Be They Ever So Hum­ble . . .

At the Sack­ler, South­east Asian Ce­ram­ics That Mod­estly Pro­fess Their Beauty

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts - By Paul Richard

No gold, no silk, no emer­alds. “Tak­ing Shape: Ce­ram­ics in South­east Asia” at the Arthur M. Sack­ler Gallery presents noth­ing so pre­cious. Just pots, empty pots. Big pots, small pots, brown ones, black ones, pots glazed and unglazed, very old and new, all side by side, and not just pots but bot­tles, too, and jars and bowls and dishes, some 200 in all, stand­ing at the ready, wait­ing to be used. It’s sort of like a pre-chrome, pre-Co­rian kitchen, where the heat comes from a fire and the ves­sels are baked mud.

The pots are from the Hauge (HOW-gee) col­lec­tion, named for the Hauge brothers, Os­borne and Vic­tor, old Asia hands who brought them back mostly from Thai­land, Viet­nam, Laos, China and Cam­bo­dia, and kept them in Falls Church be­fore giv­ing them to the Sack­ler. “Tak­ing Shape” presents about a fourth of their do­na­tion. Their pots are mild, pa­tient and im­mense in tra­di­tion. What’s beau­ti­ful is their hu­mil­ity.

They don’t beg for at­ten­tion. Much art we’re of­fered nowa­days whirs or bleeps or flick­ers, star­tles or trans­gresses, strives to look like noth­ing you have ever seen be­fore. But th­ese pots are at ease with their uses — some of them made 5,500 years ago, some in 1892, some in 1996, and noth­ing at all ob­vi­ous tells you which is which.

Some part of their time­less right­ness is like that seen around boats, where the sculp­ture of a cleat or the out­line of an oar blade dis­plays an in­her­i­tance of eons of de­vel­op­ment. Th­ese pots were for fer­mented fish or wa­ter or lime paste or beer or medicine or cook­ing rice, or what­ever. Their variety ac­knowl­edges all the ways that they were used.

But it isn’t only func­tion that de­ter­mined how they look. The show is full of de­tails — the knob on the lid of a jar, the swelling of a cook­ing pot, the glassy melt­ings of a glaze — that wouldn’t be half so grace­ful if beauty didn’t count.

Louise A. Court is the ex­hi­bi­tion’s cu­ra­tor. From her la­bels you can tell whether the pots came from the 15th-cen­tury Wang Nua kilns of Thai­land, the 16th-cen­tury Sisat­tanak kilns of Laos, the Jingdezhen kilns of China, or the Bat Trang kilns of 18th­cen­tury Viet­nam, but what you no­tice more is the way th­ese var­ied shapes stand to­gether in al­liance.

The ce­ram­ics at the Sack­ler don’t move, but they seem to. In profile they of­fer the sin­u­osi­ties of S-curves. If you rose off of the floor and hov­ered just above them, what you’d see is cir­cles go­ing round and round.

ARTHUR M. SACK­LER GALLERY PHO­TOS

A jar from Laos or cen­tral Viet­nam, dat­ing from the 17th to 19th cen­turies, is part of “Tak­ing Shape: Ce­ram­ics in South­east Asia.” The works are drawn from the col­lec­tion of brothers Os­borne and Vic­tor Hauge.

Clock­wise from top, a cook­ing pot from south­ern Viet­nam of 19th- or 20th-cen­tury vin­tage; an 11th- or 12th-cen­tury bot­tle, in the shape of a wor­shiper, from Cam­bo­dia or Thai­land; and a pot from Thai­land dat­ing from 300 B.C. to 200 A.D.

Tak­ing Shape: Ce­ram­ics in South­east Asia

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