Chinese Ceramics" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art demonstrates what mastery can be accomplished by combining an elemental material -- earth -- with an elemental force -- fire -- in the right hands.
Unlike other world cultures, China's cultural development can be traced uninterrupted for about 8,000 years. Though wars raged and dynasties changed, the peoples whom Westerners call collectively the Chinese (from Qin, pronounced "chin," the name they gave their Middle Kingdom) had a respect for artisans practicing their craft, allowing new influences to be introduced and merged with older ones. So this show, arranged chronologically, demonstrates how the art of ceramics advanced.
As with so many early art objects, the oldest ones here, such as a funerary pot (c. 2500 B.C.) decorated with swirls of glaze, come from tombs that were loaded with treasures to honor the dead and make the afterlife a good one. Two of the most compelling objects, also from tombs, are eighth-century horses from the Tang Dynasty, one perched front and center at the exhibit's entrance and the other in the first gallery. Both are molded earthenware, which craftsmen rendered into refined sculptures by skillful modeling and glaze application, at that time limited to three colors created from mineral oxides.
The Chinese can claim many advancements in ceramics, especially in their use of glazes, but one of their greatest artistic achievements was the development of porcelain during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.). Artists in subsequent dynasties elevated porcelain to a grand decorative art that came to be prized by Europeans during the 17th and 18th centuries. After it was exported in bulk by the East India Company, the technique, a secret for centuries, was discovered by a German in the early 1700s and appropriated by the West thereafter in factories in France, England and Germany.
The Chinese porcelain on display includes functional accessories used by scholars, blue-and-white wares of the Ming Dynasty, and the brilliantly enameled items of the Qing Dynasty. That dynasty extended into the 20th century and included the beloved "famille" porcelains -- verte, noire, rose and jaune, according to dominant color. But porcelain's glory is seen in the less flamboyant, monochromatic creations, the 18th century vases glazed in the red called sang-de-boeuf, the celadons and blanc de Chine, a subset of porcelain peculiar to a coastal region of China that had unusually fine clay.
As with most other Chinese ceramics, these are known by a French term imposed on them once they became popular in Europe. Blanc de Chine items in this exhibition date from the 14th to the 19th centuries and make up one of the finest collections of these wares in the United States. The objects glow with a luminosity one critic compared to frozen fat -- a crude description, but indicative of the milky, slightly pinkish color of the dense paste from which it comes.
One of the most accomplished pieces is a blanc de Chine flute that actually works, a rarity. Most of the blanc de Chines are figures representing sacred Buddhist or Taoist deities, such as Guanyin, the goddess of mercy. Several works by He Chaozong, who worked in the early 17th century and is regarded as one of the most famous of these artists, are on view here. The lyricism of the hands, the intricacy of the folds of cloth, the delicacy of the facial expressions in his statues, represent the apotheosis of the modeler's art.
Ira and Nancy Koger assembled their extraordinary collection over four decades and have given the Ringling about 400 objects from it. Curators supplemented them with 72 more the Kogers loaned. After the exhibition closes in April, it will travel for a few years, then, museum officials hope, come home to a permanent gallery that will be created in the museum's expansion.
"Of Hands and Fire" is a potentially overwhelming array of art to take in, especially if visitors are trying to see the museum's permanent collection along with Ca d'Zan and the Museum of the Circus, also on the Ringling campus. And copious amounts of information on the wall and in handouts can slow down the viewer more. But "Of Hands and Fire" is something to be lingered over and studied, a superb survey of an art form often underappreciated because reproductions of such ceramics are so common. These are uncommon originals.
"Of Hands and Fire: Masterpieces from the Koger Collection of Chinese Ceramics" is at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, through April 27. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day. Admission is $15 and includes the art museum, Ca d'Zan and the circus museum. Discounts for seniors and students. If you plan to include a tour of Ca d'Zan, the Ringlings' historic home, reservations are suggested, because the number of visitors is limited. A children's activity brochure is available for the exhibition. (941) 359-5700.
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From the wire