Wang Bu’s Chrysanthemum Legacy (王步菊花遗产)

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.

Wang Bu Photo Wang Bu, presumably later in his life.

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.

Wang Bu Blue Chrys 1 Wang Bu Blue Chrys 2 Wang Bu Blue Chrys 2a

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.

Wang Bu Chrys 1 Wang Bu Chrys 1a Wang Bu Chrys 1aa

Innovations Wang Bu (2) Innovations Wang Bu (3)

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.

1_Chrsyanthemum 982 (600x215)1a_Chrsyanthemum 982_2 (600x525)1. Dated 1951, signed Wang Bu? Or Wang Sheng Huai (Wang Sheng Huai is often found on these pieces, but not sure if this was a studio or shop name, nor how it related to Wang Bu himself

2_Chrsyanthemum 771 (600x199)2a_Chrsyanthemum 771_2 (600x450)2. Same signature as above, Wang Sheng Huai

3_Chrsyanthemum 985a (600x192)3a_Chrsyanthemum 985a_2 (600x468)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.

4_Chrsyanthemum 991 (600x172) 4a_Chrsyanthemum 991_2 (600x428)4. Wang Sheng Huai

5_Chrsyanthemum 983 (600x212) 5a_Chrsyanthemum 983_2 (562x600)5. Wang Bu Chu Pin mark

6_Chrsyanthemum 989 (600x169)Chrsyanthemum 989_2 (600x444)6. Wang Bu Chu Pin mark

7_Chrsyanthemum 992b (600x192) 7a_Chrsyanthemum 992b_2 (600x546)7. Wang Bu Chu Pin mark

8_Chrsyanthemum 993 (600x144) 8a_Chrsyanthemum 993_2 (600x372)8. Wang Bu Chu Pin, dated 1953

9_Chrsyanthemum 985b (600x223) 9a_Chrsyanthemum 985b_2 (600x541) 9. Private Jingdezhen Company mark

10_Chrsyanthemum 679 (600x147) 10a_Chrsyanthemum 679_2 (600x567)10. Private Jiangxi Company mark

11_Chrsyanthemum 801 (600x183) 11a_Chrsyanthemum 801_2 (600x517)11. Private Jiangxi Company mark

12_Chrsyanthemum 982a (600x200) 12a_Chrsyanthemum 982a_2 (600x518)12. Jingdezhen Factory mark, 1950s. This example counterpoints the thick and mixed enamels on one chrysanthemum (right) with the translucent single colour enamel chrysanthemum (left).

13_Chrsyanthemum 982b (600x187) 13a_Chrsyanthemum 982b_2 (600x428)13. Private Jiangxi Company mark

14_Chrsyanthemum 982c (600x198) 14a_Chrsyanthemum 982c_2 (600x482)14. Jingdezhen factory mark, 1950s

15_Chrsyanthemum 983a (600x204) 15a_Chrsyanthemum 983a_2 (600x426)15. Jiangxi Tao Chang Ci She Chu Pin, Private Company mark

16_Chrsyanthemum 984 (600x228) 16a_Chrsyanthemum 984_2 (600x558)16. Private Company/factory mark, Jingdezhen

17_Chrsyanthemum 985 (600x230) 17a_Chrsyanthemum 985_2 (600x447)17. Private Jiangxi Company mark

18_Chrsyanthemum 990a (600x182) 18a_Chrsyanthemum 990a2 (600x444)18. Private Jiangxi Company mark

19_Chrsyanthemum 992a (600x170) 19a_Chrsyanthemum 992a_2 (600x413)19. Private Company mark, Jingdezhen

20_Chrsyanthemum 985d (600x249) 20a_Chrsyanthemum 985d_2 (600x333)20. Unknown mark, Wang Sheng Huai inscription, but whole piece dubious from this maker

21_Chrsyanthemum 990b (600x220) 21a_Chrsyanthemum 990b_2 (600x536) 21. Zhu Ping seal mark – not sure as yet what this Zhu Ping mark means

22_Chrsyanthemum 990d (600x164) 22a_Chrsyanthemum 990d_2 (600x342)22. Untranslated mark & inscription

23_Chrsyanthemum 990e (600x160) 23a_Chrsyanthemum 990e_2 (600x391)23. Dated Xin Mao 1951, by Wu You Yin, mark Zhu Ping?

