For much of the second half of the 20th Century, the collecting of Chinese works of art was mostly in the domain of the Western upper middle classes, those with a healthy disposable income, an insatiable appetite for parading cultural cache, and a fascination and love for other times and places. Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule, and in this case noticeable exceptions were overseas Chinese collectors (from Hong Kong, the United States, Europe and Southeast Asia). The lack of collectors in China’s mainland was largely due to the remodelling of Chinese society that took place after 1949.
Decades later, with the rise of wealth in China due to ‘the economic miracle’, the tables in collecting turned, and indeed I remember all of a sudden seeing serious competition from mainland Chinese buyers begin in the middle of the 1990s, even in Australian auction rooms. Along with this polar change in collectors from West to East came a change in the centre of scholarship in Chinese art works, from Western institutions and scholars to those in China.
The Western style of collecting is largely based on an encyclopaedic approach, where elements of the collection are arranged by classification in the house and sequestered away behind cold glass in cabinets to be admired, as if in a museum. Of course, this stems from the modern concept of the public museum, born from the European Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, where objects from nature and human artefacts were studied, catalogued and classified, to assist in understanding the universe and Man’s place therein. The Western private collecting style was really a mirror of that museum style.
In contrast, many younger Chinese collectors (while still very much interested in classification and an evidence-based approach to their collecting), are also interested in using these objects for their original purpose. Let us not forget that a vase was originally created to hold flowers, and bowls and cups were intended to be vessels for the service of food and drink.
It is through the renewed use of these historical objects in daily life that collectors feel more deeply connected with their culture, and also with the context of the object itself. They are able to imbibe the spirit of the age when the object was created, and links to the noble, scholarly, religious and philosophical roots in Chinese people are felt very deeply. Putting these artworks to use is also a wonderful demonstration of pride in place of origin, and a pride in high Chinese culture which spans the ages and has given the world so much.
There is a growing shift towards using old and ancient art objects for their original purposes, whether it be a Huanghuali table or brushpot in the home office, a Cizhou vase for flowers or a Jianyao hare’s fur tea bowl for taking time to relax, drink tea with friends, and talk about China, past, present and future.
CARL WANTRUP / Asian Art Consultant