May 4, 2011

At the Met: Tang Dynasty Ceramics

Camel and Riders, late 7th century, earthenware (detail)

When I am at the Metropolitan Museum of Art there are many things I like to visit often; among them are the ceramics in the Asian galleries. I have written before on how much I enjoy taking photographs of objects at the museum, how it helps me to see the works more clearly and enables me to capture them and bring them home, even if in just a digital form. On my last trip to the Chinese collection I started by shooting the imposing black and white vase below, and as I continued to photograph, I realized that the work that interested me that day was all from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), a period of calm, prosperity and high culture. Some of the most thrilling pieces are the earthenware sculpture of figures and animals. A grandly shouting camel, certainly not a demure beast, has a man and child on its back.

Horse, 8th century, earthenware with brown glaze.

A horse stands sensitively alert, his strong body ready for work, yet elegant. The green glaze on the horse's hooves makes me wonder if it was a custom to paint or decorate them.

Resting Dancer, second half of the 7th century, earthenware with pigment.

This is a very small piece, maybe 6 or 8 inches high, but embodies such thoughtfulness and grace, with lines flowing beautifully from arm, around the head, and back to the knee.

Vase, 8th century, earthenware with black glaze.

When I look at a vase like this, which has so much presence, I can't help but see an equivalent of human form in the abstract. Its severe simplicity heightens its expressiveness.

Jar, first half of the 8th century, earthenware with dappled yellow and green glaze.

This is another very beautiful vessel, with an elegant outline enclosing a full, broad volume. Our eye follows the colored glaze flowing across and down the form, emphasizing its wide shoulder and narrow foot.

Jar with Two Handles in the Shape of Dragons, 7th century, porcelain with white glaze.

I love the fanciful handles on this pot. Look at the little blobs of porcelain laid along the handle; they add rhythm but also look as though the maker had a happy time adding them.

Covered Jar, Tang Dynasty (618-907), earthenware with blue glaze.

This pot is a very deep blue, almost black, and we feel as if we are looking into deep space and not onto a simple surface. It is another bulbous, full form, with a capped mouth whose double line of jar top and lid with a third strong line below balance the large volume of the jar's lower portion.

Box with Cover, Tang Dynasty (618-907), earthenware with three color glaze (sancai).

And finally, a small round box, colored with the technique known as sancai, or three colors, developed during the Tang dynasty. The effect is warm and rich, as the colors emphasize the form of the box, circling its top, running down its sides. There is so much beauty to be seen in even the most humble of objects.


  1. Thoughtful choices, Altoon. It would be nice to spend a lot of time with any of them. Resting Dancer makes me relax even digitally. But "vase", "Jar", and "covered jar" are equally special. You can feel the hands of the maker on each. The spirit of the artist is still alive in the shape alone before the depth of glaze creates its timeless synergy. Imagine what it would be like to hold them in your hands. Thanks for sharing. Makes me want to read more about this period.

  2. Tang horses always seem so beautiful, as you said, elegant yet ready for work.
    It seems these objects contain a love of making things. Resting dancer has beautiful gesture.
    When I first saw Tang horses at the Met I was so excited. Some are very simple, and others have great decoration.

  3. Thanks for the interesting comments, John and alicia. What a joy it would be to handle these, have them at home to enjoy intimately. The horses are really great, very carefully observed. I feel a lot of love in these objects.

  4. I laughed out loud at the first image...I thought "those garden gnomes really are ubiquitous!"

    Deb L.

  5. I wonder if the horses were used as miniature tribute horses.

  6. Leslie, I was remiss in not searching the Met's website for more information on these works. Horses were a sign of wealth and stability and military success. A piece such as the horse were used as funerary sculpture.

  7. I especially appreciate your eye and comments with the ceramics because I often do not give them the attention they deserve. Thanks for the in-roads! And for tours of the Met which I haven't visited in a while.

  8. That dancer still feels alive to me. It makes me want to fix her a nice bowl of soup to restore her energy. The camel tells a story I would like to hear. Even if he is cranky. Another amazing trip to the museum.