Interview with Robert Tsao on Wucai Fish Jar of the Eastern Renaissance

When it comes to auction records, sky is the limit. One month ago, a ru-ware brush washer became the most expensive ceramics piece ever sold. Last week, Da Vinci’s Salvator Mindi also broke the world record for the most expensive artwork. Hoping to set another new record, Christie’s Hong Kong presents a rare piece of Wucai Fish Jar from the Jiajing period.

This Wucai Fish Jar comes from Le Cong Tang collection, the same collection as the ru-ware brush washer. Robert Tsao, the master of Le Cong Tang, speaks to us on the relationship between Renaissance and the Wucai Fish Jar from the Ming Dynasty.

Wucai ‘Fish’ Jar and Cover
Jiajing Six-character Mark in Underglaze Blue and of the Period (1522-1566)

Lot no.: 8006
Height: 46cm

  • J.M. Hu Family CollectionLe Cong Tang
  • Sold at Sotheby’s New York, 1 December 1992, lot 282 (sold for US$2,860,000)
  • Sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, An Extraordinary Collection of Ming and Qing Imperial Porcelain and Works of Art from a Private Trust, 29 October 2000, lot 18 (sold for HK$44,044,750, then world record price for a Chinese porcelain)
  • Le Cong Tang

Estimate On Request (The Value has learnt the estimate to be HK$180,000,000)

R: Making comparisons is important in aesthetics. Take this auction as an example, when we compare ‘Salvator Mundi’ with the Wucai Fish Jar, we get an interesting observation. When you look at Jesus’s eyes, they are deep, carrying a sense of compassion. So when you look at the painting, it moves and touches you, but in a heavy way.

R (continue): But when we look at the fish jar, the fish look so carefree here. They give you the feeling of naturalness and liveliness. They make a great contrast. Christianity is a religion about God while the fish jar represents Daoism, which is about naturalness and liveliness. So these two together stand for different ideas and thoughts. Artworks with ideas or thoughts, on top of its aesthetics value, carry a higher spiritual sense.

Q: How do we appreciate the aesthetic value shown in the Fish Jar?

R: When you look at the fish jar, it is almost like the fish are swimming, not static. They are floating and look very relaxed and the water weeds are also like floating in the fish jar. Together they create a vivid image. And show the painter’s throughout observation on fish. The fish are depicted in a perfect balance between abstractness and realness. The fish would look kitsch if they were painted too real or it would be deceiving if they look nothing like fish. This jar shows the dynamic of fish swimming around. It was painted by a master, not any ordinary painters.

Q: What’s the connotation of fish?

R: Fish have an auspicious meaning. They also connote a carefree life with no competition. They look so stressless floating in the water. Fish also symbolize auspiciousness and naturalness. Many poems about naturalness and calmness have used fish as a metaphor.

The fish jar is dubbed “a gem of Eastern Renaissance”. How is a fish jar from the Ming Dynasty related to Renaissance? 

Q: Isn’t Renaissance a western concept? What does this fish jar have to do with Renaissance?

R: The characteristics of artworks in Ming dynasty can be viewed through the lens of the Renaissance. Most of us only focus on the development in the West in Florence, Italy from the 14th to 17th century. In fact, Ming dynasty also had its Renaissance during that time. The scale, diversity and height of the Renaissance in Ming dynasty actually surpassed those of the Western Renaissance. But the Western Renaissance made great achievements in realism, such as the use of perspective, light and shadow, and sfumato. It brought a new height to realism. That’s why Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael are legendary artists.

Michelangelo (1475-1564)'s The Creation of Adam 

R (continue): After the 18th century, realism could not move forward. It lost its appeal after everyone learnt the technique. So the west was seeking a reform and a new approach which is more creative and less realistic. Eastern art is exactly like that.

Q: What’s the characteristic of Eastern art?

R: Eastern art didn’t take the realistic approach from the very beginning. For example, jade carvings from Neolithic period or bronze vessels from Xia, Shang and Zhou period were made for ritual purposes. So the works of art were unrealistic. Chinese art has been focused on painting the spirit, not the shape from the very beginning. So when we look at the works of art from Ming dynasty, they are still in fashion.

Early Neolithic Hongshan culture (3500-3000BC) Jaded Dragon 

The Wucai Fish Jar is a rare piece that has been long-awaited among collectors. During the interview, a veteran ceramics dealer William Chak happened to be at Christie’s Hong Kong office. He also shared the excitement of seeing the fish jar presented on the market.

Veteran ceramics dealer William Chak

W: Collectors have been waiting for this important piece for a long time. The carp motif that you mentioned was painted with a layer of yellow enamel first and then covered by a second layer of icon. This jar is like an aquarium. Look at the water weeds and fish. They are vividly depicted on the jar. It is a magnificent work of art.

R: The yellow and red layers you mentioned convey an auspicious message of wishing the Emperor ‘fortune as vast as heaven’.