I visited the British Museum over the weekend for a bit of inspiration. On this visit I spent a lot of time in the China, South Asia and Southeast Asia room, which has objects on display from the Paleolithic to the present.
Because so many historical periods are represented there’s a lot of variation in technique, colour and style, representing very many different influences over time. Far from being isolated, trade and repeated invasions have resulted in a rich and varied visual history, and a range of styles that go far beyond the styles we typically think of as “Chinese.” It’s more likely that our understanding the kinds of things we like to think of as Chinese style is more because of our familiarity with certain classes of manufactured goods created for export.
On this visit I was drawn in particular to the different textures and designs of pottery and vessels. I thought these two animals from the Eastern Zhou period were interesting, becuase they’re covered in patterns that seem distinctly Celtic. The first contains a criss-crossed pattern of what appeared to be a series of interlocking animals like what you’d see sometimes in Medieval illuminated manuscripts. The second is covered with a complicated series of spiral and braid patterns that remind me of the sort of pattern you would see in Celtic metal and stonework that you would find in Northern Europe and the British Isles. They’re from the 4th to 3rd century BC and the 5th to 6th century BC, respectively.
It was also fun to discover some quirky things, like these Chinese-made plates showing the crucifixion and the resurrection. They were obviously inspired by Western art while looking for subjects for their goods for export, made by some people who weren’t very familiar with the subjects they were trying to portray. Consequently you get these crucified people who inexplicably have quite well developed breasts, and a very feminine-looking bearded lady of a Jesus getting resurrected.
There were also a few beautiful examples of repair on display. I wouldn’t have noticed this one before I became acquainted with Andrew Baseman’s Past Imperfect blog. This jug looks fine at first, but closer inspection reveals that the handle broke off some time previously and was reattached with metal staples.
This one’s more obvious. The spout fell off and was replaced with a metal one. Someone obviously decided it would be a good idea to also attach the lid to a chain so that it would not get lost.
There’s also a lovely felted boot with beautiful scalloped stitching, patched with leather. I took a bad picture of it but there are many better photos of it on the British Museum website.
I love that these are on display at the museum, that the curators didn’t decide at some point that they were too damaged to be accessioned and put on display. The fact that some of these objects are quirky and broken only confirms to me that they were created and used by humans, which makes them far more interesting to me than things that for whatever reason were never used, and consequently survived to present in a pristine form.