Zheng Hong 郑宏  Chinese Elements in Western Contemporary Art: Thilo Westermann's Works as an Example (2022)

When he creates his reverse glass paintings, Thilo Westermann first applies black colour to the rear side of a glass sheet, then etches from it a motif dot by dot with the point of a needle (fig. 1), and finally applies a layer of white colour. If we view the work from the front, the white colour shines through the etching, while the densely varied dots create the illusion of a three-dimensional picture (fig. 2). Using this highly demanding technique, it may easily take three to six weeks to create a work, as this process requires exceptional effort. Westermann’s reverse glass paintings are generally small (21 × 15 cm or 30 × 21 cm), but then he has them scanned, enlarged sixfold and printed once; the effects are more evident on the enlarged unique print reverse glass than on the reverse glass painting. Seen close-up, the unique print makes the composition’s intricate dot structure clearly perceptible (fig. 3) – it feels as if we were contemplating and traversing a vast landscape made of dots. Observing Westermann’s unique prints from a certain distance, they convey a sense of peace and tranquillity; they seem permeated by a retrospective flavour of antiquity as well as by a cascade of intense effects and hues of reminiscence. His technique, method and style are unparalleled. Close-up, his unique prints might seem abstract, while actually they blend a number of technical and artistic skills.

Westermann has a passion for flowers and often presents them arranged in porcelain vases, mostly exported from China. To better capture the figurative nature of flowers, he conducts extensive research on horticulture and flower breeding and thus has developed a detailed understanding of their shape, appearance and structure. However, he does not simply describe flowers mimetically. His creations are based on careful selection according to the cultivation histories of the plants. He presents flowers as ideals that bear in themselves their various modes of existence, such as blooming and withering. For example, in a work for the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum (BNM) in Munich, he combined three species: Paeonia lactiflora (Chinese herbaceous peony), Vanda Miss Joaquim (the national flower of Singapore) and Vanda coerulea (another flowering plant of foreign origin) (fig. 2). Each is presented in an ideal state, its particular form highlighted by distinctive black-and-white effects.

Another central motif in Westermann’s works is Chinese-style porcelain vases. While these stand for antiquity, the flowers represent the blooming of different life forces and black and white signify the perpetual nature of time. Contemplating such works leaves the viewer with profound and lasting impressions.

Although I know little about contemporary art, I am happy to follow the artist’s request to discuss, in somewhat condensed form, the painted decorations on Chinese (i.e. export) porcelains. I will also consider the traditional Chinese culture of flowers (including peonies) presented in Westermann’s works. This may help viewers, in particular Western viewers, to better understand the artistic effects created by the multifaceted cultural elements featured in his art.

1. Chinese Flower Vases and their Decorative Patterns

In the BNM exhibition, Westermann’s reverse glass painting Paeonia lactiflora, Vanda coerulea, and Vanda Miss Joaquim in a Sino-French Vessel (2017) was juxtaposed with the original vase depicted in the painting (fig. 4). The vase is a piece of trade porcelain from the Kangxi period (1662–1722) of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). In the painting, it holds several fresh flowers: a Chinese peony rendered in a Western style, a Vanda coerulea and a Southeast Asian Vanda Miss Joaquim, the national flower of Singapore. The flowers, presented in full and luxuriant bloom, exude vigour.

The painting also features three silver beast-shaped feet, which were added to the base of the porcelain vase in Paris, thus highlighting the combination of Chinese and Western elements. It is executed in the precise and delicate manner of Chinese fine-line brush (gongbi) drawing; to be accomplished, such work requires extraordinary calmness and attentiveness.

Westermann’s Paeonia lactiflora, Vanda coerulea and Vanda Miss Joaquim in a Sino-French Vessel (fig. 2) borrows from a particular type of vase, called “open light”, which was manufactured during the Kangxi period (1662–1722) and was common among seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Chinese export porcelain. Vases of this type have a blue ground and flower-shaped panels featuring painted images of flowers and cavernous stones. The term “open light” (kaiguang) (also “open window”, kaichuang) refers to the panels reserved in white on the blue ground. Shaped like flowers, circles, diamonds and other geometrical objects, these panels are drawn onto the surface of the vessel and contain various kinds of pictures that differ from those outside the panels and highlight the main theme of the porcelain piece. Such design was influenced by decorations found on foreign goldware and silverware brought to China from Arabic regions during the Tang dynasty (618– 907). Popularized on porcelain of the Song dynasty (1061–1279), it became a generic, compositional type of porcelain decoration and was common during the Kangxi period of the Qing dynasty, as was the related porcelain among the trade commodities prevalent at that time. Especially widespread are compositions consisting of four panels reserved in white on a blue ground and holding different flowering plants, often representing the four seasons (e.g. peonies, camellia, chrysanthemums and plum blossoms) and depicted in combination with stones, grasses and herbs. Such flower images recall designs presenting small landscapes of cavernous stones and flowering plants and became a characteristic feature of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Chinese trade porcelain. Various porcelains (e.g. blue-and-white, polychrome, blue-ground with panels reserved in white, three-coloured) manufactured in minyao (i.e. privately owned kilns) in the town of Jingdezhen were thus decorated with these designs.

