Wednesday, May 25, 2011

When a Horse Isn't Just a Horse

By John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections

I cant put my finger on it, but it seems like at every museum that I’ve ever interned, volunteered or worked (with the exception of a historic battlefield) something from China always appears. In my first experience it was ceramic jugs that had been turned into electric lights. A few years later at a different institution I ran into two statues, a horse and a camel, referred to as Sancai (pronounced sāncǎi), which were previously owned by an Asian art collector. Fast-forward three years and lo and behold, now it’s two other horses, one made into an electric lamp and the other left as a statue.

My first reaction was “Hey, I didn’t know we had any Sancai pieces in the collection!” That is, until I saw them. Sancai is a glazing technique, literally meaning “three colors,” using different elements that turn to yellow, green, and white when fired in a kiln. While the form is certainly correct (Sancai pieces tend to be horses or camels, and this prancing horse is a common theme), it’s pretty clear from the surface that these were never really glazed and the paint has certainly seen better days.

Electric lamp, date unknown, earthenware, N0547.1948(01) #1

Statue, date unknown, earthenware, N0547.1948(02)

Could they be from the Tang Dynasty, which is when this art form was at its height? Certainly, but there’s no way to know for sure until an expert looks at them and compares them to other known pieces and styles of construction. In the meantime, they’ll remain safe and sound in storage for someone else to find and become interested in.

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