Vegder's Blog

September 24, 2012


Filed under: Chinese porcelains,Japanese woodblock prints — vegder @ 10:45 am
Tags: , , , ,

Please indulge me with a little diversion before I get on with the ‘Blues’ – Every so often, I like to revisit older posts and revise them with new information and imagery. That is what I have started to do with the first post I ever worked on in May, 2009. It dealt with the subject of gourds. Since then I have learned a lot – for better or for worse – you be the judge – about what I could or could not do, or should or should not do. Now I am back at that first post and expect to add quite a bit of new material over the next few days and weeks. (Don’t worry… I won’t stop working on the ‘blues’, but I can only do so much. So please be patient with me and keep looking at both for what is new.) Let’s start with the beautiful painting by the Chinese artist Qi Baishi shown below. Click on it and you will be transported to my original post.

   © The Smithsonian – Freer Sackler Galleries

Now back to the ‘Blues’ -The Mystery of the Blue Monkey

A few weeks ago I was about to lie down and take a nap, but before I did I started flipping through the channels on TV. I stopped at a scene with Brendan Fraser driving to Vegas. His passenger was none other than Daffy Duck (ダフィー・ダック). They were off in search of the ‘Blue Monkey”, a fabulous diamond. I was intrigued, but too exhausted to stay awake. So, that might be the mystery of the blue monkey that I am referring to, but it isn’t. Although I must say… yawn… (stretch)… yawn…

   Just for kicks I am including this somewhat cropped  image of Daffy Duck which I found at Flickr. It was posted there by Annalise Johnson.

No, the mystery of this monkey lies elsewhere. Who did the print shown at the top of this post? I think the artist’s name is Setsukyō Sane. Or, as best I can tell, that is what I think it is. Also, I don’t recall ever seeing other images of blue monkeys in Japanese art. Well, maybe one. At least I haven’t seen  another one like this. That much is a mystery, but not wholly the one I am trying to solve. Then there is the issue of what the monkey represent and what he is doing. My guess – he is the Monkey King from the Journey to the West and he is eating one of the forbidden peaches of immortality from the Queen of Heaven’s celestial garden. That much seems reasonable, but still this isn’t the crux of my problem.

My problem: Why have I posted it here in a discussion of ‘blueness’? Why didn’t I save this image for a future post? I am planning on writing about the Monkey King and the Journey story later and, of course, there will be a post dedicated to the monkey of the zodiac? So, why here? [Extensive head scratching.]  Because this monkey is blue, intriguing and beautiful – that’s why. It’s just another one of those editorial decisions from a fellow who has only himself as an editor. Live with it.

It is about time we went to Turkey (トルコ)

The Topkapi Palace (トプカピ パレス) – There is a painting of Istanbul (イスタンブール) by Jean Baptiste Vanmour (1671-1737)  in the Rijksmuseum. It i supposedly a view from the terrace of the French embassy. Of course, it can only show that city from one perspective, but fortunately it also shows on the right center, on a hill, the Topkapi palace. See below. Below that is an isolated detail of that spot.

   © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Another, more intimate view of the courtyard of the palace was painted in watercolors by Luigi Mayer (ca. 1755-1803). This is dated 1788 and is in the collection of the British Museum.

     © Trustees of the British Museum

For centuries the Topkapi was the center of the universe for millions of people. Just as Rome was or Athens or Berlin or… I think you get the point. Everything in the life of the Ottoman empire centered on the Topkapi where the rulers held court. A glorious center of a glorious group, the Topkapi was elegant and gorgeous. In many ways, it was the next best thing to a heavenly paradise here on earth. And, much of it was blue.

   This photo was posted at Flickr by  tpierce.

