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An Exotic Tale Formed of Clay And Imagination

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2004; Page C01

If Scheherazade had added a thousand-and-second tale to her Arabian Nights, it might have gone something like this:

"During the reign of our great Caliph Harun al-Rashid -- blessed be his name and splendid his days in Heaven -- a loyal subject gave to him a gift of magnificent pottery, carried from the faraway court of the Emperor of China. It counted 20 cups and bowls, each one white as snow on blessed Mount Sinai, fine as a peacock's egg and lithe as the most beautiful new wife in the Caliph's harem. 'O, what beauty comes to us from distant lands,' said the great man. And then, his brow darkening: 'But why must it come across the seas to us? Our craftsmen without equal have been equaled, and indeed outdone, by these Chinese infidels.'


A 14th-century Chinese porcelain plate on view at the Sackler Gallery's "Iraq and China: Ceramics, Trade and Innovation." (Harvey B. Plotnick Collection)


"Quaking at their lord's wrath, the famous potters of Basra set about unraveling the secrets of the foreign bowls. The wheelmen copied tricks the Chinese potters used to thin their vessels' walls. Other craftsmen played with minerals and metals -- tin from Malacca, lead from Arabia -- until they'd achieved a glaze as white as anything that China's clays could yield.

"But just as the snowy dishes were to enter the kiln, a learned master potter snatched one up in his left hand, grasped in the other a brush dipped in a blue glaze of his own invention, and with a splendid flourish wrote the word 'happiness' down the center of the plate.

"The Caliph was pleased: 'Strangers may have taught us to make our dishes white, and fine,' he said. 'But we have added the blue of the night sky that floats above the desert, and the language of the Prophet that came out of it. And now, for as long as Baghdad stands and Basra receives visits from afar, the whole world -- from Cairo to Peking to barbarous London and Delft -- will follow where our potters have led.' "

But of course Scheherazade could tell no such tale, since her storytelling stopped at the lucky number 1,001. The story we just heard comes to us instead care of the young scholar Jessica Hallett, guest curator of the exhibition "Iraq and China: Ceramics, Trade and Innovation," which opens Saturday at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. And her yarn, for all its unlikely sea voyages and unprecedented inventions and cultural cross-currents, has the advantage of being as unfictional as she could make it.

In a modest suite of rooms, full of pots and plates and shards brought in from all around the world, Hallett tells viewers of the birth of fine white stoneware in China, its export to Harun al-Rashid's Iraq around the year 800, its copying by Basra's potters, who added their newly invented cobalt-blue glaze to it, the re-export of the new blue-and-white technique to China, the reimporting of Chinese-made blue-and-white ware to the Muslim world, and then much later, in the 14th century, the large-scale manufacture of blue-and-white dishes -- now in true porcelain -- by the Chinese themselves, and eventually their wholesale export to all the foreigners who came in contact with them.

If only every exhibition had as rich a tale to tell, and as much fresh scholarship to share.

Some of the story is told by the objects on display.

We start with a handful of rare white dishes made in the 9th century in Northern China. They would probably have resembled that gift to Harun al-Rashid, which is mentioned in texts but hasn't come down to us. It's no wonder those Chinese vessels impressed Iraqi connoisseurs: They are as simple and gracious and refined as anything could be. They were soon imported in bulk by daring Muslim merchants, who were some of the first traders to make the three-year trip direct from Iraq to China and back, cutting out the Silk Road's many intermediaries.

Then the show gives us a sample of the first all-white imitations of them by Iraqi potters, apparently responding to a growing local taste for the Chinese designs. The Iraqi copies, though often close, never quite manage the delicacy of the originals: Arab potters didn't have access to the tough, all-white clays of their Chinese counterparts, so they used local clays that were softer and darker, then covered them with a dense, opaque white glaze. But the Arab whiteware has a sturdiness that's still very appealing.

