- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 2004

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s “Iraq and China: Ceramics, Trade, and Innovation” surveys Iraq’s extraordinary contributions to the making of ceramics in the ninth century — and shows how Iraqi artistic imagination and innovations revolutionized fine-art pottery.

By first adopting the classical forms and advanced technologies of China’s stunningly beautiful monochrome porcelains and then adding their own colorful decorations, Iraqi potters invented the beloved, long-lived “blue-and-white” wares.

Spurred by the wide popularity of these blue-and-whites, potters adopted techniques from the glass arts for their successful “lusterwares,” which, thanks to overglazes of copper and silver, literally glow in the dark — especially in the dim light of the mosques for which the pieces were originally made.

The Sackler exhibit is, alas, an exhibition for the scholar rather than the casual visitor. Guest exhibit curator Jessica Hallett attempts to document each technological and stylistic change, often in excruciating detail.

The quality of the ceramics leaves much to be desired, as well. Washingtonians were spoiled this year by the exquisite blue-and-white and lusterwares included in the National Gallery of Art’s “Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Victoria and Albert Museum” (still on view through Feb. 6) and in the Sackler’s own “Caliphs and Kings: The Art and Influence of Islamic Spain.”

The objects in the exhibit’s first gallery are the most uneven in the show. True, important technical advances and stylistic changes are effectively illustrated by one series of items: a small, simple ninth- or 10th-century stoneware Chinese bowl, a ninth-century Iraqi earthenware bowl of cobalt-blue inscriptions on a white glaze, and a ninth-century Iraqi earthenware jar decorated with a luster-glazed figural design. The wares themselves, however, are far from exciting, and there’s no explanation of what stoneware and earthenware are. (For the record: Stoneware is a hard, high-fired ceramic, and earthenware is pottery made of coarse baked clay.)

The wall label nearby tells visitors that rulers of the Iraqi Abbassid dynasty (750-1517) were the powerful patrons of the artists who produced these wares. They ruled from Baghdad, at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, at the time the center of a worldwide economy. There they saw the Chinese Tang dynasty white wares — a grouping of which is also displayed in the gallery — and commanded their own potters to match the Chinese quality. But the Chinese had a special white kaolin clay, and it took years for the Middle Easterners to replicate it.

In gallery two, devoted to examples of Chinese influence on the development of blue-and-whites in Iraq, there are Chinese wares exemplifying what the exhibit label terms the “aplasticity (stiffness) of Chinese clays.”

A case nearby shows the introduction of a blue-and-white stylized kufic script. The survey winds up with two impressively huge blue-and-white plates, one from China’s 14th-century Yuan dynasty , the other from the fabled Iznik pottery center of Turkey.

If the display of lusterwares is disappointing, it is probably because of the disparate geographic areas covered. Potters from the Abbassid empire spread first to Egypt and Iran, while their later descendants traveled to the Islamic Spain of the 14th century.

And that wasn’t the end. The lusterware tradition spread to Renaissance Italy with its “majolica” ceramics. These then influenced Portuguese and French faience and 19th-century English Minton majolica wares.

On the other side of the globe in China, the potters of the later Yuan and Ming dynasties created the magnificent blue-and-white porcelains that inspired the Dutch Delft, Danish Royal Copenhagen porcelain and English blue-and-whites of Europe.

Miss Hallett began with an ambitious idea, that of showing the worldwide and centuries-long influences of ninth-century Iraqi potters. But the Sackler allotted her too little room — just five small galleries — and, probably, too little money.

Her idea needed full-scale efforts by funders, Iraqi- and Chinese-ceramics specialists, and exhibit designers. One hopes the Sackler will expand this rather slight show into the blockbuster it deserves to be.

WHAT: “Iraq and China: Ceramics, Trade, and Innovation”

WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily except today. Continues through April 24.

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

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