Asian art is a catch all for so many regional styles and periods that it nearly collapses under its own weight. The field is vast and there are so many specialized terms to understand — often in Chinese and Japanese.

 

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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Collectibles
Feature: Ancient Civilizations, New Worlds: A Practical Introduction to Collecting Asian Art
 


Glossary of terms used in Asian art

Blending Asian Ceramics Into Your Decor

See our selected porcelain items in our shop

Why Collect Asian Art?

Collecting Asian Art

Celebrating Japanese-American Trade

Japanese Era Names

Chinese Dynasty Names

Antique Shopping in the Far East

Thangka Painting Explained

Thinking Buddha — or Not?

Shiva Sculpture

Authenticating Japanese Swords

IN OUR ASIAN SHOP:

Tibetan Peaceful Deities (thumbnails or text)
Tibetan Wrathful Deities
(thumbnails or text)

Tibet Thangka & Mandala Paintings

Indian Statues

Antique Asian Statues

PORCELAIN & CERAMICS

Differences Between Chinese and Japanese Porcelain

Chinese Porcelain

Japanese Pottery

Chinese Snuff Bottles

Japanese Netsuke: Sculpture in Miniature

A Chinese Sculpture — Or Not?

 
Collecting Asian Art

Asia is home to some of the world's oldest civilizations, and also to some of its most exhilarating modern artistic finds. For many collectors, particularly in the West, Asian art offers intriguing insight into the vibrant history and living traditions of Asia's many cultures.

For those of us (and I am one) who find that modern life often seems a harried race to the next meeting or phone call, Asian art opens a window to a slower, more thoughtful way of living. The simple Chinese ink stone, used by scholars throughout the centuries for the calm, methodical grinding of ink before setting brush to paper, can be a reminder that not all human activity must be completed at a breakneck pace. Sometimes, these objects demonstrate, a slower, more considered approach is called for.

Antique Asian Statues - Real Tibetan Works of Art

Of course, the single category of "Asian Art" encompasses a universe of astounding variety. From the ornate design of Indonesian batik to the elegant simplicity of certain Chinese ceramics, the arts of Asia are as diverse as the continent itself. But whether you are moved by the scroll paintings produced for China's Imperial Court, or intrigued by the delicate workmanship of Japanese woodblock prints, Asian art can help illuminate new ways of looking at the world — and the relationships between man, society, nature and the divine.

Carried by caravans across the ancient Silk Route or brought home by the Yankee traders following the trade winds, Asian art has been prized in Europe and America for centuries. And while mature markets exist for the best-known types of Asian art, there are still the fabulous finds to be made. At Butterfields, we recently were lucky enough to host the auction of the Hoi An Hoard a huge cargo of magnificent Vietnamese blue-and-white pottery that was shipwrecked in the late 15th Century and only recently brought ashore. Discoveries like these are what keep the field of Asian art so exciting, both for historians and for collectors. You literally never know what is going to appear on the market next!

Asian art is a catch all for so many regional styles and periods that it nearly collapses under its own weight. The field is vast and there are so many specialized terms to understand — often in Chinese and Japanese. But I tell my clients that, as with any art, the best guide is usually their own taste. Visit a museum, or page through books in the library, to see what types of Asian art appeal most directly to you. Once you've selected an area of specialization, learn as much as you can about it. As you come to understand more of the history behind the art, you will come to appreciate the nuances that make a one piece stand out from the crowd. And don't be afraid to ask questions. Gallery owners and auction house specialists can provide a wealth of information to help guide you in developing your taste, and finding pieces that are right for you.

What follows is a broad-brush guide to a few of the major fields of Asian art. But this is only the first step on what can easily become a life's journey. There are many strands of the Asian artistic tradition — ranging from Tibetan sacred scrolls to Japanese Samurai armor — that are worth exploring and collecting. If you see something special, either in a gallery or in a museum, jot down a note and keep looking for more examples of it. That is the best way to build an appreciation for of this very special world of art.

China

Over its 6,000-year history, China has played a central role in establishing both the techniques and aesthetics found in art across the Far East. While Japanese, Korean and Southeast Asian artists have developed their own specialized artistic traditions, most are rooted in artistic forms that flowered in ancient China long before European civilization took its first steps.

Painting has long been one of the most admired forms of Chinese art. From the magnificent Buddhist "cave paintings" of Dunhuang some 1,600 years ago to the familiar misty landscapes favored by later artists, Chinese painting has long sought to express both inner peace and harmony with nature. Most Chinese paintings are done in ink with a sharp-pointed brush on silk or paper — a demanding technique that allows for no backtracking or erasing. This has forced China's painters to develop a mastery of their brushwork that remains unsurpassed to this day. While many Chinese paintings exhibit a marvelous use of color, it is generally subservient to the line and play of the brush strokes themselves.

Admirers of traditional Chinese painting have a wealth of styles and subjects to choose from. Figure painting, which began to be widely practiced in the Song dynasty (960-1127), gives a lively representation of what daily life was like in China's towns and cities while elegant still lives — often featuring flowers, birds, insects, and fish — developed an economy of line that verges on the abstract. Chinese landscape painting too has devotees around the world. With towering mountains and plunging grottoes, Chinese landscape painters have portrayed the special beauty of their country's geography — often using cloud and mist to convey the essential mystery of the natural world. While the most common form of Chinese painting is the vertical, hanging scroll, painters also worked on fans and album leafs. The seal, or "chop", served as the artist's signature and later collectors often added their own seal imprints to the piece — providing a historical provenance visible on the work itself.

