Largest Exhibition of Vietnamese Ceramics in North America Opens in January 2012 at the Birmingham Museum of Art

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Dragons and Lotus Blossoms: Vietnamese Ceramics from the Birmingham Museum of Art is the largest exhibition of its kind and opens in January 2012.

This 15 Century Vietnames vase from the Le Dynasty serves as the centerpiece of the exhibition and was recently included among the top ten most important acquisitions of 2011 by Apollo magazine.

While they defended their independence against powerful enemies over the centuries, the Vietnamese developed subtle and sophisticated cultural traditions, including ceramics, which form an unusually important part of the country’s artistic identity.

The largest U.S. exhibition to date of Vietnamese ceramics will open in January at the Birmingham Museum of Art, revealing another strength of our outstanding collection, and showing to the public for the first time, one of the top three finest collections of such wares in North America.

Dragons and Lotus Blossoms: Vietnamese Ceramics from the Birmingham Museum of Art is the first major exhibition of Vietnamese pottery in the United States. The exhibition is co-curated by Dr. Donald A. Wood, the BMA’s Curator of Asian Art, and John Stevenson, one of the preeminent experts in the field. The exhibition, in the Museum’s Jemison Galleries, will be on display January 22 through April 8, 2012. The exhibition is free, and open to the public.

“This is an opportunity to discover beautiful works of art that are rarely seen in the U.S.,” Wood said. “It is also an opportunity to explore the rich history of a country that not only played an important role in the recent history of the U.S., but also is a vital part of our future.”

Through judicious purchases and generous donations, the BMA has acquired over several decades, one of the finest collections of Vietnamese ceramics, keeping company with the collections of The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The entire BMA collection --more than 200 pieces of Vietnamese ceramics -- will be on display. The collection is fully illustrated in the accompanying catalogue, which features important essays by Stevenson, Wood, and Philippe Truong, an independent expert in Vietnamese ceramics. The catalogue is published and distributed by The University of Washington Press.

“There are very few publications in English about Vietnamese ceramics,” Wood said. “This catalogue contains the most current scholarship on this topic by some of the most respected experts in this field.”

As the first large-scale exhibition of Vietnamese ceramics in America, “It is also the first exhibition to explore the fascinating history and variety of Vietnamese wares in the U.S.,” Wood said.  “Our collection is rich in 15th and 16th century Vietnamese export wares modeled on the great blue-and-white wares from the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen in China.  It is also particularly strong in Vietnamese ceramics made for domestic use and never exported, a neglected area in which it has been difficult to find material.  The collection spans nearly 2000 years of Vietnamese ceramic history.”

Besides displaying a stellar collection of Vietnamese works, the exhibition brings to Birmingham John Stevenson, “one of the leading scholars and connoisseurs in the field,” Wood said. “He is known and respected not only here in the U.S. but all over the world for his pioneer studies in this under-appreciated field.  His 1997 book Vietnamese Ceramics: A Separate Tradition was the first in-depth study of Vietnamese ceramics in English.  He has seen and studied our entire collection and has been key in helping to identify many of the pieces. John is an old friend and it has been a pleasure to work with him on this project.”

Stevenson will open the exhibition with a lecture at 2:30 p.m. January 22, Vietnamese Ceramics, the Development of an Art Form. Also accompanying Dragons and Lotus Blossoms will be an Artbreak tour of the exhibition led by Wood on February 21 at noon; a book discussion on Dragon Sea: A True Tale of Treasure, Archeology and Greed off the Coast of Vietnam, a book, which tells the tale behind some of the ceramics on display in Dragons and Lotus Blossoms, March 8 at noon; then on First Thursday, April 5 at 6 p.m., a curator-led tour and a Vietnamese film.

The History of Vietnamese Ceramics at the Birmingham Museum of Art

As early as the 1970s, members of the Asian Art Society at the BMA recognized the beauty of Vietnamese ceramics and the potential for creating a significant collection in a little known and under-appreciated field. After amassing the core collection of 15th and 16th -century blue-and-white export wares, the BMA built on the support of the Asian Art Society, buying more export wares at the rich international auctions of shipwreck ceramics that since the year 2000 have revolutionized the study of Southeast Asian ceramics.

In 2010 the Vietnamese ceramic collection of Mr. William M. Spencer III, a long-time Museum patron and a founding member of the Asian Art Society, was bequeathed to the Museum. This gift greatly strengthened the BMA’s holdings of Vietnamese ceramics made for domestic use and never exported, a neglected area in which it has been difficult to find material. This, and the continuing judicious purchase of outstanding pieces over the years, has resulted in a superb collection, with many fine, undamaged, and unique examples.

“This is a collection that evolved through local interest and support,” Wood said. “It is a collection in which the people of Birmingham can take great pride.”

The History Behind the Art

In the 1960s and ’70s, the destinies of Vietnam and the United States became tightly intertwined through a war which profoundly colored the way Vietnam is viewed. Few Americans are aware of Vietnam’s distinctive, millennia-long, cultural history. While they defended their independence against powerful enemies over the centuries, the Vietnamese developed subtle and sophisticated cultural traditions, including ceramics, which form an unusually important part of the country’s artistic identity.

While many art objects have fared badly in Vietnam – victims of time, or climate, or war -- ceramics have survived as a physical form of Vietnam’s historical memory. Along with literature, poetry, and music, ceramics are among the most significant manifestations of Vietnam’s cultural heritage to remain after many centuries.

Few museums in the West exhibit more than a few token Vietnamese ceramics bought at recent high-profile auctions. The Birmingham Museum of Art is the shining exception. Dragons and Lotus Blossoms brings the importance of Vietnam’s rich cultural history into brilliant focus.

For more information about Dragons and Lotus Blossoms, visit our website at http://www.artsbma.org. The catalogue, Dragons and Lotus Blossoms: Vietnamese Ceramics from the Birmingham Museum of Art, is available at the Museum store and online http://www.birminghammuseumstore.org/books.html.

About the Birmingham Museum of Art: Founded in 1951, the Birmingham Museum of Art has one of the finest collections in the Southeast. More than 24,000 objects displayed and housed within the Museum represent a rich panorama of cultures, including Asian, European, American, African, Pre-Columbian, and Native American. Highlights include the Museum’s collection of Asian art, Vietnamese ceramics, the Kress collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts from the late 13th century to the 1750s, and the Museum’s world-renowned collection of Wedgwood, the largest outside of England.

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Cate McCusker
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