Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Celadon as palimpsest
In the chilly Autumn,
thousands of porcelain pieces
as green as the mountains
appear from the kiln.
Strictly speaking celadon is not a good green. It has none of the vivid energy of leaf buds, nor the sombre notes of eucalyptus. It is neither verdantly mossy or bravely bottle green. It sits somewhere between jade and lichen - on the colour spectrum it leans towards grey and away from yellow. Rather than lifting the heart it speaks to it - a colour for poets and those of an exquisite eye. Made from earth and ash, celadon has an earthy appeal. The green glaze is composed of iron and cinders. An incremental increase in iron results in deeper greens. One can imagine the Chinese feeling for porcelain as a magic composed of the elements - of fire, water, earth and iron.
That colour is arbitrary or inexact is a notion we rail against. We do our best to describe it as chemistry in terms of mineral pigments - in physics as wavelength and frequency. But surely my green is not your green. Greenness is in the eye of the beholder. Derwent pencils - the last word in colour in my childhood originally produced 10 greens. In 1939 the full spectrum of Derwent colours was 72 - in the 1990's that increased to 120. When on my twelfth birthday I was given a set of 24 I felt life could not possibly be richer. Today there are 14 shades of Derwent green including teal, fern, felt, apple, iron and Ionian. There is no celadon. Perhaps the fact that celadon can be anything from a smoky jade to a oyster shell makes it a poor descriptor.
In the Romance and Icelandic languages the word for green derives from the root word for growth. In many cultures green is synonymous with hope, freshness, Spring, youth, perennial return and in times of ecological fragility with environmental safety and protection. But green can also stand in for callow inexperience, for jealousy, sourness and decay. If the green of the celadon ware had resonance for Chinese poets and princes it spoke to Buddhist teachings too. Pottery is the perfect palimpsest. It has meaning laid over meaning. It is used and wiped clean like a slate. It is at once fragile and concrete. It is a vessel and so are we.
Long before the Japanese fascination for wabi sabi, the Chinese celebrated flaws. Fabled celadons were often crazed - the glaze and porcelain operating differently under fire. Even after being taken from the kiln the finish can move and the cracks travel. This process is said to explain the life of the pot - a resident energy - an exquisite tension expressed in the clay's journey from plastic to some sort of stone. The imperfect finish somehow suggested, hinted at the sublime. How much more perfect can an object be than one where the beauty is somewhat diminished? One must instead hold the idea of perfection in the mind.
The oldest celadons are also the least perfect - their crackle like cobwebs, their porcelain heavier than other pots. Originally this might have been because of limited production compared to other wares. Practice makes perfect. Or it might be direct reflection of its material makeup. But perhaps celadons were also less than perfect in order to pique the jaded eye of the elite.
For a long while celadon was secret. Green was valuable. Like the royal purples of popes, the Middle Kingdom's monied classes kept green porcelains for themselves. The Chinese for secret also means withheld - unspoken, reserved as in shy or reserved for, as in reserved for royalty. The ambiguity is aptly appropriate. Celadon's scarcity enhanced its appeal.