Thursday, December 15, 2011

79. Kakiemon Elephants (Japan, AD 1650-1700)

The Multi-National Corporation!
We’re now getting into the era when several of our principals repeat; the story associated with these beautiful elephants shares similarities with the stories of several objects we now know and love. Like Dürer’s German vision of an Indian rhino, what you’ve got here is a work of Japanese art representing a creature the Japanese had never seen, an Indian elephant (you can tell the type of elephant ‘cause of the ears and tusk). It’s done in porcelain, which as you remember from the David Vases the Chinese had developed with Iranian influence; the Japanese bought the secrets of how to make porcelain from the Koreans, who had smuggled it out of China (like the lady with the silkworms in her headdress)...because the Koreans and Japanese have different national schools and aesthetics from the Chinese, the art of porcelain-making developed slightly differently in those countries, as long ago did the art of roof-tile-makery. But this object really goes multi-national because of the first multi-national corporation, the Dutch East India Company, which has exclusive trading rights to Japan in that odd era of shoguns and samurais. (Japan’s isolationist policy, which we spoke about with regard to those ceremonial bronze mirrors, didn’t really ease up until 1853, by which time the Americans were coming to it from the east. Back when the only door to Japan was on the western seaboard, it was easier to keep it closed.) The Dutch traded these Japanese porcelain elephants, made in the strictly Japanese “Kakiemon” school of porcelain-makery, to England, where people were crazy for porcelain; along with other porcelain animals, they probably ended up decorating a mantlepiece on some rich Brit’s English country house.

It’s a lot of effort to go to for this luxury of all luxuries...particularly when you find out that learning the craft of making Kakiemon pottery requires an apprenticeship of 30-40 years! MacGregor tracked down a representative of the family who’s held the secrets of Kakiemon all these centuries, talked to him (with an interpreter) on the phone from Japan, and needless to say they’d like these priceless elephants back. Even in the 17th century, the value of these pieces, in terms of trade, would have been something like $10,000. So perhaps the moral of the story is, once your basic needs are met, you go to odd lengths, creating multi-national corporations and planet-spinning trade routes and life-long apprenticeships, in pursuit of pretty things that nobody really needs.

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