The Blema and H. Arnold Steinberg Collection of Traditional Chinese Art  
by France Pepper, catalogue essay and entries, 2015

The history of Chinese art spans more than 5000 years and covers an array of materials.  However, of all the materials used by Chinese artists and artisans over the millennia, clay was the most versatile. As early as the Neolithic period, ceramics in China were being crafted. Innovation and experimentation thereafter led to the development of ceramic technologies with new types of kilns and glazes, making Chinese ceramics the most appreciated and desired objects, not only in China, but around the world. 

Many of these ceramics made their way along the Silk Road, a network of trade routes connecting China with Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The eastern point of the overland Silk Road was Chang’an (present-day Xi’an in northwestern China). It was the most cosmopolitan city in the world during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), with foreign merchants, horses and camel caravans beginning or ending their journeys along the Silk Road. During this time, Chinese ceramic production flourished and was influenced by exotic designs transported from Persia via Central Asia into China.

Vestiges of the Silk Road are most noticeable in Chinese ceramics made as funerary wares placed in the tomb, reflecting daily life and the status of the deceased.  A pair of Tang Dynasty terracotta horses in the Steinberg Collection (cat. no. 28) is a rare example of finely molded and modeled steeds with movable saddles.  These horses embody the spirit of the times, both in their fine craftsmanship and in capturing the essence of the Silk Road.

Alongside Silk Road merchants were Buddhist monks making the journey between India and China. Their influence in China was profound, both spiritually and artistically. In particular, the Buddhist iconography from Gandhara (present-day Afghanistan and Northwest Pakistan), inspired Central Asian and Chinese Buddhist art. This style of art is often referred to as Greco-Roman Buddhist art due to its strong ties to classical sculpture, as a result of Alexander The Great’s conquest of the Gandharan region. A sublime example of a terracotta Gandharan Buddha in a gesture of discourse sets the tone for the collection as a whole (cat. no. 29), emanating wisdom, patience, and other-worldly beauty.

Of all the dynasties in China’s long history, the Song (960-1279) is always associated with beauty. Song women were portrayed as delicate figures and the arts reflected the elegance of the period. During the Song, kilns were widespread across the country, accounting for 75% of all kilns established throughout Chinese history.[1]

Ceramics from this era are refined, with subtle toned glazes. Song wares were revered in classical Chinese literature and were said to resemble jade, silver, snow or ice. The collection includes three such examples.

The pear-shaped green glazed yaozhou vase (cat. no. #1), the pair of icy-blue toned qingbai lobed saucers with a touch of crackle glaze (cat. no. 2), and the pair of snow-white dingyao saucers (cat. no. 3), are testimony to their poetic praise.

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 CE), and in particular during the reign of the emperors Yongzheng (1722-35 CE) and Qianlong (1735-96 CE), the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province reached their apogee.  Although these kilns were active during the earlier Song Dynasty and subsequent Yuan (1279-1368 CE) and Ming Dynasties (1368-1644 CE), these Qing emperors took a personal interest in overseeing production from the Jingdezhen kilns, demanding innovation and high quality.  

Beyond being decorative and utilitarian, the court found political, diplomatic and ceremonial uses for ceramics. [2]  In addition, the demand from domestic and export markets for ceramic objects was huge, rendering the output at Jingdezhen and satellite kilns staggering.Among the thousands of ceramics produced annually at the Jingdezhen kilns during the Qing, a renewed fascination with Chinese antiquities and Song ceramics arose. This in turn led to the creation of Song-inspired glazes for new shapes and designs. Even ancient bronze vessels from the Shang period (16th-11th century BCE) were refashioned in clay and covered with glazes imitating their metal patina. A fine example of this type of archaism in the collection is the tea-dust glaze gu vessel (cat. no. 25). 

The impetus for starting the collection was a visit to the National Palace Museum in Taipei, which houses the finest collection of imperial Chinese ceramics. Subsequent visits to the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, The British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, followed by an in-depth trip to Chinese museums led to a greater understanding and appreciation of Chinese ceramics and works of art. 

The simplicity and elegance of monochrome wares that garnered the affection of collectors and connoisseurs of the past also resonated with the Steinbergs. In particular, the minimalist lines and intensity of the monochrome glazes complemented their eye for modern and contemporary art.

Over the course of fifteen years, a collection of twenty-five monochromes from the Song and Qing Dynasties was assembled. Each piece was rigorously researched and tenderly selected, taking into consideration beauty, condition and authenticity. 

The reign marks found on the Qing monochromes (cat. no. 11 ) indicate the reign during which it was made and that the object was ‘official ware’ destined for the imperial court.[3] Over time, imperial pieces found their way to the art market and into the collections of connoisseurs and museums, thereby enhancing their provenance. The Steinberg Collection is fortunate to include porcelains with Qing reign marks, many of which came from esteemed collections, including the Sir Joseph Hotung, Sir Anthony T. Hall, Goldschlager, Hellner and Falk collections, to name a few. 

Along the way, a 17th century huanghuali table (cat. no. 26) and a Qing Dynasty huanghuali brush pot (cat. no. 27) with inscribed calligraphy were acquired. Huanghuali was a rare wood reserved for high quality furniture and works of art. Both the table and brush pot were objects that a literatus living during the Qing would have had in his home. The table may have originally displayed monochrome wares and the brush pot would have contained an assortment of brushes for ink painting and calligraphy. 

Each piece in the collection may be admired on its own as a work of art or viewed together in various combinations. Inevitably, their pure forms and innate beauty will inspire and elevate the spirit.

[1] He Li, Chinese Ceramics: A New Comprehensive Survey from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (New York: Rizzoli, 1996), 133.[2] Ibid., 266.
[3] Rosemarie Scott, For The Imperial Court: Qing Porcelain from the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art (Singapore: American Federation of Arts, 1997), 23.