In the Age of Discovery (c. 1400–1800), Chinese porcelain was appreciated as a prestigious commodity. Widely disseminated abroad, either as imperial court rewards or via official and personal trade, it became a globalized commercial product and considerably impacted social life, art and culture wherever it was imported. Although Chinese porcelain was briefly banned from maritime trade (haijin) by the Qing government during the early stage of the dynasty, the Maritime Silk Road evolved as a major trade route between East and West after the ban was lifted by Emperor Kangxi in 1684. Large quantities of Chinese porcelain were exported and steadily increasing demand on foreign markets brought soaring profits, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when owning Chinese porcelain became a significant symbol of wealth.

These developments greatly spurred exports. As European sales increased, trade porcelain symbolized the affluence of the noble classes, whose appreciation became ever greater. In the second half of the seventeenth century, Europe, America and other countries throughout the world would buy Chinese porcelain through all sorts of channels. As a luxury item, it was collected and displayed at European courts and in aristocratic homes. Some pieces were displayed in halls, others were hung on walls for decorative purposes. Wealthy families had special cabinets fitted to exhibit their Chinese porcelains and other exotic goods, while royal and aristocratic families across Europe had Chinese porcelain houses and rooms built.1

For instance, Louis XIV (r. 1638–1715), a passionate collector of Oriental and Far Eastern objects eager to popularize Chinese art, gave orders to decorate the Grand Trianon (also known as the Trianon de Porcelaine) at the Palace of Versailles with porcelain-like tiles, to be presented to the Marquise de Montespan (1640–1707) as a precious gift.2 Another example is Augustus II the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland (r. 1694–1733): as obsessed with Chinese porcelain as Louis XIV, he spared neither trouble nor expense to purchase it. In 1717, he traded 600 fully armed Saxon soldiers for 151 pieces of Chinese porcelain with the neighbouring “Soldier King” Frederick William I of Prussia (r. 1713–1740). These pieces, also known as the “soldier porcelains”, are still kept at the Dresden Zwinger in Germany.3

When porcelain was displayed in European homes, as a rule five pieces – including jars (jiangjunguan), mallet vases (bangchuiping), beaker vases (gu) and other shapes – were placed side by side in the hall or by the fireplace. Their large size (over 40 cm in height on average) made them especially well suited for display in high and large halls, where they could fully emanate all their splendour and dignity. One example is housed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam: a group of azure-glazed vases with blue-and-white panel designs of landscapes and flowering plants, consisting of three jars and two mallet vases (fig. 5). This manner of arranging and displaying porcelain objects was popular in European aristocratic homes during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The form and function of the imported objects did not always correspond entirely with the prevalent European lifestyle at the time. Based on considerations related to furnishing, usage and decoration, a number of pieces were reworked or remodelled to varying degrees – either their original structure and design or their functional use were modified. In some cases, they were slightly retouched and re-ornamented; in other cases, their Western owners added metal ornaments to the mouths, lids, feet and other parts so that such pieces would serve both practical and aesthetic purposes.

By comparison, the “open light” vase with polychrome reserved-panel design of flowering plants housed at the BNM in Munich was significantly remodelled (figs. 23–29). Perhaps because its neck had been damaged, the owner had it removed and had the vase cut at its shoulder. The neck was then re-ornamented by fitting a lid knob and silver ring, such that it could be used as a lid. Another silver ring was added to the cut-off section in the upper part of the body. The body and lid thus became a new porcelain container. In the lower section, three silver feet shaped like “fish dragons” (yulong, or ichthyosaurs, fish lizards), were added as a means of support. A hole was drilled into the body, possibly to create a convenient outlet for liquids, so that the vase could be used as a water dispenser. This remodelling process, by which an ordinary piece of porcelain was transformed into a porcelain and silver composite, created a highly decorative yet pragmatic object by newly combining Chinese and Western elements. The silver elements were mounted by French craftsmen in the eighteenth century, when Rococo art was flourishing in France.

The body of the porcelain vessel in the BNM collection has a blue ground with panels reserved in white to feature camellia and chrysanthemum flowers as well as polychrome painted cavernous stones. The blue of the ground and the multiple colours on the white panels create a bright and strong contrast, which is particularly functional in highlighting the motifs of rocks and flowering plants. Some porcelain vases of the same type combine a blue ground and blue-and-white panel designs, as seen for example in the mallet vase housed at the Rijksmuseum (fig. 6). The Chinese name for the “mallet vase” (bangchuiping) refers to its shape. Modelled on the wooden sticks used by ancient Chinese people to beat their laundry, it appeared in the Kangxi period as a novel type. Were the piece at the BNM not segmented, its form – a blue-ground mallet vase with polychrome panel designs of flowering plants – would place it in the same category as that held in Amsterdam. Their design, however, differs slightly: one has only blue-and-white images, the other only multicoloured ones.

