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Large Underglaze-Blue Decorated Kraak Porcelain Bowl

Diameter: 36.5 cm. (14 3/8 in)
Height 17 cm. (6 3/4 in.)
Late Ming dynasty
Late 16th-early 17th century

Provenance: Sekido Collection, Japan
Exhibited at the Tekisui Museum, Ashiya, Japan

The thin walls of the bowl rise in a steep curve from the wide foot to the subtly foliated mouth rim. The bowl is handsomely large and deep and surprisingly light in weight. The bowl is decorated inside and out with lively designs produced with a cobalt blue that varies from a deep inky tone to a thin, light, watery blue, and from a bright blue to a greyer tone. The bottom interior is painted with a landscape roundel comprised of a pair of geese beneath lotus leaves on a riverbank, with further banks beyond the water, a swirling cloud above and another bird flying in. An undecorated band provides an airy frame around the roundel and contrasts to the emphatic design of the six panels decorating the cavetto. Each ogival frame encloses a pair of tall stems, each stem lined from bottom to top with small, plump leaves, the stems supporting what appear to be ripened fruits, all beneath tiny moons. The panels are divided from each other by pendant ribbons secured above by bows and dangling beads. On the outside of the bowl are six more ogival-framed panels filled variously with luxuriant floral arrangements and Buddhist emblems, including a sutra scroll, peony, lotus, gourd and camellia. These panels are also divided by ribboned pendant beads suspended from diapered valances. An outline-and-wash technique was employed in general to produce the painted designs and the motifs detailed with a combination of linear interior drawing and clusters of short lines to indicate shaded areas. The blue pigment is also applied in thicker and thinner washes. The glaze is very bright and clear with some specks of grit scattered on the interior. The foot slants inward and has a petal collar above and kiln grit adhering. The recessed base is unglazed and chatter marks are clearly visible. The bowl’s large size and perfect condition result in a most satisfying ring when “thumped,” as if this porcelain vessel were an actual bell.

During the late Ming period, from the Wanli reign until the fall of the dynasty to Manchus in 1644, the foreign market became the commercial mainstay for numerous porcelain-producing kilns operating at Jingdezhen. Among the most successful of the products is a ware known in the west as kraak, a word coined by the Dutch after the name “carrack,” the Portuguese cargo ships which had been the primary mercantile link during the 16th century between Asia and Europe before the Dutch assumed dominance on the high seas. Kraak wares are immediately recognizable because of their characteristic decorative style: the decoration is produced in underglaze-blue cobalt, covers the entire piece, the designs organized into numerous panels of various shapes and sizes to fill the requirements of the available space, the panels enclosing a vast assortment of motifs–floral and fruit, bird, beast and insect, humans, architecture, boats, sky and landscapes, with various border and “filler “designs including diaper patterns, ribbons, bows, knots, and lucky emblems.

The present piece is one of the largest types of bowl produced at this time, that is during the late 16th-early 17th century, and is also of unusual technical superiority. Although kraak wares were exported in all directions with Europe being the main draw, the Middle East appears to have been the market eyed for some of these very handsome large-size, high-quality wares. While countless permutations were possible given the vast number of decorative elements employed by the potters, several published examples are quite similar to the present bowl in major features including shape, size, design and quality. Examples from Topkapi Saray Museum in Istanbul, an historical collection formed over the centuries, the Chinese wares imported as they were made, include two bowls with interior medallion scenes very closely related to the present.1 A third bowl, also in the Topkapi, is decorated with a dragon in the medallion but with a cavetto and exterior design quite like the present bowl.2 The Kaikodo example, although likely intended for the discriminating clientele of the Middle East, was acquired recently in Japan. Although this popular style was still being produced for export several decades after the production of these bowls, by the mid-17th century the style had become less bold and assertive, At the same time, however, new decorative motifs and subjects were introduced, ensuring a continued journey, artistic and commercial, of Jingdezhen’s kraak-style porcelains into the second half of the 17th century.

According to Maura Rinaldi, the Topkapi has around fifteen bowls of this size while only a few further examples are known, these in other public and private collections.3

1. In Regina Krahl (John Ayers, ed.), Chinese Ceramic in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, A Complete Catalogue, vol. II: Yuan and Ming Dynasty Porcelains, London, 1986, no. 1509 (TKS 15/3826) and no. 1507 (TKS 15/3833), p. 782 .

2. See ibid., no. 1511 (TKS 15/2580), p. 783 (top).

3. See Maura Rinaldi, Kraak Porcelain: A Moment in the History of Trade, London, 1989, p. 159.

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