Wednesday 25 February 2015

A new kind of alchemy

A few months ago I had the pleasure of shepherding a group of excitable seven-year olds around the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The highlights of our trip, according to the consensus view, were Guy Fawkes' lantern, a mummified cat from ancient Egypt and the contents of our packed lunch. So when a glass case of Eastern porcelain caught my fancy, I knew I was going out on a limb. There was a typed notice inside the case that particularly intrigued me: 

East and West: a difference of opinion
In the West an object is considered more beautiful and valuable if it is in perfect and original condition. Contrast this with the Far East where imperfections and repairs can be considered to enhance the beauty and significance of ceramics. The dish [below], showing the rising moon, has been mended with gilded lacquer. The gilding draws attention to the restored area. A Western mender or restorer would have aimed to create an invisible repair.

Porcelain dish, Arita, Japan, 1600-1699
Porcelain dish, Arita, Japan, 1600-1699 
The rim has been repaired with gilded lacquer using a technique known as maki-e

What impressed me most about the Eastern attitude was the idea that flaws could be used to create something uniquely beautiful. By making a virtue of imperfection - or even calamity in the case of a bowl that had been shattered and stuck back together - the ancient restorers had embellished each object with a backstory of its own. 

Tea bowl, Vietnam, 1500s
Tea bowl, Vietnam, 1500s
Gold lacquer has been used to stick the fragments together (tomotsugi)

It was too good a homily to ignore. There were so many possible themes: the evils of our disposable society, the process of ageing or even the perils of plastic surgery in an era where we are under constant pressure to appear perfect. 

For me, however, it was all about triumph over adversity. Despite defects and setbacks, people too have the opportunity to emerge from catastrophe or defeat, gilded in metaphorical gold. Failure becomes a mere plot twist with infinite possibilities for character development. 

But when all said and done, does Japanese porcelain really trump a mummified cat or a packed lunch? I suspect it depends on your age and choice of sandwich.


Emma by Jane Austen
A wealthy young woman goes on a voyage of self-discovery. Her personal flaws, youthful hubris and some ill-advised match-making lead to errors of judgement, but she will triumph in the end.

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