MFA Exhibit Forges Connections to Past through Porcelain

“New Blue and White,” a new exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, centers around blue and white porcelain, which was first created in 7th-century China, and remains today an iconic and familiar style. A new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts highlights contemporary artists’ attempt to make this classic art form relevant and surprising in the 21st century. On view through July 14, the show comprises nearly 70 contemporary pieces of porcelain by over 40 artists. Blue and white is a term used in the Asian art field to describe a specific type of porcelain of cobalt-blue decoration painted under a clear gaze. There was much creative and artistic back-and-forth between ancient China and the Islamic world, which had access to extensive reserves of cobalt. Local potters in the Middle East learned how to emulate the styles of pottery that were being imported from China. The Mongolian invasion of the 13th century reinforced an aesthetic shift toward more ornamental blue and white style pottery. By the 14th century, the Chinese had perfected blue and white porcelain and started to mass produce it. Dutch Delftware and German Meissen ware represent later attempts to recreate Chinese porcelain.

“Globalization is not entirely new, when you think about the way the blue and white travels,” says Emily Zilber, the MFA’s Ronald L. and Anita C. Wornick Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts, who arranged this exhibition. “We certainly associate it with Asian ceramics, but blue and white has touched almost everybody around the globe.”

This exhibition that deals with blue and white in an encyclopedic context—by linking works to other historically and artistically related works in the museum—rather than a straightforward gallery layout.  For example, there are seven artworks in the exhibition with labels leading visitors to related historical works in other parts of the MFA, artworks such as John Singer Sargent’s signature painting, “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” which is a domestic scene framed by two Japanese blue and white vases. Kondô Takahiro one of the artists whose modern porcelain is on display, has created a contemporary vase that is a twist on a traditional vase that was created by Takahiro’s grandfather. Other artists’ pieces make statements about cultural exchange. “Prayer Stone II,” by Iranian artist Pouran Jinchi, applies of layers of lacquer on Shiite Muslim prayer stones that were brought from Iran by her brother and mother, representing and at the same time re-interpreting her cultural roots.

For Dutch artist Gèsene Hackerberg, the use of blue and white porcelain is a way to rethink the Dutch tradition of delftware. Hackenberg has created a necklace out of delft platters. “Delft blue ware is very valuable here, but it’s also a national pride of the Dutch,” Hackenberg says. By upcycling the traditional Delft blue, “[Hackenberg has] simultaneously destroyed the platter because it is not functional as a platter anymore, but also allowed it to be a part of a new still life,” Zilber says.

Some artists take the familiarity of blue and white objects and imbue broader meanings into them. Michelle Erickson, who is also currently a visiting artist at Harvard, took  inspiration from an 18th-century American porcelain pickle stand and creatively replicated it in a 21st-century style. “The original pickle stand was made by the first American forge. Porcelain in general was being produced in Europe at this point, so this pickle stand symbolizes the beginning of American independence,”  Erickson says. On top of this historical significance, Erickson has added motifs of conflict such as a broken grenade and gas nozzle, which represent the artifacts of the modern era. “As we are navigating the contemporary world, it’s always important to think about the past and how it impacts our actions, and realize [the] longer trajectory,” Zilber says, “This is an exhibition that speaks very particularly to that that productive tension between the past and the present.”