Both vases were manufactured at public kilns in Jingdezhen. This explains why their decorative content was exempt from the restrictions imposed on model patterns by the imperial court. Accordingly, they are more expressive and vigorous and display their subjects more richly. They are also representative of the Kangxi period.

Westermann pays special attention to the decorative designs and patterns found on porcelain, which he assimilates into his motifs of Chinese vases holding flowers. For instance, the panel design of the vase-dispenser depicted in his reverse glass painting Paeonia lactiflora, Vanda coerulea, and Vanda Miss Joaquim in a Sino-French Vessel (fig. 2) features one of the major decorative themes of Ming and Qing porcelains: flowering plants and cavernous stones. Not only do both subjects represent abstract patterns, they also exist in reality as elements of traditional Chinese gardens, where they were – and still are – positioned in more or less elaborated constellations according to the dimensions of the environment. As well as resembling miniature, bonsai-like landscape designs, they often stood on the desks of traditional Chinese literati (wenren, “men of letters”). Whether as decorative elements in flower gardens or as rustic and charming small landscapes for idle display, they convey the conceptual mindset and creative environment pursued by traditional Chinese literati and scholar-officials; as such, they present an important subject of Chinese literati painting.

The stones seen on the porcelain vases are “Taihu stones” (Taihu shi), found in abundance in the Lake Tai (Taihu) region of China and highly suited to decorating Chinese- style courtyards. They were indispensable as well as beautiful building blocks for the precious rock formations in imperial gardens. Their particular shape results from limestone eroding through contact with water or acidic red soil, which may etch many holes into the stone. Each stone is different and unique, as if exquisitely carved, and thus conveys a precious and rare spirit.

Taihu stones are masterpieces of nature’s uncanny, superlative workmanship and are famous for being “ugly, strange and crude” (chou guai lou). Their intricately wrought shapes emit a lyrical air of the peculiar and unusual. Beginning in the middle period of the Tang dynasty (629–756), these stones attracted the attention and appreciation of the Chinese literati and were soon afterwards incorporated into flower gardens.

In his Record of the Lake Tai Stone (Taihu shi ji), the poet Bai Juyi (772–846) wrote: “In sum, the three mountains and five peaks, the hundred caves and thousand ravines, all are intricately clustered and bunched. Hundreds of yards at one grasp; thousands of miles in one glance, all can be taken in while sitting”.4 This suggests that Taihu stones are able to condense, in a single twist, lofty mountains and cavernous ravines, they can span a thousand miles and embrace and traverse myriad universes. The preface to the Treatise on Stones by Yunlin (Yunlin shi pu), written during the Song dynasty, says: “The essence of the universe is condensed, its energy is merged into stones … Though no larger than your fist, each holds in store the beauty of one thousand rocks. Large ones can be arranged in the garden; small ones can be placed on the desk”.5 Expressed here is the notion that Taihu stones combine in themselves the essential spirit of Heaven and Earth. Although they can even fit into the palm of one’s hand, they contain the beautiful appearances of innumerable rocks. In Chinese culture and tradition larger Taihu stones are displayed in flower gardens and guesthouses, while smaller ones are placed on writing desks.

Ever since the Tang dynasty, literati and scholar-officials have shown their appreciation for Taihu stones, which were highly esteemed, even worshipped, by literati for successive dynasties. The ideas behind such reverence are closely related to the influence of Daoism, according to which the veneration of nature and the understanding of “The Way” (Dao) as its supreme law stands opposed to the notion of formal beauty, based on appearances that please the eye. Daoist belief also advocates the return to a genuine state of purity and simplicity.

Taihu stones are not created, intentionally, by axe and chisel but by the heavens. Their forms and patterns bear marvels and oddities, the holes in their bodies originated by themselves: delicately wrought, with transparent passageways, they most aptly embody the beauty of the “frail, wrinkled, seeping, leaking” (shou zhou tou lou).

During the Song dynasty, the fondness for strange rocks became a gusto of sorts, one that was advocated in particular by the emperors and scholar-officials. Song Emperor Huizong (r. 1100–1126) had the imperial garden named Mountain of Stability (Genyue) built specially in the capital Bianliang. In Suzhou, he founded the Jiangnan Provisioning Agency (Jiangnan yingfengju) and the Convoy of Flowers and Stones (Huashi gang), which was responsible for quarrying and transporting famous stones, including large quantities of Taihu, from the Jiangnan region to the capital.

It was also during the Song dynasty that a large number of manuals about stones were written, such as Du Wan’s Treatise on Stones by Yunlin mentioned above or Chang Mao’s Treatise on Stones of the Xuanhe Reign (Xuanhe shi pu). Taihu stones were described and appraised as soulful and spirited embodiments of moral qualities. Such properties corresponded to the mindset of the traditional Chinese scholar-literati, who sought to transcend the worldly domain in their quest for liberation from vulgar conventions through personal refinement.

Although often positioned as solitaires in old gardens, cavernous stones were frequently depicted in combination with chrysanthemum, Chinese flowering crab apple (haitang, bot. Malus spectabilis), peony, Chinese rose (yueji, bot. Rosa chinensis), camellia and other flowering plants. Such depictions represent small-scale landscapes and were taken from courtyard sceneries of southern China, as found among imperial palace gardens and common people’s courtyards, as well as from charming rural sceneries. They have the characteristic features of Chinese design and composition and the distinctive quality of a “cultural symbol”.

