Here is a pattern which we in the West possibly know little of. I only discovered its existence by chance whilst looking at Chinese websites. Eventually it was possible to track this pattern to a ceramic artist we know quite well for his magnificent underglaze blue and white wares of the mid-late Republic, namely Wang Bu. Wang Bu is most certainly known for his blue & white wares rather than his fencai chrysanthemums, but this report will look at the short period of time in which Wang Bu produced these flowers in his work, and why.
The blue and white and fencai examples of Wang Bu’s chrysanthemums which I have recorded from books and the internet are some of the most beautiful I know from the 20th century. Several artists then copied these beautiful flowers so that a series of techniques was then used to portray the pattern as you will see below. These pieces were obviously seldom exported out of China, as I have seen few available. This makes me think that the fencai version was only developed and made after the war with Japan, post 1945, and was not considered ‘export’ material or was such a specialist item that not too many were made. It is apparent from other research that there were several patterns which were never exported and that these were mostly made during this post 1945 period as well.
Wang Bu And The Originals
Wang Bu was born in 1898 in Fengcheng County, Jiangxi Province. He is known today as ‘the King of Blue & White’. This is because he reinvigorated underglaze blue and white porcelains in the Republic period, when all fame and fortune had previously gone to the Eight friends of Zhushan with their Qianjiang and fencai palettes. Born into the porcelain industry with his father Wang Xiuqing known as a blue & white expert during the Tongzhi and Guangxu period, Wang Bu was apprenticed from the age of nine to a series of well known porcelain artists in Jingdezhen, firstly Xu Yousheng, where he completed his apprenticeship in 1912, and then Wu Aisheng at his shop Hexing Ci Zhuang, where he copied well-known Guanyao wares of Ming and Qing dynasties, which laid foundation for his later, more radical works. He was also influenced by Wang Qi and others at this time. After the death of Wu in 1926, Wang began to use the techniques of Chinese brush painting in his blue & white painting, also incorporating underglaze reds – he also experimented with a range of products to increase the adhesive qualities of cobalt blue pigment, all to add to his ability to get the results closer to actual painting on paper, particularly the ‘flow’ of colour. This led to new expressions of a range of subjects on porcelain. There is plenty of information on Wang Bu’s blue & white wares during the period before the war with Japan, not the subject of this report but well worth looking at if you just search on the internet (beware LOTS of fakes!).
There was apparently a scarcity of cobalt blue for underglaze works both during and after the war with Japan and Wang Bu was then obliged to work in fencai enamels. Here again he developed several techniques of working with the ‘new’ enamels – achieving 3 dimensional effects in the each elongated petal of the ‘spider’ chrysanthemums which were his favourite. In this way he was able to more than replicate the effects he had achieved using ‘heaping & piling’ techniques on his blue and white chrysanthemums. In addition, he used the method of sgraffito, scratching back through the enamel, to show the veins of the chrysanthemum leaves, adding further to this very particular style of painting. For the chrysanthemums which were not raised, he used other mixtures with the pigments which made them behave like thick watercolours, almost transparent in the middle of the petal and opaque at the outer edges, in this way giving amazing vibrancy. Vibrant, too, were the new pigments – the whole range of colours was much expanded at this time but Wang made some of the harsher, strident colours work in way that just looked stunning rather than ridiculous, usually by situating bright colours next to more subdued, muddy colours to achieve balance.
After 1949, Wang was able to work with blue & white once again, so there was this ‘window’ when these coloured chrysanthemums were produced, between about 1945 to 1954.
Below are two vases by Wang Bu, from Simon Kwan’s book ‘Chinese Porcelain of the Republic Period’, 2008. These show chrysanthemums painted in underglaze blue and white, with the expert and deft touch of this master porcelain artist and are dated 1920-1935 (the second vase is attributed to Wang Bu as it has a Qianlong seal mark rather than Wang’s seal mark). The closeup of the second vase shows the very lovely detail of the chrysanthemum petals. These vases would have no doubt been the precursors of Wang Bu’s innovative use of coloured enamels on these flowers after 1945.
Below is Wang Bu’s chrysanthemum vase, in the Jingdezhen Ceramic Museum and dated to 1940-1945, which links his blue and white chrysanthemums and the profusion of copies of this style and the subject of this report which occurred during the explosion of ceramic production after the war. This particular vase appears to have been the ‘signature’ example for all the fencai chrysanthemums which followed.
The images below show the profusion of stylistic copies of the chrysanthemum pattern ‘invented’ by Wang Bu, above. They span the period between 1945 and the late 1950s. The shapes of the pieces and their marks bare/bear this out. The techniques are often magnificent, the detail superb, and there are several innovative elements, not least the use of sgraffito to detail the veins on the leaves. This latter had been done before, earlier in the Republic by other artists, but the technique adds to the richness of this pattern.
I haven’t had the marks and inscriptions below translated yet so I have just put notes of what I can translate so far myself, so apologies beforehand for all the mistakes…
Some of the pieces are attributed to Wang Bu, some obviously just using his techniques and painted by other artists, but all are quite lovely regardless. I have not been able so far to ascertain which are authentic to Wang Bu and which are not.
3. Dated 1948, Wang Sheng Huai. This example shows brilliantly the raised enamels of the ‘spider’ chrysanthemum petals, the deft use of the brush with translucent enamels on the purple chrysanthemum, and the sgraffito technique on the leaves.
Below are six ‘unrolled’ and beautiful combination images of these chrysanthemum mugs. The first shows the mug with its unrolled image following. Initially I thought these were plaques, which would have been beautiful as well, but they are just manipulated images. The marks on the side are base marks.
It should be stressed that there are plenty of other chrysanthemum styles for the Republic period, which probably follow the painting styles of the Literati and Qianjiang movements earlier (the painting is delicate and detailed, the leaves are fully painted including the veins). This Wang Bu influenced pattern is unique and different from these earlier styles and is differentiated by one or more of the following:
- Use of 3 dimensional modelling of the individual petals, especially on ‘spider’ petalled chrysanthemums
- Remarkable and innovative colours and combinations
- Use of sgraffito techniques for leaves and other elements
An impressive example of copying where the results are actually worth it and where it appears that the copying was really in deference to the beauty of the originals!
Best wishes, Michaela