And once Iraqi potters began to add their own cobalt-blue detailing, the indigenous art form takes off. That "happiness" bowl -- one of three similar dishes in the show -- uses calligraphy to energize an otherwise plain surface in the most astounding way. It was joined by bowls with flowers and garlands and snaking decorations the Muslim world had never seen, in the same innovative blue.

After the blue glaze had taken off, it looks as though it only took a bare few years for all of Iraq's ceramic arts to soar. Inspired by the exquisite metal and glass objects made for the caliphs' courts -- a handful have been included in this show -- potters soon invented lustrous metallic glazes in reds and yellows and oranges, which they used on dishes aimed at a flourishing middle class.

Funnily enough, it was this brightly colored "lusterware," rather than the blue-and-white dishes that came before it, that for a while made the biggest splash. Ignored by the Chinese, the style passed from Basra to Egypt, Syria and Iran. Lusterware even came to be a specialty of Muslim and then Christian potters in far-off Spain. Eventually it crossed over to Italy, where the lustrous glazes invented in 9th-century Iraq became the hallmark of the famous majolica of the Italian Renaissance. The Sackler show includes fine examples of all these European wares.

The exhibition also features some less prepossessing objects that are there as illustrations for Hallett's scholarly claims. One display case presents funny lumps of colored stuff: They are the raw materials that helped to spur Iraq's home-grown ceramic arts. An innovative Muslim glass industry produced the cobalt-blue "smalt" first used to color pottery in Basra. (Chemical tests suggest that it's also the major source for the blues on early Chinese pots.) Iraqi work and trade in metals of all kinds would have supplied the lustrous colored glazes that came shortly afterward, as well as the lead and tin required for the plain white surfaces that sit under them.

Another case displays a quantity of brightly colored potsherds. It gives a sense of the plenty and variety produced by Muslim ceramists. But it also represents a small sampling of the many shards whose materials were tested by Hallett, a student of chemistry as well as an art historian and Islamist. Almost all those tested fragments -- from as far away as Thailand -- match clays discovered at an ancient kiln site in Basra. It had always been assumed that Iraq's innovative potters had flourished in court towns such as Baghdad and Samarra. Hallett's research -- which she began as a doctoral student under Oxford scholar Julian Raby, now director of the Sackler -- suggests that the small port town of Basra, on the Persian Gulf, was the region's crucial center for ceramic innovation and production. (Hallett has also gathered evidence for Basra's importance as a center for the metalwork and trade that influenced Iraqi potters.)

Finally, a few wall panels present some of the exhibition's most exciting and controversial arguments. Hallett's scientific comparison of Chinese pots and their later Iraqi copies -- X-rays of both are included in the show -- indicates that they were shaped using the same peculiar molding techniques. Muslim traders may have had more direct contact with Chinese craftsmen than anyone has thought; it's possible that they commissioned pottery in China for Iraq's booming market in whiteware, then stole their suppliers' manufacturing technology while they were at it.

They may also have introduced Basra's own innovations to their Chinese partners. A Muslim trading ship was recently discovered off Indonesia, apparently shipwrecked on its way home from the Far East sometime soon after 826. And even at that early date, the pots in its hold -- there are photos of them in the Sackler show -- included Chinese imitations of Iraq's blue-and-white ceramics, made using materials imported from the Middle East and techniques invented in Basra just a few years earlier. (The whole wreck is now for sale; rumors have it heading intact to a major museum.)

There's only one loose end in this exhibition's plot. It is not clear why it took another 500 years for Iraq's innovative use of blue glazes on white to drift into the mainstream of Chinese ceramic art, and then out again to early modern Europe and the Middle East.

We'll just have to wait with bated breath for another show to give us that thousand-and-third tale. After all, Scheherazade invented the cliffhanger.

Iraq and China: Ceramics, Trade and Innovation runs through April 24 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian's national museum of Asian art, on the Mall at 10th Street SW. Call 202-633-1000 or visit www.asia.si.edu.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company