The theme of stones and flowering plants is frequent in ancient Chinese art, especially in the works of imperial court painters. For example, a gold-inlaid lacquer dish from the Ming dynasty’s Jiajing period (1522– 1566) (fig. 7) shows how this subject was painted onto lacquer with gold and colour in a distinctive courtly manner. In contrast, the outside of a famille rose porcelain bowl from the Qing dynasty’s Yongzheng period (1723–1735) (fig. 8) presents in fresh, bright colours a similar motif, that of a stone accompanied by chrysanthemum flowers and bamboo. A famille rose teapot from the Qianlong period (1736–1795) (fig. 9) features a spherical flower pattern on a green background, while a cavernous stone with chrysanthemums is depicted in a rectangular panel reserved in white. The decorative panel image, and the flower pattern painted on the green background, create a bright contrast, highlighting the main theme and revealing a smooth fine-brush technique and exquisite craftsmanship. Moreover, a Qianlong bird-and-flower album painting (fig. 10) again presents a composition of chrysanthemums and a cavernous stone. The work was executed using the guarong technique, according to which split thin velvet is spread, glued and applied with colour according to the preconceived design.

These examples show that the stone-and-flower design, widely used during the Qing dynasty, is a traditional Chinese decorative scheme. While its long-established pictorial patterns were initially depicted in a realistic manner, by the time of the Ming and Qing periods it was believed that “the picture must be meaningful and auspicious” (tu bi youyi, yi bi jixiang), a notion that endowed the works with even more implied meanings, metaphors and analogies.

The export porcelain vase exhibited together with Westermann’s reverse glass painting (figs. 23–29) features cavernous stones in combination with two types of chrysanthemums (yellow and red) and orange daylilies (xuancao, bot. Hemerocallis fulva). Such composite designs – of chrysanthemums with other elements, each having different meanings – were quite common; most popular were depictions of chrysanthemums with plum blossoms, orchids and bamboo, representing the four plants considered the “four gentlemen” (si junzi) in ancient China. Chrysanthemums, handsome yet not flamboyant, unyieldingly withstand frost and bloom even when all other flowers have withered. Standing out from the crowd, for the literati of old they symbolized a lofty and noble person characterized by an unperturbed, unbending stance. Similarly, chrysanthemums were endowed with the spirit of the prototypical scholar- hermit, whose reclusive life out in nature transcended worldly concerns and vulgar customs. As such, they were also known as the “retired scholars among flowers” (hua zhong yinshi). Blooming during autumn, chrysanthemums have come to symbolize that season. The ancients therefore called September the “chrysanthemum month” (juyue), as shown, for example, by a polychrome “twelve-month” cup, whose design of flowering plants dates back to the Qing dynasty’s Kangxi period (fig. 11).6

Chrysanthemums, moreover, signify long or even eternal duration, permanence and resilience. For this reason, their combination with cavernous stones found its way into painting and the applied arts: their implications and allusions are profound and far-reaching even though they might just appear as mere, small landscapes.

The daylily, also known as “forget-me-not”, makes people dismiss their worries and be cheerful. Women wore this flower during pregnancy, believing that it would lead to the birth of a boy; this flower is thus one of the most fondly employed traditional pictorial designs in ancient China. Therefore, the combination of the two flowers, chrysanthemum and daylily, conveys complex and multifarious ideas.

The ancient Chinese porcelain artists transposed these familiar flowers and their auspicious characteristics into decorative designs. Not only did these designs become exemplary, they also expressed people’s good intentions and kind wishes, their hopes and desires. The above-discussed plants, flowers and cavernous stones thus became artistic symbols that have been handed down to this day.

2. The Culture and Pictorial Designs of Peonies

A further Chinese element in Westermann’s works is the peony. The so-called mudan is a woody plant native to China that belongs to the family of Chinese herbaceous peony (shaoyao) and is also known as the tree peony (mu shaoyao). Its large flowers are gorgeous and resplendent. The Ming dynasty’s pharmacological compendium Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu), composed by Li Shenzhen (1518–1593),7 records that “the peony values cinnabar as the superior colour” (mudan yi se dan zhe wei shang) – that is, peonies are best when they are red. Honoured as “the most beautiful woman of the country” (guose tianchun, literally “the colours of the country and the heavenly fragrance”) and as “the king among flowers” (hua zhong zhi wang), this famed flowering plant boasts an ancient tradition in China; accordingly, its cultivation has a long and rich history. Its manifestations are manifold, as attested by myths and legends, rhymes and poetry, folk culture, the art of flower arrangement, painting, decoration and design, all of which have long since pervaded many aspects of society.

