CHINOISERIE is a slightly quaint term, carrying with it a flavour of the rococo, of rather precious 18th-century interior design inspired by an image of China that bore as little relation to reality as Marie Antoinette's dairy to the farms of contemporary France.
In fact, however, Chinoiserie in the narrow sense is only a phase in the long story of Europe's fascination with the most distant and mysterious of the world's great civilisations. The existence of the Chinese - who lived, as Sir Thomas Browne wrote in the 17th century, "at the bounds of the earth" - was known from antiquity; the Romans imported silk from them, as they imported spices from Southeast Asia, but via so many intermediaries that little was reliably known of the source of these riches.
Contact remained tenuous for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Silkworms were brought to Byzantium in the 6th century of our era, under the emperor Justinian. Constantinople and Venice were the gateways of the oriental trade. Marco Polo visited China in the 13th century; paper was brought back from the east and its manufacture spread in the 14th and 15th centuries. All this changed when the Portuguese opened direct sea routes around the Cape of Good Hope to the east a little more than 500 years ago. They and the Dutch in particular rapidly became enormously wealthy by circumventing the long and circuitous trade routes that had been followed by ships and camel caravans for almost two millennia. Europeans began to trade directly with east Asia, not only bringing precious luxuries home but exerting an influence through missionary activities and the transfer of European technology.
This was the beginning of the period that is particularly covered by a modestly sized but rich and complex exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. Chinoiserie is not a show for the lazy or hurried visitor. It demands attention to detail, reading of labels and close comparison of artefacts. But it rewards that attention with a greater understanding of the points of contact and influence between European and Asian cultures at this important historical period.
Chronologically, the exhibition begins with the Dutch 17th century. There is a small still life of fruit (1640-50) by Jan Davidsz de Heem, with plums and peaches piled up in a blue and white bowl, and grapes, pomegranates and other fruit arranged on a plate in similar style. These blue and white ceramics were known as Kraak ware, apparently from the Dutch pronunciation of the Portuguese word caracca, a merchant ship.
Kraak ware was the earliest kind of Chinese ceramics to be manufactured on a large scale for export to Europe, where it was appreciated not only for its beauty but for the hardness and fineness of its make. European ceramicists did not discover how to make high-fired porcelain until the 18th century; their pots and bowls were the much softer and more porous earthenware.
But although the ceramics in de Heem's composition are Chinese, they are not quite as authentically Chinese as we may suppose. Already the manufacturers had begun to modify some of the products they made for the European market to suit Western tastes and requirements. Thus, while the bowl is Chinese, the flat plate is a form adapted to the European market.
Soon the Chinese were making ceramics in shapes that were patently foreign to their own tradition, such as beer tankards that were fitted with pewter lids when they arrived in The Netherlands. The soberly Dutch form of these mundane drinking vessels is curiously counterpointed with the delicate painting of figures and landscapes with which they are decorated.
Things get much more complicated, however, and this is where one needs to look closely. Dutch ceramicists in Delft began trying to copy and match the expensive imports, with tin-glazed blue and white earthenwares. The results are very interesting and not entirely predictable.
There is, for example, another beer tankard that looks less overtly Dutch than the straight-sided one. It is curved with a bulbous base and a cylindrical neck. But while the straight tankard was made in China, this one, more ostensibly oriental in sensibility, was made in Delft.
Perhaps, indeed, this is where what one can call Chinoiserie begins: not with the Chinese making products for the Dutch market and willing to produce them to Dutch specifications, but with the Dutch trying to produce works that look and feel Chinese, that deliberately evoke a faraway land with romantic associations. There are interesting comparisons between the two categories, especially when the differences are most subtle, as they are in the case of a pair of gourd-shaped vases.
To a casual glance they are very similar, but in the Chinese one there is a greater sense of continuity and flow between the two bulbous forms that compose the body of the vase. The Dutch vase, on the other hand, tends to conceive of the two forms as inherently separate, discontinuous in themselves and artificially conjoined.
Similarly, the Dutch vase has a trumpet-like opening, while the Chinese is straight and cylindrical. The reason for this contrast, in the end, is that the Chinese potter is familiar with the natural plant that is the basis of his ceramic form, while the Dutch potter is imitating the Chinese, and inadvertently assimilating it to his own formal language. The resulting distortion is similar to the gradual transformation of a message in the game we call, coincidentally, Chinese whispers. Still more curious is the way the Delft vase painters imitate the style of Chinese artists: figures wearing clothes the painters do not really understand, engaged in activities with no particular sense, gather in exotic landscapes that are quite unlike anything familiar to the Dutch, not only in their own surroundings but even in paintings of other parts of Europe.
