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'A Kind of Alchemy' exhibit at Frick shows off early Persian pottery

| Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Bottle , Kashan, Iran, 12‐13th century. Fritware painted with an opaque white glaze with luster painting over the glaze. Credit: Frick Art & Historical Center
Bottle, Central Iran (probably Kashan), 13th century. Fritware molded and painted in black under a transparent turquoise glaze. Credit: Frick Art & Historical Center
Bowl, Northeastern Iran (probably Nishapur), 10th century. Earthenware painted under a clear glaze. Credit: Frick Art & Historical Center
Calligraphic Bowl , Northeastern Iran (probably Nishapur), 10th century. Earthenware painted on a white slip ground under a clear glaze. Credit: Frick Art & Historical Center
Bull Vessel, Central Iran (probably Kashan), 12th?13th century. Modeled fritware painted with a transparent turquoise glaze. Credit: Frick Art & Historical Center

Lovers of pottery and ceramics of all kinds will no doubt find a favorite or two among the 60 incredible examples of early Persian pots that will be on display in the exhibit “A Kind of Alchemy: Medieval Persian Ceramics,” which opens this weekend at the Frick Art Museum in Point Breeze.

The pieces that will be on display are some of the best works in existence created by highly specialized artisans working in medieval Persia (present-day Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan), from the 10th to the 14th century.

“While the Western world was fraught in the Dark Ages with a low literacy rate and cut off from all of the knowledge of the civilizations that proceeded them, the Arabs who invaded this area in the 8th century set out to translate all of the Greek and Latin texts created before them into Arabic and kept wonderful libraries, and there was this huge progress in science, literature and mathematics, even music,” says Sarah Hall, director of curatorial affairs at the Frick Art Museum. “It's really a flourishing time. And it's great to look at that time from a little bit of a different perspective and immerse yourself in these cultures.”

Organized by the Appleton Museum of Art in Ocala, Fla., the exhibit primarily focuses on pieces that came from production centers in Nishapur and Kashan, both in what is now Iran. The pieces are from the museum's collection.

“These were distinct areas that were ceramic-production centers,” Hall says. “If you are in Nishapur during the 10th century, you are in one of the greatest cities in the world at that time. There was sophisticated international culture passing through on the Silk Road, right at your front door. The big story in ceramics at this time was that they, the Persians, were the envy of China.”

The examples on display reflect a magnificent array of techniques and technological breakthroughs, ranging from 10th-century splashed ware, buffware and slip-painted ware to lusterware and 14th-century fritware, all of which were produced for both the luxury and middle-class markets.

The exhibit begins with slip-painted wares, bowls mostly, that date as far back as the late 9th century. To create these pieces, Persian potters painted a watery clay coating (slip) on the earthenware body before decorating it in an effort to imitate Chinese porcelain, which was highly prized at that time.

Some of the most modern-looking results, Hall says, were those that used Arabic script as the primary design element, a perfect example of which is a “Calligraphic Bowl “ created in Northeastern Iran (probably Nishapur) in the 10th century. Made of earthenware, its designs were painted on a white slip ground under a clear glaze.

“The earliest attempts are some of the nicest earthenware pots ever produced in the 10th century,” Hall says, pointing to this bowl as a prime example. “The biggest contribution of this time period to Islamic art in general is that they were beginning to use calligraphy as a decorative element. Calligraphy is the highest art form in Islam. It's devoutly and meticulously practiced.”

Examples of buffware, which was created later in the 10th and well into the 11th centuries, are also on display. These bowls contain bold and animated designs that were painted directly on the earthenware body, often reflecting local and popular pre-Islamic Persian traditions familiar to the artist. A yellow, black and green-leafed bowl, also believed to be from 10th-century Nishapur, is an exemplary piece.

“You can see that the creator of this bowl moved from a central leaf design outward to an overall design pattern,” Hall says.

Splashed ware was another common type of ceramic created in the 10th century. Here, Persian potters turned a liability into an asset by taking advantage of certain colors that run when fired in the kiln, thereby creating a “splashed effect,” Hall says.

Splashed ware was one of the more common designs, which also is noticeable by the many incised designs under the glazes, which sometimes do and sometimes don't correlate to the colors of the glazes and their particular placement.

All of the early bowls in this exhibit are earthenware, a common ceramic material, which is used extensively for pottery tableware and decorative objects.

“Earthenware was everywhere,” Hall says of the medieval Persian period. “They needed vessels for storage, transportation, cooking preparation. You needed beautiful bowls for presentation, dishes cups mugs, mortars — but the vast majority of all the pots made were unglazed and strictly functional earthenware.

“Glazed earthenware represents less than 10 percent of what the potter would be putting out,” he says. “And then the fine glazed ware like you see in this exhibition would probably be about 1 percent of a potter's production. So, what you're really looking at is sort of high-end wares that are completely finished, even though they were for use in middle-class to upper-class households.”

Hall says that by the 12th century, Persian potters were able to produce a special kind of “fine china” for their wealthiest patrons by painting a design with silver or gold oxides and then firing the piece a second time. Though it is believed the use of metallic glazes can be traced as far back as the 4th century A.D., these pieces are some the earliest-existing examples of what is known as lusterware, because of the shiny surfaces caused by the metallic glazes.

An elaborately decorated bottle from Kashan, Iran, that was made sometime between the 12th and 13th centuries is a perfect example. It is made of fritware, which has been painted with an opaque, white glaze with a luster painted, interlocking leaf design over the glaze.

“One of the biggest contributions that Islamic art has made to the world today is this sense of overall design, decoration that covers completely with pattern yet still holds together in this great harmony,” Hall says.

Fritware, the most successful attempt to imitate Chinese porcelain's white body, was often glazed with green, cobalt blue or turquoise, the signature Persian color. And several examples of monochrome glazed fritware, ranging in date from the 12th to 14th centuries, is on display in the exhibit as well.

Also during that same time period, underglaze-painted fritware was popular. Persian artists' finely drawn designs in turquoise, black and cobalt-blue are believed to have inspired Chinese artists to make the blue-and-white porcelains that later became the worldwide “gold standard,” Hall says.

“What will be striking to people visiting the galleries is how fresh, how contemporary these works feel,” Hall says, “especially in regard to the use of color and pattern. If people know pottery, this is not going to seem like 1,100-year-old pottery.”

The exhibit will open with a preview party from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Frick Art Museum. Admission is $12. Reservations are recommended. Details: 412-371-0600

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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