No reliable records exist on how the peony became such a widely acclaimed and revered flower; likewise, we don’t know when and why peonies have been received so favourably by the imperial family. Of the numerous legends surrounding peonies, one of the most widespread holds that when the first empress of China, Wu Zetian (r. 690–705), who entered history for her cruelty and ruthlessness, visited the imperial hunting grounds one winter after her enthronement, she suddenly decided to decree that one hundred flowers should bloom in unison. The flowers, not daring to oppose the imperial order, blossomed one by one, except the peonies. They disobeyed the enraged empress’s command and were sent to the capital Luoyang. Thus, the peony has since been valued by Chinese people for its strength and fearlessness in the face of cruel sovereigns.

At the end of the sixth century, during the Sui dynasty (581–618), peonies already served decorative purposes in palace gardens. By the time of the Tang dynasty (618–907), they were not only cultivated in imperial gardens but also in the mansions of government officials, temples, monasteries and courtyards of common literati scholars, students, monks and priests. They also attained the status of famous flowers, whose sight was enjoyed and admired across the whole of Chinese society. As the renowned Tang dynasty poet Liu Yuxi (772–842) wrote in his poem Appreciating Peonies (Shang mudan), “Only the peony carries the true colours of the country; when its flower opens up, the capital city is stirred”.8 Thus, solely the peony represents the genuine “national colour and heavenly fragrance”; moreover, when in bloom, it used to attract scores of people, arousing the entire city of Chang’an, the Tang capital; so much so that every year, from late spring to early summer, the city held grand and magnificent “peony flower competitions”.

The Tang Emperor Xuanzong (r. 713–756) loved peonies to the extreme and ordered them to be planted in the palace garden. On one occasion, he and his concubine Yang Yuhuan, better known as Yang Guifei, were enjoying the sight of peonies in front of the Eaglewood Pavilion (Chenxiang Ting) at the Palace of Rising Honours (Xingqing Gong), while musicians and singers performed at their side. Realizing that they were not playing any new songs, Emperor Xuanzong ordered the drunken poet Li Bai (701–762) to be brought to the pavilion. After waiting for him to awake from his stupor, he bid the poet to compose a new ballad. The result was Li Bai’s famous three poems to the Tune of Qingping (Qingping diao).

The first poem goes: “The clouds want to be your clothing, the flowers want to be near to your face. The spring breeze whisks the dewy flowers by the balustrade. If I did not meet [upon the immortals] on the top of Mount Qunyu, I should find [them] on the Jade Terrace under the moon”.9 Expressing the idea that Yang Guifei was even more beautiful than the peonies, these verses liken her to the immortal maidens accompanying Xiwangmu, the legendary Queen Mother of the West, who resided at the top of Mount Qunyu.

The second poem goes: “So gorgeous the red peony of rich dewy fragrance, one need not long for Mount Wu among clouds. Let me ask, who at the Han palace could ever compare with you? Indeed, only Zhao Feiyan, when she has just been dressed up”.10

These verses emphasize that Yang Guifei is more beautiful not only than peonies but also than the Goddess of Mount Wu. Moreover, only the famous Han dynasty beauty Zhao Feiyan, once made-up, could rival the gorgeous Yang Guifei.

The third poem goes: “The flower and the lady, both of eminence, admire and love each other; both have long earned the king’s approving smile. Leaning against the balustrade of the Eaglewood Pavilion, the infinite melancholy of the spring breeze is dispelled”.11 Thus, the acclaimed peony and Yang Guifei shine upon each another, constantly evoking the Emperor’s smiling gaze and providing pleasure through which the longings of springtime can be appeased. The graceful, poised and dignified manner in which the peony opens its opulent petals of gorgeous colour and rich lustre corresponded with the aesthetic appreciation of abundant, plump and luscious full-grown forms upheld by Tang society.

The peony thus received lavish praise in the course of history. Songs, poems and prose works about peonies abound, to the point that around a thousand compositions celebrating its beauty were created during the Tang and Song dynasties alone. The literati of successive dynasties extolled the peony from manifold perspectives to express either their personal emotions or ideals and ambitions, to ponder the state of the world and the spirit of the age, as well as to convey their views and outlook on life.

Peonies were cultivated at the Qing dynasty’s imperial palace in Beijing’s Forbidden City, where they are still preserved in the Imperial Garden and the Palace Garden of Benevolent Tranquillity (Cininggong Huayuan). The most well-known peonies are those at the Belvedere of Prolonged Spring (Yanchun Ge) in the Palace Garden of Established Happiness (Jianfugong Huayuan). It was here that Emperor Qianlong, while enjoying the flowers, composed the prose poem Peonies of the Belvedere of Prolonged Spring (Yanchun Ge mudan).

Due to their graceful, stately appearance and their beautiful colour, fragrance and lyric quality, peonies are regarded as an auspicious symbol of wealth, honour and happiness. Always much loved, they have been praised not only in poems, songs, prose and other works of literature but likewise in all kinds of artworks as well as in various genres such as ceramics, lacquerware, jadeware, enamelware, mural painting, sculpture, dress and adornment, furniture, and so on.