Iznik pottery – You are probably wondering why I am talking about Iznik (イズニック). You may even be wondering what-in-the-hell is Iznik. Well, I’ll tell you. It is a town of 20,000 by a large lake somewhere to the southeast of Istanbul, a town which played a major role in the history of world ceramics starting full force in the 16th century. Actually ca. 1480 might be a better kick-off date. Fact: there are 102 books and/or pamphlets listed in the British Library which deal with Iznik pottery. The Library of Congress only lists 87. Another possible  fact: Queen Elizabeth I may have owned a tankard created there, but don’t quote me. Q. E. II, along with her hubby, visited Iznik in 2008, I think. I know they went to nearby Bursa, but not so positive about Iznik. And, don’t you go wandering off there yourself to see the glories of their ancient crafts because according to the Rough Guide to Turkey from 2003 “The town’s famous sixteenth-century ceramics, the best ever produced in Turkey, are now all but absent from İznik’s museums and mosques…”

Besides, if you don’t think you have ever heard of it before maybe you would recognize its ancient name, Nicea. You know, the Nicene Creed and stuff like that. It went back and forth between the Christians and the Muslims until 1331 when the Ottomans finally won out. According to one web site it was named in 1962 by the Second Vatican Council as the third holy city after Jerusalem and Rome. I haven’t done my fact checking yet, but that sounds reasonable enough to me. My conclusion: Considering its role in early Christian history and its impact on the world of decoration Iznik is nothing to sneeze at. Unless, of course, you are the kind of person who sneezes at just about everything. In that case, be my guest, sneeze away.

  These tiles were given to the Met by J. P. Morgan estate in 1917. They date from the last half of the 16th century.

The back and forth of cross-cultural borrowings, with a particular emphasis on Iznik pottery – In The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History by Robert Finlay it says: “Turkish potters at Iznik  in the early sixteenth century combined Chinese ornament, Ottoman court design, and European silverwork shapes to produce wares that appealed to customers throughout the Mediterranean. Venetian potters adapted floral patterns from Iznik pottery and designs alla porcellana from Chinese potters, while Chinese craftsmen replicated Venetian glass ewers in porcelain. Florentine potters decorated a pilgrim flask with a grotesque mask from ancient Rome statuary and tulips from Iznik ware. At the same time, Italian earthenware, itself shaped by pottery from Islamic Spain,influenced Iznik pottery, which sometimes combined medallion portraits in Renaissance istoriato style with spiral scrolls derived from the sultan’s imperial monogram (tughra).” This object, dated to ca. 1580-85, was given to the museum by Philippe and Edith de Montebello in 1991. He was the director of that great museum for 31 years.

According to a catalogue of the Calouste Gulbenkian collection shown at the Met in 1999 it states that many of the best craftsmen working on the Islamic tiles at Iznik in the 15th and 16th centuries were Christian Armenians. Interesting, isn’t it?

Prior to the 1530s most of the decoration was blue on white or white on blue, but after that the craftsmen at Iznik “…freed themselves from the blue-and-white schema and broadened the array of colors.” Green was the first to be added followed a decade later by violet – always as supplements to the blues. In ca. 1557 “…the celebrated red known as Armenian bole was introduced into the palette.” This red pigment has a ferrous-oxide base which in so many ways is related to the Prussian blue pigment invented in Germany in the early 18th century and which came to be so important to the coloring of Japanese prints from the mid-1820s onward. But keep in mind that  it is the cobalt blue we are focusing on here.

   © Harvard University – These tiles come from the Edwin Binney III collection. Binney (1866-1934) along with his cousin, C. Harold Smith, gave us those wonderful creations, the Crayola crayons and a lot more. Binney had a great passion for collecting and much of it was Islamic art.

Don’t be put off by the title – On page 476 of Infrared and Raman Spectroscopy in Forensic Science it says: “Iznik fritwares are among the nicest glazed pottery items from both the aesthetic and the technological point of view; the slip of angular quartz grains covering the body reflects the light, and the highly coloured palette of enamels gives a powerful gloss…” My opinion? What they said!

   © Trustees of the British Museum – These tiles are from Iznik, Turkey.

