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Pure past
"Chinese Checkers," 1985 stoneware by Maxine Blackmer.

'Ancient Fires' show features Chinese ceramics at the University of Montana's Museum of Fine Arts


"Ancient Fires," Chinese ceramics from the Neolithic Period to the Ming Dynasty, is on view beginning Friday, May 18, in the University of Montana's Museum of Fine Arts, in the Performing Arts and Radio/TV Center. Hours are 8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Admission is free. Call 243-2019.

Step into the Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Montana and step across worlds and back millennia through a culture steeped in beauty.

From the Neolithic earthenware vessels of 2,500 years ago - about the time of Abraham, Isaac and Joseph in the Biblical book of Genesis - to the colorful porcelain altar pieces created during the 18th century, delicacy and attention to detail herald ancient Chinese art as truly fine art.

"There's something incredibly pure about this work," museum director Margaret Mudd says. "We just feel so grateful to Nelson Chang for allowing us to share these treasures."

The 40 ceramic works in the museum's "Ancient Fires" exhibit are a legacy of the Chang family, owners of the Chang Foundation Museum in Taipei, Taiwan (Nelson Chang owns a ranch in Montana, as well, Mudd says.). Most recently the works were on view at Princeton University, Nelson Chang's alma mater.

The show's timing deliberately coincides with upcoming ceramics exhibits throughout Missoula and Montana in observance of the 50th anniversary of the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Mudd says.

"We wanted to show the roots of the ceramics we're going to be seeing all over the state in the summer," she says.

Arranged more or less in chronological order, "Ancient Fires" provides viewers a vivid picture of the development of the art form. Pieces from the Neolithic era offer flat earthen tones with patterns found during the same era in Greek pottery across the globe. Always the works are delicate and perfectly symmetrical in form, and their adornments - swirls, grids and the like - suggest infinity, as with the painted cocoon-shaped vessel dating between 470 B.C.E. and 220 C.E.

Experiments with porcelain - a lighter colored, harder clay fired at a higher temperature than conventional clays - are evident in these early works, but not until the collection of little dishes and teapots from the Sung dynasty (920-1279) does true mastery of the material appear. Here, colors are glossy, vivid - the famous Ming yellow, a rich coral, cobalt blue and glinting gold - as well as, at times, pure white, a trademark of porcelain which Mudd says was for centuries a closely guarded Chinese secret.

Here the effects on French porcelain become evident, in particular the pretty painted flowers, depicted as if they'd just dropped into the center of a bowl, and gold edging. The French, Mudd says, were the first to discover the Chinese recipe for porcelain - a secret they, too, held close until the French Revolution made the technique available to all.

Perhaps most striking in the show are the "Eight Treasures," highly ornamental, colorful altar pieces fashioned in the 18th century, during the Ch'ing dynasty. Topping each piece is a symbol meant to describe the Chinese emperor Ch'ien-lung: a conch shell, which Mudd says symbolizes power in Polynesian cultures; a rice bundle, a tent, two fish, a flower and more. Curiously, a large blue-and-white vase of the same era depicts the same symbols.

It's a pretty show, drenched in pinks and yellows and turquoise and blues, glittering with gold, steeped in ancient lore and as delicate as the petals of the lotus - which leads Mudd to another comparison with the art of those Chinese secret-hoarders, the French.

"This," she says, gesturing toward the works, "is the Monet of ceramics."

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