One of the earliest peony designs in Chinese painting can be found in the Ode to the Goddess of the Luo River (Luo shen fu tu) by Gu Kaizhi from the Eastern Jin dynasty (317–420) (fig. 12 shows a detail of a facsimile copy from the Northern Song dynasty). The handscroll presents the famous writer Cao Zhi (220–265) of the Wei who, while returning to his land from the capital city, by chance met the Goddess of the Luo River, Concubine Mi, and joined her on a spiritual journey. The scene portrayed in the first section of the scroll shows how King Chen and Cao Zhi, leaving the Wei capital Luoyang, rest on the riverbank and absent-mindedly catch sight of the river goddess standing still by the shore rocks. Blooming on the rocks beside her are various flowers, including peonies.

Entering into painting and into the spiritual journeys of the immortal, peonies were considered sacred. Peony designs on porcelain objects emerged as early as the middle-to-late period of the Tang dynasty, when they were carved to decorate Yue-kiln celadon- glazed lidded boxes. Subsequently, peonies were continuously part of one of the major pictorial schemes of ceramic decorative design through the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Some specimens were carved into bowls, others into headrests; some adorned pots, vases and jars, others were combined into designs with other flowering plants.

The flower designs on Song dynasty porcelains were mainly applied through the techniques of carving, engraving, printing and drawing. A Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) porcelain jar with peony and double-dragon design (fig. 13) shows flowers painted in blue-and-white. To create a spatial effect, white voids were left between the layers of petals – that is, the flat surface manages to reveal their three-dimensional structure.

A carved red zun-shaped lacquer vessel with a peony design dating from the Ming dynasty’s Yongle period (1403–1424) (fig. 14) has a particular three-dimensional quality. The carved peonies stand out from the red lacquer ground, which further reveals basket-weave patterns. The relief carving used to depict the peonies fully covers the inside and outside of the vessel. Besides the complicated and elaborate craftsmanship, the stylization is worth mentioning: the peony design now has become a decorative pattern typical of the imperial court and thus exudes the poised and stately air of imperial manufacturing.

The body of a two-handled vase with a coral-red ground from the Qing dynasty’s Yongzheng period (1723–1735) (fig. 15) shows a smooth and minute peony design on the outside rendered with a fine-line brush. Resplendent in gorgeous colours, the piece bears witness to the exquisite porcelain manufactured at the imperial kilns (guanyao, i.e. the officially owned kilns).

Exceptionally fond of peonies, the Qing Emperor Yongzheng once praised them as “a product unparalleled in the world; the number one flower among the people”. On one Yongzheng petal-shaped plate featuring a famille rose peony and chrysanthemum design (fig. 16), the peonies are rendered in light and refined colours through exquisitely fine lines.

Famille rose porcelain creates unique three-dimensional effects. Highly expressive, such objects also convey a refined and beautiful outlook on nature and life. A handled teapot with a peony design from the Qianlong period (1736–1795) (fig. 17) represents an exquisite example of painted enamelware that was produced at the imperial workshops specially established at the Qing dynasty court and for the Emperor’s personal appreciation and use. The Qing Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) was also very fond of peonies, which she made the subject of her painting. The porcelain she used bear the name of her studio (Studio of Great Refinement, Daya zhai) and peony designs on their surfaces.

As highlighted above, peony designs enjoyed great popularity as a pictorial subject and symbol in China, both among emperors and ordinary people. This is certainly true of the Ming and Qing periods, when decorative styles emphasized the notion of the meaningfulness and auspiciousness of the picture. As a signifier of propitiousness and honour, the peony played a major role not only in the decoration of porcelain but also in traditional dress. It became a spiritual symbol of folklore representing the nobility and wealth of the wearer. During the Ming and Qing periods, peonies were often combined with other flowers and plants to express good wishes. For example, the combination of peonies with magnolias and osmanthus flowers alludes to rich and powerful families (yutang fugui, literally, “jade halls, wealth and honour”), while peonies painted together with chrysanthemums, cypresses, lingzhi mushrooms and other plants symbolizing longevity allude to wealth, honour and long life, as does the combination of peonies and “longevity stones” (shoushi).

As early as the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 CE), peonies were already used in the art of flower arrangement. They were especially en vogueat the court of the Tang dynasty where the frequent gatherings were often adorned by peony decorations. Following strict procedures, flower arrangements were sumptuous, thus manifesting the wealth, power and prestige of the imperial family. In his ninth-century Nine Bestowals of Flowers (Hua jiu xi), the earliest treatise on the art of flower arrangement in China, Luo Qiu divided the courtly procedure into “nine bestowals”, akin to the nine ritual implements conferred by the Emperor upon his high ministers: sacred and stately, granting honour and rank, presenting a solemn ceremony considered supreme and unperformable without authority.

Listening to the Qin (fig. 18), a hanging scroll painted by Emperor Huizong (r. 1100–1126) of the Northern Song dynasty, depicts a qin player sitting beneath a pine tree and plucking the strings of his instrument. Two guests and an attendant are listening spellbound, in a state of profound joy and reverence, immersed in the elegance of the charming ancient tune. Before the qin player stands a three-legged ding-shaped censer holding an arrangement of fresh flowers. The painting shows a musical performance at the imperial palace; some even believe that the qin player is Emperor Huizong himself. In his Record of Peonies of Luoyang (Luoyang mudan ji), the famous Song dynasty literatus Ou Yangxun (1007–1072) wrote: “Concerning customs in Luoyang, people generally are fond of flowers; in springtime, whether rich or poor, all in the city go about decorating with flowers”.12 Thus, in the city of Luoyang, whether they came from an eminent or a humble background, people were adept at arranging peonies. In the Song period, both the imperial court and ordinary citizens considered arranging flowers a stately affair and an integral part of life; thus, by that time, the art of presenting peonies had already merged into wider social life.

Moreover, peonies were used as ceremonial flowers in Buddhist rituals and in Chan Buddhist meditation halls. The presence of flower arrangements in Buddhist ceremonies testifies to the solemn and dignified, bright and open-hearted mindset of Buddhists and expresses the idea propagated in their teaching of leading life in quietude and emptiness, beyond the dust of the world, always in a benevolent state of mind. This is what we see in the Tang dynasty painting Portrait of Six Arhats (Liu zunzhe xiang) by Lu Lengjia (fig. 19): the arhatKanakabhāradvāja sits on a low bed leaning on his walking stick; in the background, to his left and right, stand a Chinese official and a monk of the Northern Hu tribes; in the foreground, two Hu tribesmen are presenting treasures, one of them kneeling before the arhat. A vase of peony flowers is placed beside him on a stand, in a manner that is typical of Buddhist ceremonies.

Arranging flowers in vases and placing them on a small table is a traditional form of Chinese decorative display. The Chinese words for “vase”, “peaceful” and “even” are homophonic (ping), with the former also denoting “safe and sound”, “quiet and stable” (ping’an), “peaceful and tranquil” (taiping). Moreover, flowers in vases convey the “flourishing and prosperous, peaceful and tranquil” (fansheng taiping). Hence, flower arrangements were not only made for real in vases, but also served as a highly auspicious pictorial design in various artworks and genres. Such designs were among the most revered in ancient China.

For instance, Autumn Flowers in a Vase (Qiuhui pinghua tu), from the Southern Song period (1127–1279) (fig. 20), is representative of painting and calligraphy at a time when flowers in vases were “sketched after life” (xiesheng). Depicted here is a celadon porcelain vase containing a tender arrangement of fresh flowers, next to which an accompanying poem was written in extempore verse: “The autumn wind melts fully into the eastern fence; ten thousand clusters of light red, bunches of emerald branches. By the look of the fragrant colours alone, no one would know it is the time of the Spring Festival”.13 These lines describe the light red colour and the tranquillity and refinement of nature, of the flowers held in the vase, which form a bouquet atop their emerald-green stems.

Another example is a green silk padded robe with flower embroidery (fig. 21). Made in 1777 during the Qing dynasty’s Qianlong period, the robe was used and enjoyed by the Empress and the highest-ranking imperial concubines. Its outside features embroidered designs of peonies, Chinese roses, Chinese crab apple flowers, chrysanthemums, plum blossoms and other flowering plants of the four seasons, some of which presented in vases (fig. 22). This design not only adorned clothing but also conveyed fixed symbolic meanings, implying extravagance and luxury, wealth and honour, peace and tranquillity. It is found among all kinds of artworks, including Chinese furniture, porcelain, jadeware, lacquerware, and so on.

Down the centuries, Chinese peonies were introduced to Europe and America but also, as early as the eighth century, to Japan, where they were cultivated for almost 1,300 years. Tradition has it that they were imported by the eminent monk Kūkai (774–835). In the beginning, peonies were grown in the gardens of Buddhist temples and monasteries and in those of high officials and eminent people. It was not until the Tokugawa period (1603–1868) that they spread among ordinary people. From the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, in the wake of the prospering Age of Discovery, Chinese porcelain, silk and other wares were brought to Europe via the Maritime Silk Road. Peony flower designs were among the principal decorative patterns on such trade porcelain and silk goods.

In 1656, traders of the Dutch East India Company came to China, saw peonies with their own eyes and for the first time took these gorgeous flowers with them back to Europe. Around the sixteenth century, the peony had achieved the status of an “abundant and precious flower” (fuguihua) in Japan. In 1787, it was imported to Great Britain; soon after arriving on the European continent, the “Chinese flower” was introduced in France, Germany, Italy and other countries.

