Orientalism: our idea of China and how porcelain concurred shaping it

Porcelain has been for centuries among the very few artifacts of China tangible in the West. Experiencing it is the proposal of The Porcelain Room, the exhibition now in progress at Fondazione Prada in Milan.

Fondazione Prada dedicates an entire exhibition to the Chinese exported examples of porcelains made from the 16th to the 19th centuries. According to the curators, Luisa Vinhais and Jorge Welsh, the exhibition “is more than a collection of individual works of art”. It is “a contemporary installation that the visitor can walk through, living the experience of porcelain”.

What does it mean, then, to experience such material? First of all, there is the possibility of walking freely around a room whose walls are literally covered with plates, bowls, vases and containers. In other words, the visitors will be able to experience first-hand the effect of the material and formal redundancy that was typical of porcelain cabinets and ornamental coverings displayed in the Chinese sitting rooms of many European palaces, mansions and castles, from Charlottenburg to Capodimonte. At the same time, living the experience of porcelain also means losing yourself in the fascination of these objects, whose cultural significance is far more relevant that their practical application. Objects whose history amplifies their emotional relevance and evocative power, opening to broader themes that exceed European imagination.

The Porcelain Room
Allestimento de “The Porcelain Room – Chinese Export Porcelain”, seconda sala La tavola. Fondazione Prada, Milano
 30.1 - 28.9.2020. Photo Delfino Sisto Legnani
. Courtesy Fondazione Prada

This exhibition dedicated to Chinese export porcelain also evokes the historical situation of that time, which influenced the way in which these materials reached Europe for a very long time. For centuries, porcelain was exclusively produced and imported from China, and the eagerly sought-after secrets of its manufacture were really well kept by the Chinese population. China itself was a mythical and almost dreamlike land of which only very little was known. What Europeans knew about this country came from the scarce pieces of news reported from adventurers, and from the few luxury goods that managed to reach the Western markets.

There were many myths and improbable theories about the manufacturing methods of porcelain, as well as of silk - the other great imported protagonist that deeply influenced the idea that Europeans had of the East. For example, they went from believing that it was necessary to leave to rest for decades all the natural materials with which the porcelain was made, to believing that it was actually made from lobster eggshells. Although some Chinese porcelain had already reached Europe since the Middle Ages and especially the early Renaissance, the secret of porcelain was only revealed during the Modern Age.

Feldspar, which gives porcelain its transparency and resistance, is an important component of porcelain, and it was only identified at the beginning of the 18th century by the alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger, in the pay of Augustus II the Strong, elector of Saxony and avid collector of Chinese porcelain, who managed to established the Royal-Polish and Electoral-Saxon Porcelain Manufactory in Meissen near Dresden in 1710.

Crab tureen with cover and fixed stand
Crab tureen with cover and fixed stand. 
Qing dynasty, Qianlong period (1736-1795), China. Porcelain, 10.5 x 22.8 x 21.5 cm. 
RA Collection. Photo: Richard Valencia. Photo Richard Valencia

For centuries, therefore, porcelain had been an exotic and highly sought-after product that embodied the very essence of diversity because of its origin, its unknown and irreproducible technique and its ornamental repertoire of bizarre motifs, plants, flowers and animals, which enchanted the European population and made them dream of distant worlds. It is precisely from these dreams that originated the all-European cultural phenomenon of Orientalism, which is the imitation or depiction of aspects in the Eastern world.

We talk about Orientalism especially when, in the 16th century, the Portuguese in Macau first started a large-scale trade in oriental porcelain. If, in the past decades, Chinese craftsmen had already began to set aside a big percentage of their blue-white porcelain production in order to sell it to foreign markets, now these Portuguese commissioners were really accentuating the European interference in the creation of the iconographic and formal repertoire of these artefacts.

First, the Europeans asked to include Christian themes and coats of arms among the Asian decorative motifs, then they began to commission tools whose shapes were more in line with their western taste, even though they were still being decorated under the glaze with a blue pigment, just like in the so-called “first orders”. Finally, the demand for products more in line with the expectations of European taste gradually moved away from the original Chinese style. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the various India companies began selling objects that were decorated with Chinese patterns designed by European decorators. The result was that conventional and conveniently false image of China, full of pagodas, parasols and conical hats, an image that was now deeply rooted in the European imagination: these “truer that the originals” patterns can be found, even today, decorating the tableware, cups and teapots on our tables.

For centuries, therefore, porcelain had been an exotic and highly sought-after product that embodied the very essence of diversity because of its origin, its unknown and irreproducible technique and its ornamental repertoire of bizarre motifs, plants, flowers and animals

After exploring the interesting theme of the fruition of the works of art, such as the motivations that guide the act of collecting art, in the exhibition “Il sarcofago di Spitzmaus e altri tesori” (20 September 2019 - 13 January 2020), Fondazione Prada continues exploring the relationship that human beings have established throughout history with particular kinds of artifacts, curiosities and objets d'art. In a sort of anthropological analysis of the artistic media, porcelain becomes the material of choice to deal with fascinating and highly contemporary characteristics of the human being, such as the reception and perception of cultural diversity.

The Porcelain Room. Chinese Export Porcelain
Jorge Welsh and Luísa Vinhais
Display designed by:
Tom Postma Design
Fondazione Prada, Milan
Opening dates:
30 January-28 September 2020

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