In the Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts it says that by the late 11th century Islamic architecture “…had reached the ultimate exploitation of carved and patterned brick decoration and were ready to experiment with glazed revetment….Rectangular tiles could be simply arranged in friezes, but patterns with arabesques, strap-work or epigraphy required fitting small pieces together like a jigsaw in the technique known as tile mosaic or mosaic faience (Pers. kāshi). The technique is extremely labor-intensive, and therefore expensive, but the freedom of design it permitted and the growing intensity of the colors obtained  justified the cost. The most common glaze was light or turquoise blue, readily available from cobalt deposits in Iran.”

Mort than 20,000 Iznik tiles – “In November 2006, when Pope Benedict XVI visited Turkey, he made a stop at the seventeenth‐century Blue Mosque, so called for the more than twenty thousand handcrafted cobalt-blue Iznik tiles that adorn its interior. A testament to Ottoman grandeur, the great mosque is an architectural marvel of unrivaled beauty.” This is quoted from Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World by Vali Nasr. Below is an image of part of the dome posted at Flickr by McBadger.

Another derailment: this time onto the Rhodian track – Do you ever get the feeling while reading any of my posts that I – and you, by extension – have become derailed? A veritable train wreck. Well, I do often. Again I want to take you back to my channel surfing on TV. The other day I watched part of a documentary about the glory days of the Ottoman Empire – with a heavy emphasis on the siege of Rhodes by Suleiman the Magnificent. Rhodes was occupied by the Knights of St. John who had fortified themselves on this island after being expelled from the Holy Land. The Ottomans needed to control this island if they were going to have unobstructed trade in that part of the Mediterranean. They succeeded – Rhodes fell in 1522.

Then a couple of days ago I started reading that for some time Europeans used to refer to Iznik pottery as being Rhodian because that is where they thought it came from. Since I am no expert I don’t know the origin of this confusion, but I now know that it existed at least from the mid-19th century and possibly into the early 20th. (I will try to clear this up in time.) Not only that but the name seems to have stuck around for a while even after people knew where the items were made. Examples: 1) there is an Iznik dish in the Victoria and Albert Museum that was sold by Christie’s in May 1905. It was listed in their catalogue  Oriental Porcelain, Rhodian and Damascus Ware, Objects of Art and Decorative Furniture. Below is that dish dating from ca. 1530-35. It shows a snake creeping up on an unsuspecting bird. Look closely. You should be able to make that out.

   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

European ceramicists even tried to emulate the ‘Rhodian‘ style. There is a piece in the Musee d’Orsay by Edmond Lachenal (1855-1948) dating from ca. 1885 done in this style, i.e., that of Iznik.

    © DR – RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

In the Victoria and Albert there is another dish by Lachenal from 1889 and made in the ‘Damascus style’, closely related to that of Iznik. I have included it because I thought it was too beautiful to pass up.

   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Even in England Wedgwood tried its hand at Rhodian ware in the 1920, but its sales may not have met expectations. Below is an example from ca. 1926. This too is from the Victoria and Albert. What a great museum!

   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The deadly gnome Cobalt ( コバルト), which is the main element used for blue coloring in glass and ceramics decorations. It is not found by itself and have to be separated from the other minerals it is found with. The name comes from the German ‘kobold’ which means gnome (or imp or elf or goblin), because miners who worked with it often became ill and died. They blamed gnomes for this, but it was probably the arsenic. Below is an ore sample from Marienbad, Germany. It was posted at commons.wikimedia by Geomartin. The ‘Co’ in this picture is identified as cobalt-arsenide.

Just in case you were wondering here is a detail from one of the most brilliantly produced, most obsessively constructed paintings of all time, Richard Dadd’s Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke. The full painting is in the Tate and is completely mind blowing. I have isolated one particular gnome-like figure from an image I found at commons.wikimedia. See if you don’t agree he looks like he could be a little malevolent at times.

   This detail is only a small part of a small painting, 21 1/4″ x 15 1/2″. The full painting is one of the most fantastic and jam-packed images I have ever seen. Look it up if you are interested. Like I said, it will boggle your mind.