The meanings attributed to the decorative patterns of peony designs changed slightly in the course of history. In the Tang dynasty, this flower was considered a symbol of wealth and honour by emperors and other eminent people. Moreover, as their graceful, poised and stately character resonated with the general aesthetic consciousness of the Tang, peonies were greatly appreciated at the imperial court and among ordinary people and appeared increasingly in poems, songs, prose and painting. In the Song dynasty, these meanings spread further into everyday life. Peonies were combined with other design patterns to imply hopes and wishes for propitious circumstances such as wealth and honour, abundant offspring, good fortune, happiness, and luck. Beginning in the Ming and Qing dynasties, composite forms of peony and other designs appeared in large numbers while decorative designs adhered to the necessity for a picture to be meaningful and auspicious. Following its standardization as the hallmark of a sumptuous, precious and luxurious lifestyle, the peony became a symbol of prosperity, happiness and peace. As the German philosopher and theorist of symbolism Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945) observed, “In a certain sense, all art may be said to be language, but it is language in a very specific sense. It is not a language of verbal symbols, but of intuitive symbols”.14

3. Conclusion

Thilo Westermann’s works are the result of multiple technical and artistic skills. They are unique in that they combine a particular technique of reverse glass etching with certain Chinese motifs (flowering plants, vases, and so on), thereby blending characteristics of Chinese and Western art and creating a new visual idiom. And yet, Westermann’s art does not simply merge contemporary art and Chinese elements – rather, it conveys profound reflections on the world and human life. As mentioned at the beginning, on completing his small-scale reverse glass works, Westermann has them scanned and enlarged six times their original size and then printed as unique prints. Standing before one of these large unique prints reverse glass, viewers not only behold the elaborate craftsmanship but are also confronted with their own reflection on the glass’s surface. The surface and the viewer’s reflection thus play a crucial role in the perception of the work. Just as both are part of its creation, they are equally able to emerge and disappear. Immersing the viewer into the centre of the work is a significant characteristic of contemporary art. In exhibitions, Westermann’s reverse glass paintings and unique prints are often displayed together, engendering different states of perception and contemplation.

The blending of traditional Chinese motifs into the language of contemporary art reflects a more Western approach, one characterized by philosophical thinking and deconstruction. In this discursive environment, the term “traditional Chinese motifs” appears somewhat strained. Despite this reservation, I have considered Westermann’s works from the perspective of traditional Chinese culture and arts. I have not tried to explain them by applying Chinese methods, but instead have provided readers with more background knowledge and a better understanding of the native culture on which these works draw. Such understanding marks a step towards bringing contemporary art and traditional Chinese culture together.

1 Kenneth Bendiner [Kennisi Bendina] / Tan Qing, transl. Huihua zhong de shiwu [Food in Painting] (Beijing: Xinxing Chubanshe, 2007), p. 147.

2 Cheng Yong, Ci yao shijie [The World of Shining Porcelain] (Nanchang: Jiangxi Meishu Chubanshe, 2017), p. 133.

3 Robin Hildyard, European Ceramics (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1999), p. 64.

4 “撮要而言则三山五岳、百洞千壑, 覼缕簇缩, 尽在其中. 百仞一拳, 千里一瞬, 坐而得之.” Fan Chengda, (Shao Ding) Wu Jun zhi[Gazetteer of Wu Prefecture (Shao Ding Reign)], Zeshiju congshu Jing Song keben [Zeshiju Book Collection, Jing Song Printed Edition], vol. 29, p. 214.

5 “天地至精之气, 结而为石……虽一拳之多, 而 蕴千岩之秀, 大可列于园馆, 小可置于几案.” Li Chengmou, Shizhongshan zhi [Record of Stone Bell Mountain], Qing Guangxu jiu nian Ting Tao Tiaoyu Xuan keben [Ting Tao Tiaoyu Xuan Printed Edition of the Ninth Year of the Qing-Dynasty Guangxu Reign], vol. 8, pp. 78–79.

6 The “twelve-month” cups with flower designs refer to imperial-kiln porcelains manufactured during the Kangxi period. They comprise sets of twelve cups, with each cup featuring a different flower design and representing one of the twelve months, as well as an accompanying poem.

7 Li Shizhen, Bencao gangmu [Compendium of Materia Medica], Qing Wenyuan Ge Siku quanshu [Qing-Dynasty Wenyuan Library Edition of the Siku Quanshu], vol. 14, p. 635.

8 “唯有牡丹真国色, 花开时节动京城.” Cao Yin, Quan Tang shi [Complete Collection of Tang Poems], Qing Wenyuan Ge Siku quanshu[Qing-Dynasty Wenyuan Library Edition of the Siku Quanshu], vol. 365, p. 2462.

9 “云想衣裳花想容, 春风拂槛露华浓. 若非群玉 山头见, 会向瑶台月下逢. ”

10 “一枝红艳露凝香, 云雨巫山枉断肠. 借问汉宫 谁得似? 可怜飞燕倚新妆. ”

11 “名花倾国两相欢, 常得君王带笑看. 解释春风 无限恨, 沉香亭北倚栏杆. ”

12 “洛阳之俗, 大抵好花, 春时, 城中无贵贱皆插 花.”

13 “秋风融日满东篱, 万叠轻红簇翠枝. 若使芳姿 同众色, 无人知是小春时.”

14 Kaxile [Ernst Cassirer], Fuhao, shenhua, wenhua. Luo Changze yi [Symbol, Myth, Culture. Translated by Luo Changze] (Taipei: Jiegouqun Wenhua Gongsi, 1990), p. 146. Symbol, Myth, and Culture. Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer 1935–1935, ed. Donald Philip Verene (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 186.

Translation: Shao-Lan Hertel
Published in Thilo Westermann Migrations, Milan (Skira editore) 2022, pp. 173-200.