24_Chrsyanthemum 991b (600x149) 24a_Chrsyanthemum 991b_2 (600x362)24. mark Zhu Ping?

25_Chrsyanthemum 991c (600x140) 25a_Chrsyanthemum 991c_2 (600x342)25. mark Zhu Ping?

26_Chrsyanthemum 985c (600x159) 26a_Chrsyanthemum 985c_2 (600x454)26. Xin Mao, 1951, Wu You Yin

27_Chrsyanthemum 990c (600x181) 27a_Chrsyanthemum 990c_2 (600x442)27. Signed Zhang Zhiming, De Sheng Ci She Chu Pin mark

28_Chrsyanthemum 991a (600x197) 28a_Chrsyanthemum 991a_2 (600x479)28. Untranslated, but Yi ? Sheng? Zhi

29_Chrsyanthemum 992 (600x182) 29a_Chrsyanthemum 992_2 (600x444)29. Mark not decipherable, maker to be translated

30_Chrsyanthemum 995 (600x149) 30a_Chrsyanthemum 995_2 (600x363)30. Private Jiangxi Company mark

31_Chrsyanthemum 983b (600x241) 31a_Chrsyanthemum 983b_2 (600x455) 31.

32_Chrsyanthemum 984a (600x217) 32a_Chrsyanthemum 984a_2 (600x381)32. A stunning example of the use of the new translucent enamels, but note that the leaves are painted in the conventional way of greenish enamels with black ‘veins’ painted over the top.

33_Chrsyanthemum 989a (600x183) 33a_Chrsyanthemum 989a_2 (600x516)33. Wang Sheng Huai

34_Chrsyanthemum 989b (600x194) 34a_Chrsyanthemum 989b_2 (600x380)34. Untranslated

35_Chrsyanthemum 992c (600x163) 35a_Chrsyanthemum 992c_2 (600x485) 35. 

36_Chrsyanthemum 992d (600x172) 36a_Chrsyanthemum 992d_2 (600x460)36. An accomplished example of the raised opaque enamels on the central ‘spider’ chrysanthemum petals.

37_Chrsyanthemum 993a (600x237) 37a_Chrsyanthemum 993a_2 (600x428) 37. 38_Chrsyanthemum 993b (600x218) 38a_Chrsyanthemum 993b_2 (600x504)38. De Sheng Ci She mark, inscription gives 1951 dating and signed Zhiming

39_Chrsyanthemum 994 (600x185) 39a_Chrsyanthemum 994_2 (600x392)39.

40_Chrsyanthemum 995a (600x175) 40a_Chrsyanthemum 995a_2 (600x331)40. Wang Sheng Huai?

41_Chrsyanthemum 995b (600x129) 41a_Chrsyanthemum 995b_2 (600x411)41. Dated 1954

42_Chrsyanthemum 990f (600x210) 42a_Chrsyanthemum 990f_2 (600x409) 42.

43_Chrsyanthemum 992e (600x177) 43a_Chrsyanthemum 992e_2 (600x372)43. Made by Xiong Meng Ting

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.

44_Chrsyanthemum 994 Span 1 (528x600) 44a_Chrsyanthemum 994 Span 1a (600x234) 45_Chrsyanthemum 994 Span 2 (600x234) 46_Chrsyanthemum 994 Span 3 (600x266) 47_Chrsyanthemum 994 Span 4 (600x220) 48_Chrsyanthemum 994 Span 5 (600x266) 49_Chrsyanthemum 994 Span 6 (600x225)

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

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