Strangest of all is the adoption of Chinese pictorial conventions and formulas for mountains and rocks, for eddying water or for billowing clouds, for trees and plants and hanging tendrils of vines. The pictorial language is completely different from the style of Italian majolica that had first influenced Dutch ceramics a century earlier (itself a fusion of Hispano-Moresque decorative motifs with figurative subjects related to contemporary painting).
This conscious imitation of a foreign style is unusual and has no parallel in mainstream painting of the time; it is confined to this particular craft domain. In a sense, therefore, Chinese painting is treated as a second-degree artistic language: not a way of painting that can be used to describe the world that the artist knows but simply cited as a set of forms that evoke another culture. Part of that culture, in turn, is a certain serene and dreamy vision of a nature that is as far from earthy realism as it is from the logical matrix of Western perspective.
Blue and white wares were thus admired above all because they embodied a certain idea of China. Consonant with that second-degree status is the way vases and plates were often collected in large numbers, installed on side tables and on brackets up a wall. There is a fine example of this kind of display in the exhibition.
Chinese ceramics lead the exhibition into further directions, including the quest, already mentioned, to discover the secret of porcelain manufacturing in Europe. This path leads us to England, Germany and France, and to most of the great names in modern Western ceramic manufacture, many of them still familiar today.
Another perspective, which is of some cultural significance, is the history of tea drinking. Tea and coffee are beverages that became integral parts of European daily life from the early modern period, and each has a wealth of stories, like the origin of modern maritime insurance at Lloyds' coffee house in late 17th-century London.
Of the two, coffee today seems to have the more glamorous image: it is chic to be a barista but not to be a tea lady. In China and Japan, of course, the drinking of tea is associated with refined ceremonies, and in the early days of tea in Europe it was a considerable luxury.
As we learn from the informative brochure that accompanies the exhibition, tea became fashionable in England during the Restoration, popularised by Charles II, who had acquired a taste for it in The Netherlands. In the course of the following century tea became the most important commodity imported from Asia to Europe.
The consumption of expensive luxuries is often surrounded by the mystique of ceremony, as well as beautiful and expensive equipment. And so it was with our tea sets, with their pots, sugar basins, milk jugs, cups and saucers, all of which invested the taking of tea with a certain ritual elegance long after the tea itself had ceased to be expensive. There are many fine examples here, the direct ancestors of the handsome Wedgwood and Spode tea services that our grandmothers kept for their more formal afternoon tea parties.
Less familiar than china - as all tableware came to be known - but also enormously popular, enigmatic and impossible to manufacture in Europe was lacquerware. Superficially at least, our appreciation of the hard, smooth surface of lacquer has probably been diminished by the ubiquity of plastics, although there is no comparison if one looks closely.
But in the early modern period lacquer was an expensive luxury, with a look and feel unlike anything else. Real lacquer is a natural polymer made from the resin of a tree that does not grow in Europe. It seems to have originated in China and travelled to Korea and Japan. The resin is dissolved in a solvent, coloured and applied in layer after layer to a wooden base; if the lacquer is built up thickly enough, it can even be carved, although a cheaper alternative is to lacquer already carved wood.
Europeans attempted to copy the process from a very early date, but as they did not have access to the lacquer tree they improvised with layers of shellac, a varnish derived from a beetle. Because the most admired lacquerwares came from Japan, the home-grown process came to be know as japanning and the pieces of furniture or other items produced in this way as japan.
Perhaps the finest piece of japan in the exhibition is an early chest made in England in the 1620s. It is a square cupboard whose doors open to reveal banks of drawers; it was presumably a kind of secretaire, with drawers for valuable papers and even money. The whole thing is mounted on a set of legs and, in a touch of oriental fusion, crowned with a pyramid.
Decorative motifs are painted in gold against the dark background, continuing the eclectic orientalism of the form itself. The open doors are particularly appealing, fantastic landscapes with figures and animals that combine Eastern influences with the kind of images found in contemporary woodblock book illustration and the legendary animals of travellers' tales, such as a winged lizard (perhaps recalling the winged serpents of which Herodotus spoke in Egypt) and a giant snail.
The owner of this curious piece of furniture was no doubt a rich and hard-headed businessman, but as he filed away a promissory note or looked for a contract letter he paused to dream momentarily of faraway and impossible places that he would never visit.