My favorite thing about the #throwbackthursday highlights from the Timeline that we’ve been doing on the blog this month is getting to see things from the perspective of different museum employees. And today brings both a very special piece from our collection and a touching remembrance of an incredible man and donor, as recalled by Luke Kelly, our Curator of Antiquities.
Chinese Imperial Vase with Bats and Clouds
written by Luke Kelly, Curator of Antiquities
The most iconic piece of Chinese porcelain that has been on display in the museum is this Imperial bat and cloud vase. Retaining its bright blue clouds and red bats against the milky white background, one could think it is a modern piece. However, it was made sometime around 1736-1750. The uniqueness and high quality also suggests the Emperor Qianlong who ruled China from 1736 to 1799 either commissioned it or received it as a gift. However, what was the purpose of the piece?
Many visitors seeing Chinese porcelain for the first time may not realize there is latent language of symbolism on many of the pieces. The choice of bats and clouds for this vase was neither random nor purely decorative. In spoken Chinese, the pronunciation of the words “bat” and “happiness” are rather similar. In addition, the bat is a symbol of longevity. Placing bats amongst the clouds was a message to the viewer saying, “May your longevity and happiness be as great as heaven is high.” One of those viewers was a collector and connoisseur of Chinese porcelain, Bert G Clift Jr.
The relationship between Burt Clift and the museum goes back to the early 70s when the museum began exhibiting parts of his collection. His pieces would compose a large part of our Chinese installations in the old and new buildings. I was able to meet and work with him starting in the mid-2000s when our then decorative arts curator left for a new job. Many of our conversations were around a current display of his porcelain; Burt was a living library on Chinese porcelain. However, I picked up pieces of his life story when he talked about a particular piece. I learned about his time in Japan in the early 1950s when he first bought porcelain pieces that would launch his passion. Always at the end of the conversation, I would have more questions that would have to wait until the next time to ask him. Sadly, our last conversation was a few months before his death in February 2012. He knew the importance of his collection and the museum, so he arranged that it would become part of the permanent collection. His pieces, gifted by bequest to the UMFA, comprise 219 works dating from 700 B.C.E.-1910 B.C.E., a date range that spans almost the entire history of Chinese ceramics until the twentieth century.