Cobalt (Co) is number 27 on the periodic table. Nickel is number 28 and the origins of its name are similar to that of cobalt. Miners in Upper Saxony called it Kupgernickel or the Devil’s copper in the 17th century because it was often mistaken for copper ore. Old Nick had been known for some time as the devil. So, when the Swedish Baron Axel Fredrik Cronstadt isolated the mineral in 1751 he called it nickel. Spooky stuff, eh?

I said “Do you speak-a my language? He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich. My goodness, the things I learn when working on these posts. Turns out that marmite and vegemite (ベジマイト) are high in vitamin B12 and B12 contains cobalt – minus the gnome, I’m sure. But there it is B12, vegemite and cobalt all rolled up in one little package. Bon appétit! And… just in case you can’t quite place those lyrics they come from the land down under from a group called Men At Work.

   I found this at commons.wikimedia.

The man was scammed – he paid for sapphires, but was given cobalt – The Abbé Suger (1081-1151) was no dummy. From peasant stock he grew up to be one of the most powerful and wealthiest men in France. Friend of the king, he oversaw the rebuilding of the  abbey of St. Denis dedicated to that nation’s patron saint. Even if he didn’t know the finer points of stained glass production he did know beauty and quality and we are all better off for this.

There is a story as related by Henry Adams in his Mont Saint Michel and Chartres that Suger who “…shirked neither trouble nor expense…” had commissioned a Greek artist who cheated him. Citing an earlier source Adams wrote: “He sought carefully for makers of windows and workmen in glass of exquisite quality, especially in that made of sapphires in great abundance that were pulverized and melted up in the glass to give it the blue colour which he delighted to admire.” The ‘materia saphirorum’ was evidently something precious,–as precous as crude sapphires would have been, — and the words imply beyond question that the artist asked for sapphires and that Suger paid for them; yet all specialists agree that the stone known as sapphire, if ground, could not produce translucent color at all. The blue which Suger loved and which is probably the same as that of these Chartres windows, cannot be made out of sapphires. Probably the ‘materia saphirorum’ means cobalt only, but whatever it was, the glassmakers seem to agree that this glass of 1140-50 is the best ever made.” Of course, that is quite a claim, but remember this book was first privately printed in 1904. Cobalt or not, it doesn’t really matter. The windows speak for themselves.

There is a wonderful photo – see below – posted at commons.wikimedia by Bordeled of the interior of St. Denis showing the transept with its rose window.

Below is a detail of the main window extracted from that posting. Next to it is part of another window from this site. Is it any wonder the Abbé thought it was colored by sapphires? But we know better don’t we. I found this one at Flickr posted by photo daniel.


Just for good measure I thought you might want to see an image of  Suger himself enshrined in glass. Here he is presented as a supplicant before, what I believe is, Mary and the Archangel  Gabriel. This, too, was posted at Flickr by photo daniel.

Chinese blue and white: The Cobalt Story – I think I will save this for “I’M SO BLUE – 3” or higher.

Now back to the aizuri-e (藍摺絵) topic

The 1830s

   A playbill by Kunisada showing Onoe Kikugorō III in 11 different roles.

Below is a Kunisada aizuri-e fan print from the early 1830s. Lovely design.

   Brooklyn Museum of Art

By way of a comparison and contrast, is a Hiroshige aizuri-e fan print from 1855 in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum shown below. Not only does it differ stylistically – I like/love both – but the use of the inks seem to be somewhat different. Of course, we have to keep in mind that the example in Brooklyn may not be as fresh as that of the one in London.

   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another fan print from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum is also by Hiroshige from 1855. It shows the great waterfall at Oyama.

   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Aizuri-e as a backdrop – Quite a few prints exist showing a figure in the foreground, in color, with a stage-scenery type background in blue. I suppose this should be considered a sub-genre or even a sub-sub-genre. But whatever you want to call it it does work terrifically well – most of the time. Below are two examples. The first is a Kunisada fan print – continuing the theme shown above – which is absolutely gorgeous. A masterpiece which could have as easily been posted at our ‘Sheer’ page.

