The Universe in a Coffee Cup

Walking in the Islamic Middle East Gallery at the Ashmolean Museum, visitors may encounter a set of objects of impressive finesse and intricacy (fig. 1). Comprising a lidded cup, saucer and spoon, this small gold enamelled coffee set is not only a triumph of skill and inventiveness, but also a unique lens through which a whole cultural and metaphysical context can be observed.

Fig.1 Set with Astrological Decoration, Iran, early 19th century, gold, enamelled. Accepted by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax on the Estate of Basil Robinson and allocated to the Ashmolean Museum, 2009 (EA2009.2-4) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Fig.1 Set with Astrological Decoration, Iran, early 19th century, gold, enamelled. Accepted by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax on the Estate of Basil Robinson and allocated to the Ashmolean Museum, 2009 (EA2009.2-4) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Used for imperial regalia and diplomatic gifts since the Safavid period (1501-1736), the technique of gold enamelling became quite popular under the Qajar dynasty (1785-1925), the time when this and other comparable surviving enamels were produced. Luckily, in this case an elaborate poem distributed in elongated cartouches reveals the identity of its recipient, Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar (r. 1797-1834), an ambitious leader and formidable patron of the arts.

In the verses bordering the saucer Fath ‘Ali Shah is compared to the Sun, acknowledged as ‘the cause of creation and the way of heaven’ and celebrated as a source of cosmic order thanks to which ‘the seven planet stars have attained their stability’. Immediately below, the decorative programme responds to the verses with personifications of the planets in a sequence of roundels: at 1 o’clock is the Moon, with its disk; at 3 o’clock Saturn, resembling a Hindu deity with multiple arms and attributes; at 5 o’clock Jupiter, unusually represented as a young kneeling woman; at 6 o’clock Mars, holding warlike attributes; at 8 o’clock the Sun; at 10 o’clock Venus, the harp-player; and, finally, at 11 o’clock the learned Mercury.

Fig.2 Personifications of the six planets and the pseudo-planet Jawzahr, ‘the dragon’ (EA2009.3) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Fig.2 Personifications of the six planets and the pseudo-planet Jawzahr, ‘the dragon’ (EA2009.3) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The astral symbolism continues on the cup and its lid in both word and image (fig. 3). The poetry on the cup is especially ingenious in its use of puns and metaphors. It compares the reflection of the cup’s holder to a glowing Moon, a frequent paragon of beauty in Persian poetry, and declares the heavens and the zodiac ‘in the grasp of the Sun’, as by holding the cup the august ruler would symbolically have the universe in his hands. To fulfil this vision, the signs of the Western zodiac have been densely stacked on the outer surface of the vessel, alternated with personifications of the six main constellations: Cassiopeia, Perseus, Arcturus, Andromeda, Sirius and Serpens. To emphasize Fath ‘Ali Shah’s universal authority further, the lid carries another set of zodiacal signs drawn from the East Asian tradition and probably filtered to Iran through its past Mongol rulers and extensive contacts with China.

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One image remains enigmatic. This is the one on the saucer’s central medallion and depicting the pseudo-planet Jawzahr, or ‘the dragon’. At times considered the eight planet, Jawzahr was responsible for lunar and solar eclipses. In the present rendition, however, entangled with a hybrid human figure featuring two heads and three bodies, its ultimate meaning remains obscure. By referring to transitory processes and the passing of time, and because of the figures’ transformation and circular arrangement, the composition may be hinting at the cyclical nature of time and ideas of rejuvenation and renewal. Both would be suitable for a ruler like Fath ‘Ali Shah who aspired to bring Iran back to its former glory.

Intended for the ‘Lord of Conjunctions’ (sahib qiran), a title that appears in historical narratives associated with Fath ‘Ali Shah and several Islamic rulers, it is no surprise that an astrological theme was chosen for the decoration of such a personal object. The term sahib qiran, increasingly adopted in royal titulature after Tamerlane (died 1405) but also used by previous Mongol and Turkic rulers, called for auspicious planetary conjunctions in relation to the reigns of specific individuals. Its addition to other imperial epithets imbued political legitimacy and authority with cosmic and universal references.

Hence, far from indicating the ruler’s ‘superstitious’ nature and actually reflecting the range of cultural associations informing royal ideology in the Persianate world, this set ultimately confirms the relevance of divinatory sciences and occult practices in Islamic courts. A more detailed historical exploration of these themes and their impact on Islamic visual and material culture will be undertaken with the exhibition Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural, which opens at the Ashmolean Museum this coming October.

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Some Depictions of Fishing in Japan

Fish has been a staple ingredient of the Japanese diet for hundreds of years. A myriad of different species of fish are harvested from the surrounding sea in fishing boats, while the rivers and lakes provide freshwater produce for the table. Fishing has long been celebrated in paintings, woodblock prints and also by the netsuke makers who, particularly in the late nineteenth century, followed a fashion for depicting not warriors and aristocrats, but those considered lower down the social scale;  men and women who contributed to Japan’s industries.

‘Cormorant Fishing at night’, woodblock print, Utagawa Kunihisa II, 1844, EAX.4688

‘Cormorant Fishing at night’, woodblock print, Utagawa Kunihisa II, 1844, EAX.4688 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

 

‘Fishing for sweetfish on the Tama River in the autumn moonlight’, woodblock print, Utagawa Hiroshige I (1844-1848), EAX.4750

‘Fishing for sweetfish on the Tama River in the autumn moonlight’, woodblock print, Utagawa Hiroshige I (1844-1848), EAX.4750 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

 

Netsuke, Kyokusai, wood, late C 19th, height 5.3cm tall, EA1996.20

Netsuke, Kyokusai, wood, late C 19th, height 5.3cm tall, EA1996.20 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

This late 19th century wood netsuke was carved in Tokyo by Kyokusai, who was famous for his intricate work and realistic facial expressions. This tiny fisherman, prepares his net to sally forth and fill the empty basket at his feet.

Figure of an Ainu fisherman, Numata Ichiga (Tokyo School), bronze, around 1900, height 48cm, EA2008.8

Figure of an Ainu fisherman, Numata Ichiga (Tokyo School), bronze, around 1900, height 48cm, EA2008.8 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The fisherman, wearing a coat decorated with traditional Ainu patterns, comes from Hokkaido, the northernmost island of the Japanese archipelago.

Japan has one extraordinary method of gathering fish from the ocean’s floor, which has been practiced for over two millennia. Ama is the name given women who have perfected the technique of plunging down to the bottom of the sea without the use of any diving equipment.  Clad only in a loincloth, they are able to hold their breath far longer than most, which enables them to collect abalone and octopus amongst other fish and bring them back in their hands.

‘Ama clutching an abalone shell’, woodblock print, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1849-1853), EAX.5292

‘Ama clutching an abalone shell’, woodblock print, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1849-1853), EAX.5292 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

 

‘Pictures of Products and Industries of Japan - Ama fishing for carp’, woodblock printed book, Utagawa Hiroshige III, 1877, EA1964.224

‘Pictures of Products and Industries of Japan – Ama fishing for carp’, woodblock printed book, Utagawa Hiroshige III, 1877, EA1964.224 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

 

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This jolly fisherman, carved in ivory around 1820, carries a huge abalone shell on his back, maybe one he acquired from an ama. The meat inside the shell is a delicacy, eaten either raw, as sashimi and sushi, or cooked. The shell is prized as decoration on lacquer objects, such as this lacquer box decorated with a hydrangea made for the export market around 1900.

Lacquer box, c. 1900, 15.3 x 12.0 x 5.8 cm, EA1956.3337

Lacquer box, c. 1900, 15.3 x 12.0 x 5.8 cm, EA1956.3337 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Netsuke carvers loved to add a touch of humour to their subjects. This ama is getting more than she bargained for from an amorous octopus!

Netsuke, ivory, mid-1800s, 2.0 x 3.3 cm, EA1963.163

Netsuke, ivory, mid-1800s, 2.0 x 3.3 cm, EA1963.163 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

However, the octopus was not always friendly; the one depicted here is putting this poor fisherman in serious trouble.

Netsuke, wood, mid-1800s, 3.1 x 3.4 x 2.1 cm, EA1956.3221

Netsuke, wood, mid-1800s, 3.1 x 3.4 x 2.1 cm, EA1956.3221 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Finally, an octopus captured and ready for sale.

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Joyce Seaman, Research Assistant, Japanese Art.

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Scenes of Last Tokyo

Scenes of Last Tōkyō (Tokyo kaiko zue): Japanese Creative Prints from 1945

Gallery 29, until 5 June 2016

‘Tokyo Station’, Onchi Kōshirō (1891–1955), 1945 Presented by Christopher Dyment, EA2015.28

‘Tokyo Station’, Onchi Kōshirō (1891–1955), 1945
Presented by Christopher Dyment, EA2015.28 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The spring 2016 exhibition in the Ashmolean’s Eastern Art Prints and Paintings gallery highlights a set of fifteen Japanese woodblock prints published in December 1945, just after the end of World War II. During the war, Tokyo suffered serious bomb damage and the series shows nostalgic views of famous places in Tokyo as they appeared before the wartime air raids. Half of the prints had already been published in the late 1920s, after the Great Kanto Earthquake devastated Tokyo in 1923, and were reworked for this series; the views depicted are therefore doubly nostalgic.

The prints were published with both Japanese and English titles in order to appeal not just to Japanese audiences but also to the Allied Occupation forces stationed in Japan at the time. It is thought that the title ‘Scenes of Last Tokyo’ may in fact have been a mistake for ‘Scenes of Lost Tokyo’. It is worth noting that the artists’ statement accompanying the portfolio, which contains a heartfelt expression of loss at the destruction of Tokyo and of nostalgia for Japan’s imperial past, appears only in Japanese.

The nine artists who collaborated on this portfolio all belonged to the Sōsaku Hanga (Creative Print) movement. This art movement emerged in the early 1900s, emphasizing the importance of individual artistic expression. Creative Print artists insisted on designing, cutting and printing their own work, unlike traditional Japanese ukiyo-e print designers, who worked with skilled block cutters and printers under the direction of commercial publishers. The main catalyst for the modernization of Japanese prints came from the West. Japanese artists were by now very well informed about international art movements, with many artists travelling abroad and numerous art magazines introducing works by Western printmakers such as William Nicholson, Félix Valloton and Edvard Munch. As a result, not all Creative Prints were particularly technically accomplished; far more important to their makers was the act of creating an original work of art.

EA2015.27 ‘Night of Shinjuku’, Maekawa Senpan (1888–1960), 1945 Presented by Christopher Dyment, EA2015.27

EA2015.27 ‘Night of Shinjuku’, Maekawa Senpan (1888–1960), 1945
Presented by Christopher Dyment, EA2015.27 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

‘Scenes of Last Tokyo’ was presented to the Ashmolean Museum in 2015 by Christopher Dyment, a long-time collector of Sōsaku Hanga Creative Prints.  The prints are complemented in the exhibition by a display of four artists’ books, selected from a set of nine volumes published between 1941 and 1943 to commemorate ten years of publishing by the art publishers Aoi Shobō. Entitled ‘Collection of Nine ‘Window of Writing’ Print Albums (Shosō hanga-chō jūren-shū), this set contains works by many of the leading Sōsaku Hanga artists of the day, including five of the artists who contributed to the ‘Scenes of Last Tokyo’ series. Each book contains ten works, accompanied the artist’s own text.

 

Clare Pollard, Curator of Japanese Art

 

Click HERE to purchase prints on demand from the Ashmolean shop.

 

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A centenary display to commemorate the life of Fang Zhaoling (1914-2006) in Gallery 38

The new display in the Later China Gallery (gallery 38) in the Ashmolean Museum commemorates the life of Fang Zhaoling (1914-2006) who is an important 20th century artist and calligrapher.

LI2153.21 Fang, Zhaoling, After visiting the Lake District, 1972, ink and colour on paper, 68.58 x 88.9 cm © Fang Zhaoling Foundation

LI2153.21 Fang Zhaoling, After visiting the Lake District, 1972, ink and colour on paper, 68.58 x 88.9 cm © Fang Zhaoling Foundation

Born in Wuxi in Jiangsu province, Fang Zhaoling was educated privately at home and later attended school in Shanghai and university in the UK, at Manchester. In 1948, she moved to Hong Kong with her husband and resumed the painting studies of her youth. She studied with the well-known artists Qian Songyan, Zhao Shao’ang and Zhang Daqian. In the 1950s she studied at Oxford, and she spent much of the following decade in London. Throughout her career she exhibited widely. She experimented with abstract styles but always remained true to the traditions of Chinese ink paintings, which she often made contemporary through her choices of humanitarian and environmental subjects.

The four paintings in this display are on loan from the Fang Zhaoling Foundation, all are published in the catalogue Fang Zhaoling (1914-2006) that accompanied a retrospective centenary exhibition (October 2014 to February 2015) in the Museum, Khoan and Michael Sullivan Gallery. The works will be on display until September 2016.

 

Yan Liu, Christensen Fellow in Chinese Painting.

 

Click HERE to purchase the Fang Zhaoling catalogue from the Ashmolean shop.

 

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“Pure Land: Images of Immortals in Chinese Art” in Gallery 11

This wide-ranging exhibition, which includes paintings, textiles and porcelain, takes Chinese immortals and immortality as its theme. With a particular focus on the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha – the Buddha of Infinite Light – the exhibition also explores the worlds of Daoist Immortals and the Queen Mother of the West, all of whom had their mythical homes beyond the boundaries of the mortal world.

LI1301.398, Bodhisattva Guanyin, China, 18th-century, Lent by the Sir Alan Barlow Collection Trust.

LI1301.398 Bodhisattva Guanyin, China, 18th-century, Blanc-de-Chine porcelain, 22 x 16.7 x 14.5 cm, Lent by the Sir Alan Barlow Collection Trust © The University of Sussex

The Queen Mother famously makes an appearance in the Ming dynasty novel Monkey (Journey to the West) by Wu Cheng-en (1501-1582), and in this Year of the Monkey the mischievous antics of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, stealing the peaches of immortality from the Queen’s peach garden, are represented in the exhibition by the paintings of Zheng Jiazhen (1918-2000). In his work Zheng is able to cleverly blend the worlds of the cartoon and traditional Chinese painting; here with depictions of the Monkey King as a character in Chinese opera.

Although in the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism other pure lands do exist, for example the Pure Land of the East of the Akshobhya Buddha, it is Amitabha’s Pure Land of the West, Sukhavati, that is the most popular and has received most attention in the world of art and literature. Pure Land is a form of Buddhism often associated with the cave temples at Dunhuang in northwest China and paintings produced as part of a twentieth-century tradition of copying the murals found in these caves are a central theme of the exhibition. Paintings on silk recovered from Cave number 17 (known as the “library cave”) were amongst the thousands of manuscripts that had been secretly stored there over one thousand years ago, and studies of these unique artworks are represented in the exhibition by the work of Hong Kong artists Xing Baozhuang (b.1940) and Rao Zongyi (b.1917).

EA 1987.31, The God of Longevity with attendant, Ren Yi, calligraphy by Wu Changshuo, 1891, ink and colour on paper,198.3 x 93 cm © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

EA 1987.31 The God of Longevity with attendant, Ren Yi, calligraphy by Wu Changshuo, 1891, ink and colour on paper, 198.3 x 93 cm © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

In the 1940s, during China’s war with Japan, many artists took refuge in Sichuan province and from there some journeyed to Dunhuang to make copies of the murals. Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) was the first to do so. In 1941, he and a group of followers spent over two and a half years studying the murals and the copies they made were shown in seminal exhibitions following his visit. This was more than a simple copying exercise though; it was an opportunity for artists to research into the history of Chinese painting and to work with authentic works from the Six Dynasties (222-589), Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) as the cave paintings represent unique survivals of art from these periods.
In the years that followed Zhang Daqian’s visit, a stream of other major figures in the world of Chinese twentieth-century art would make the journey, including Chang Shuhong (1904-1994), Wu Zuoren (1908-1997), Dong Xiwen (1914-1973), Guan Shanyue (1912-2000), and Zhao Wangyun (1906-1977). The exhibition includes works copied from these ancient paintings by Zhang Daqian himself as well as by Rao Zongyi and Xing Baozhuang. Eight paintings from Xing’s Ten Dreams of Dunhuang show some of the favourite subjects chosen by painters over the years, his own contributions having been made as recently as 1991.

The renowned Chinese painter Pang Xunqin (1906-1985) is also represented in the exhibition, with his depictions of Tang dynasty dancing girls, also painted as a result of the resurgent interest in early Chinese painting that had been inspired by Zhang Daqian. The contribution by Pang Tao (b. 1934), Pang Xunqin’s daughter, and a painter of considerable note in her own right, shows a study of a detail from another set of famous murals, this time of Daoist subjects at the Yonglegong in China’s Shanxi province. This remote Daoist temple, dedicated to the leader of the Eight Immortals Lü Dongbin, is the site of the most important Daoist art to have survived from the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368).

EA 1961.71, An Early Twentieth-century Birthday Hanging, Detail,184 x 146 cm, Presented by Mrs Fothergill-Cooke in 1961 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

EA 1961.71 An Early Twentieth-century Birthday Hanging, detail,184 x 146 cm, Presented by Mrs Fothergill-Cooke © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The Daoist Eight Immortals are the subject of a number of paintings in the exhibition, from a delicate nineteenth-century fan painting of two immortals crossing the sea to visit the peach garden of the Queen Mother of the West, to a splendid silk embroidery from the early twentieth century, in which the Eight Immortals can be seen in the company of the three Star Gods: gods of long life, good fortune, and emolument. This large silk hanging, no doubt made as a special gift for the birthday celebrations of a Chinese elder, takes a central place in this varied and exciting exhibition and sits amongst a selection of scrolls depicting figures from the spiritual and mythical worlds of Chinese Buddhism and Daoism.

Posted on behalf of Dr Paul Bevan.
Dr Paul Bevan is a Research Associate and Teaching Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where he teaches courses in the History and Culture of China and Classical Chinese. He worked as Curatorial Researcher in Chinese Painting at the Ashmolean during the preparation of the “Pure Land: Images of Immortals in Chinese Art” exhibition and is author of the label texts.

Gallery 11 of the Ashmolean Museum – Admission free

1 March ‒ 2 October 2016

 

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