For many admirers, the apex of the art of brushwork is found in examples of traditional calligraphy, which have long been highly prized among Asian collectors. The play of the brush — often made from the hair of goat, deer or wolf — against the paper illustrates the artist's grasp of rhythm, line and structure, using visual elements of Chinese characters to develop the emotion or sentiment expressed by the poem or saying that has been set down.

While painting and calligraphy are among the best-known Chinese visual arts, much of China's art was developed first to serve the needs of daily life. Archaic bronzes and porcelain were developed for use in court rituals, but were later copied for use in the lives of the scholar, merchant and common classes.

Porcelain and pottery are two forms of Chinese art that are widely appreciated by collectors. Porcelain itself is a Chinese invention, reached its apogee in the Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) periods as potters mixed special kaolin clay and crushed stone to create fine, translucent pieces of remarkable strength. The most famous, and most expensive, form of Chinese porcelain is the so-called "Guanyao," or porcelain made exclusively for the Imperial household. These items — think of the famous "Ming" blue and white wares — represent some of the finest porcelain ever produced, and often carry very high price tags. Monochrome wares are also highly prized among some collectors, while others favor the more brilliant polychrome enamel decorated porcelain which reached a pinnacle of quality under the Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1736-1795) emperors.

China's famous bronzes, which date back to the Shang dynasty in 1600 B.C., can command astronomical prices among international collectors. These vessels, used both for early sacrificial rites and for cooking food, were cast in molds and decorated with a variety of geometric and animal motifs. While the finest of these pieces will be out of reach to all but major collectors and museums, Chinese revivals of the style dating back to the Ming Dynasty can still be had — for a price. The Shang bronzes also helped to set the style for other forms of Chinese metalwork ranging from gold and silver pieces to the art of cloisonnι, in which colored enamel strips (cloisons) are applied to a vessel's metal base.

Some of the most affordable — and collectible — forms of Chinese art are small, household items that combine exquisite workmanship with utility. Snuff bottles, for instance, have become a hot item with many collectors. These delicate bottles, usually small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, began to be widely produced in China by the mid-17th Century as tobacco was introduced into the country. Usually provided with a small spoon fixed into the stopper and capped with a hemispherical piece of jade, snuff bottles were made of everything from coral, ivory and jade to gold, silver and glass. Among the glass bottles, some of the most beautiful feature tiny paintings on their interior walls — painstaking renditions of landscapes, trees and flowers executed with an almost microscopic finesse. Ink stones, too, are a revered form of Chinese art. One of the "four treasures of the study" (the others being brushes, paper and the ink itself), Chinese ink stones were produced for scholars and reflect the country's abiding reverence for the written word. These, along with fine jades, brush pots and huanghuali, zitan, or jichimu (the three precious woods used in the imperial household) painters' tables, constitute the core of the Chinese scholar's studio.

Japan

Japan, like China, has a long and refined artistic heritage. And, while borrowing many themes from their Chinese neighbors, Japan's artists have absorbed, imitated and ultimately assimilated these ideas to produce their own unique artistic tradition.

Japan's early painters were heavily influenced by Chinese-style ink painting and calligraphy, although by the 6th Century they were experimenting with a much bolder use of color than found in the Chinese tradition. Later Japanese artists pioneered their own style of painting, called Yamato-e, in the late 12th Century, producing long, narrative "picture scrolls".

Many Western collectors have focussed on Japan's tradition of woodblock prints — the first examples of which were carried to the West by American sailors who, under Commander Perry, arrived in Tokyo Bay in 1853 in an attempt to "open" the country to trade with the Western powers. Woodblock printing is an old and common folk art form in Japan, but quickly became an artistic rage in the West, where its popularity continues unabated.

Some of the most famous wood block prints stem from Japan's "Ukiyo-e", or "Floating World", school of art. This movement, which began during the Edo Period (1603-1867) in the late 17th Century, sought to celebrate the joys of the material world — recording the pleasures of the teahouses, restaurants, theaters and brothels of the day. Many ukiyo-e prints began as advertising posters for performances and theatrical stars, and their strong lines, vivid colors and lively presentation still deliver a fresh view of what life was like in the cities of 17th Century Japan.

The Edo period also marks a high point for the art of Japanese textiles as economic, commercial and social factors combined to create a thriving market for some of the most beautiful weaving ever produced. These items — ranging from kimonos and obis (sashes) to commercial banners — display a decorative extravagance rarely equaled in the world of textile art. During the Edo, and subsequent Meiji (1868-1912) periods, Japan's weavers, dyers, and needleworkers produced complicated and diverse fabrics ranging from gauze-like woven silk to luxurious brocades.

One of my favorite forms of Japanese art, and one which still represents a good value for the beginning collector, is the "Netsuke" — the ornamental toggles used to attach purses or tobacco pouches to the obi of a Japanese man's traditional dress. These delightful pieces, which were at their most popular during the Edo Period, served as an important fashion accent of the time. Originally made of wood, netsuke developed over time into elaborate, miniature sculptures made with inlays of coral, ivory, pearl shell, horn, and precious metals on lacquer and wood, and were fashioned to depict everything from a simple flower to humorous monkeys. Another collectible item from this period is the "Inro" — the case or box, usually lacquered, that the netsuke helps to affix to the obi.

 


Vajrapani,
big
16" $700


Chinese Snuff Bottles
(Images of Asia)

by Robert Kleiner

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