Kunisada also created a series of prints in the 1830s of actors in casual attire standing before blue landscapes. Here it is Ichikawa Ebizō V.

While a few years before that – Kunisada created a diptych of two unlicensed prostitutes, shown in the foreground – completely printed in shades of blue – before a landscape – also in blues – but the catch here is the reddish light of a sunset (or sunrise) just over the mountainous horizon.

Hokusai: From the sublime to the mundane

   Hokusai, ca. 1834, Bullfinch and drooping cherry

   Hokusai, ca. 1830, Digging for bamboo shoots in the snow


   Toyokuni II of an oiran accompanied by her kamuros.

There is another set of aizuri-e prints by Toyokuni II showing beautiful women in simpler garb. In each there is a prominent bat cartouche in the upper right corner. Clearly these could have been placed with the bat images, but it is aizuri-e I am concentrating on right now.

   Art Gallery of New South Wales

 Eisen print of an oiran, the highest class of courtesans.

Flowers – Below is a Sadahide fan print said to date from the early 1840s..

Ever been to D. C.? I don’t think so – The triptych shown below is Yoshikazu’s 1861 version of an older copper plate etching said to illustrate a typical scene from the American capital. Yeah, right.

The tradition continues into the 20th century – Aizuri-e are so stunning when done well that several artists and publishers continued to produce these in the last century. Especially prominent among these were Yoshida and Hasui, especially Hasui.

   Hausi’s Yama Temple dates from 1919.

The image of the Acropolis at night from 1925 shown below is by Yoshida.

For more information about Japanese prints and culture please visit our other web site at

The Lapis Lazuli Story

Just so you will know – I started this post with a Japanese woodblock print of a blue monkey, but what I didn’t know was that there is actually an animal called a blue monkey (Cercopithecus mitis). Frequently I discover things I wish I hadn’t read and that is true here too. The blue monkey is hunted for its meat in Eastern Africa. Damn.

Below is a picture I found at commons.wikimedia posted by Markrosenrosen.


Like a shot out of the blue – or into it – Recently a friend gave me a copy of a New York Times book review that discussed the numerous attempts made mostly by madmen on the life of Queen Victoria. Toward the end there was one line about the last attempted assassination made by Roderick Maclean, “…a man infuriated to homicidal pitch by the promiscuous public display of the color blue”, a color which Maclean believed God had reserved for his use only.

That’s odd, because as I recall, by 1882 when Maclean tried to kill the Queen she was in the habit of wearing only black as can be seen in this rendition of her by William Nicholson.

   © National Portrait Gallery, London

Perhaps Maclean, a total nut, was thinking of this Minton plate, seen below, which goes heavy on the blues. But, probably not.

   © V&A Images

Naturally Maclean was institutionalized for this assault, but he wasn’t the only one. An earlier attempt was made by Arthur O’Connor. His crime may have had a more political motive, the Irish problem, but by 1912 when he was 58 years old “…and his hair was graying, the cause of his madness was listed as ‘Onanism.’ ” That is not a good sign for most of us.

Another superfluous note – all of my posts have these: Many of my best friends pronounce the word often with a sounded letter ‘t’. This is not how I was raised, but to keep the peace I am doing my best to change my ways. Wish me luck. It ain’t easy. 


For those of you who would like to see more information about Japanese art and culture please visit my other web site at

For a ton more information – scattered and diverse – visit my index/glossary pages. You will find links to numerous individual pages about half way down the home page. Just click on any of them and then brace yourself. Enjoy the ride! Thanks!

1 Comment »

  1. of-T-en? huh? I hope not!. One says “soften” – no T – but yes when “soft’. No “T” please. As for often, same rule, since ‘oft’ is firmly WITH the T.

    Comment by liz read — June 12, 2013 @ 10:08 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: