The dish was mold-enhanced to create an unusual form characterized by a wide foliate cavetto, undulating mouth rim, and a slightly recessed flat interior within a circular raised ogival-arch frame. A highly spirited qilin incised in detail with uniform, pencil-like lines and occupying the entire central ground, gallops forward with jaws agape, its intensely focused eyes dotted with cobalt blue. The blue is repeated in the centers of the cavetto petals where it is smoothly brushed, with the delicate veins reserved in white. The flat recessed base is enclosed within a narrow ring foot and bears an underglaze cobalt-blue apocryphal Chenghua six-character mark, Da Ming Chenghua nianzhi, within a double circle. The blue is a rich bright tone under the transparent, colorless glaze characterized by a mirror-like smooth surface while yet exhibiting some irregularities and iron spit outs. A small amount of grit adheres to the foot rim where a tiny chip is visible.
Kosometsuke ware is full of surprises. That in itself is not surprising. Kosometsuke, the Japanese name for the Jingdezhen porcelain they inspired and consumed, was a result of their taste at a given time in the 17th century superimposed on advanced Chinese ceramic technology. A quest for the natural, awkward, imperfect and mishappen led to some very idiosyncratic and capricious ceramics created by the Chinese potters primarily during the Tianqi period (1621-1629). It would have been a relief to these potters, who must have considered Japanese taste peculiar and inexplicable, when the Japanese had a change of heart. The present bowl would have been made after that change, in the post-Tianqi period, when the taste of tea master Sen no Rikyu’s (1522-1591) was superseded by that of Kobori Enshu‘s (1579 –1647). According to the new guiding lights, porcelains for the Japanese during the later decades of the Ming dynasty were produced with some elegance, sophistication and quality, in the traditional sense of the word, characteristics evident in the present dish.
Bowls, dishes, and plates shaped on molds to create floral forms were not commonplace in kosometsuke but not extremely rare either. Far more unusual were incised designs. When incising was used, the motifs were so subtle or obscure that they are referred to as anhua or “hidden designs.” An example illustrated here is painted with a triple-chrysanthemum spray in underglaze blue and next to it a barely visible incised lotus (fig. 1). Further, in kosometsuke, “old blue decorated” ware, as its name implies, blue played a prominent descriptive role. Here, however, the cobalt serves as a highlight, bringing to life the cavetto petals and the dots of blue sparking life in the qilin and inviting us to look closer to find the motif. The single sweeping brushstrokes that decorate the cavetto petals and appear so abstract are present on other vessels, for example, on the small cup illustrated here (fig. 2). Further examples of this use of pigment include one molded in the form of a chrysanthemum in three layers, each petal with blue highlights (fig. 3), another in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco illustrated by Julia Curtis in her groundbreaking work on kosometsuke, Trade Taste and Transformation (figs. 4), and, finally, a striking kosometsuke dish in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam where a jovial Budai is surrounded by a cavetto with skewed petals in blue and white.
Fig. 1: A kosometsuke dish with anhua décor of lotus next to an underglaze-blue triple-chrysanthemum spray, Ming dynasty, 17th century, after https://gotheborg.com/qa/overthewall.shtml
Fig. 2: A small kosometsuke cup, Ming dynasty, 17th century, after Kawahara Masahiko, Kosometsuke, vol. 1, Color Section, Kyoto, 1977, pl. 102, p. 131.
Fig. 3: A kosometsuke dish in chrysanthemum-blossom form, Ming dynasty, 17th century, after Special Exhibition: Chinese Ceramics: The Most Popular Works Among Japanese, Kyoto National Museum, 1991, no. 161.
Fig. 4: A kosometsuke dish in lotus-blossom form, Ming dynasty, 17th century, gift of Roy Leventritt, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, after Julia Curtis (with essays by Stephen Little and Mary Ann Rogers), Trade Taste and Transformation: Jingdezhen Porcelain for Japan, 1620-1645, New York, 2006, no. 84, p. 103.
Fig. 5: A kosometsuke dish with scalloped rim and image of Budai, Ming dynasty, 17th century, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, after Christiaan J.A. Jorg with Jan van Campen, Chinese Ceramics in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam: the Ming and Qing Dynasties, London, 1997, no. 60, p. 72.