Be They Ever So Humble . . .
At the Sackler, Southeast Asian Ceramics That Modestly Profess Their Beauty
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.
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