About the exhibit

Asian Enameled Works

Enamel is a type of treated glass, formed by melting ground sand, soda, and coloring agents. It can be used as a filler material or diluted and applied like paint. Once fired, it attains a gloss and brightness that is generally unobtainable by mineral-based paints. Furthermore, unlike paint, enamel does not fade or darken over time. 

The earliest use of enamels dates to ancient Egypt (1400 BC). However, it was the Byzantine Empire that popularized enameling as a decorative technique. Their artists perfected a method known as cloisonné

Cloisonné works are made when small strips of wire are added to a metal or ceramic work. These wires create compartments known as cloisons. The compartments are then worked on with an enamel paste and fired in a kiln. The different cloisons remain visible upon completion. 

Artists in the Byzantine Empire used thinner wires. This allowed for more varied and detailed decorations. During the 13th and 14th centuries, Muslim traders introduced the technology to East Asia. By the end of the 14th century, Chinese artists were using enameling techniques on metal wares and ceramics.

East Asia developed a rich ceramic tradition relatively early (10,000 BC). At first, the area produced simple, monochrome ceramics. However, artists quickly began using mineral-based paints and colored-slips to produce polychrome wares. They also started using finer clays and glazes to create stronger, larger containers. Artists focused on manipulating ever-higher temperatures, which allowed for finer ceramics, and eventually porcelain.

The higher temperatures created watertight attributes and a larger variety of forms. Unfortunately, it also burnt off many surface-applied pigments. This narrowed the color palette of the wares. The introduction of enamels by Muslim traders was revolutionary. It expanded the colors available for decoration. Enamel could be applied over glazed works, which were then re-fired at temperatures that melted the enamels but didn’t affect the original ceramic.

Enameled ceramics became more elaborate as the tradition developed. For example, by the 17th century, artists in southern China were applying enamel without using partitioning wires. Enameling as a whole soon spread to the rest of East Asia. Polychrome ceramics from the region remain popular export wares to this day.

Pictured: Floating Cloisonné Demitasse set, ca. 1920. Japanese. Gift of Nathaniel and Lana Grey.

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