Asian Urns

On the history, culture & significance of (mostly) Asian Urns


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Urns are almost as old as man – and more varied in their materials and crafting than most other objects.

”All people did the urn -it’s the one object that goes through all art history,” Edward H. Merrin said, explaining why he is presenting ”The Eternal Urn,” at his gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue (at 57th Street), through Feb. 8. This is a small, esoteric show of vessels made for cooking or for storing foods, oil, ointments or the ashes of the dead. The exhibition focuses on beautiful shapes and surfaces of what most people think of as quite ordinary objects.

”Most of the pots ever made are utilitarian – only a few are wonderful,” Mr. Merrin said. ”Some things never change. In ancient times and today, very few people have succeeded in making exceptional vessels.”

Most of the 18 containers chosen are more memorable for their shapes than their surface decoration. The majority are, in fact, undecorated works. They vary considerably in size, from an Olmec cosmetic jar, less than two inches tall, to a fourth century B.C. Greek presentation urn on a pedestal base, almost three feet in height. Some vases are equipped with feet, pedestal or handles – most are not. Eight are terra cotta, five are stone (alabaster and granite), four are metal (bronze and silver) and one is wood.

Mr. Merrin uses the term urn to describe these works, partly because it sounds poetic, he said, but mostly because it connotes an important pot, ewer, pitcher, mortar, vase or jar -the sort of vessels ancient man would use in burial rites. Indeed, many of these objects, which date from about 3200 B.C. to the 18th century, were funerary works. There are 17 antiquities – Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Egypto-Roman, Achaemenid, Olmec, Mayan, Incan and Colima – and one antique wood bowl made in Hawaii 200 years ago.

A 5,000-year-old Egyptian pre-dynastic vase – a granite ovoid – is the oldest and most arresting in form of the vessels on view. Mr. Merrin discussed the exquisite refinement of its elliptical shaping and the satiny smoothness of its speckled surface, adding: ”I don’t think they gave a bad craftsman a piece of granite to work on in antiquity. The people who worked in marble had to be the king’s finest artisans. I am sure these vessels would have been destroyed if they were not beautiful. Do you know what work is entailed in cutting that stone? It’s an impossibly hard material, especially worked with hand tools. It must have taken months to hollow it out and sand it.”

The four Olmec alabaster vessels are the smallest, possibly the most beautiful and certainly the only potentially lethal wares in the show. The cinnabar surface on these cosmetic jars is mercury-based – which represents a health hazard when it comes in contact with the skin, one reason they are under a plastic cover in the show. ”We wash our hands after handling them,” Mr. Merrin said.

Another treasure is a Roman bronze pot, made in Syria in the first or second century A.D., with fluted decoration, beaded rim and carrying handle. The design is so impressive that in a photograph it appears to be huge – a great caldron that one might see steaming on the hearth in an ancient hall. In fact, this pot is tiny – less than four inches tall.

The more complex sixth century B.C. Achaemenid silver vessel with bull handles carries the highest price tag – $195,000. And for good reason. This ancient Persian pot is a superbly crafted specimen, as robust as it is rare. Its shapely handles are miniature sculptures, the body is aswirl with rich classical detailing, and the condition is excellent.

”I also wanted to show mass-produced vessels,” Mr. Merrin said, pointing out two examples – the Greek-style wine jug and cup produced in the fourth century B.C. in Apulia, in southern Italy. ”The potter did 40 or 50 examples a day – and someone else decorated them.” The assembly-line production was more successful in the forms of these vessels than the painted decoration of stylized leaves and snakes, embellishing the black glazed surfaces. ”When you do a lot of anything, it loses its spontaneity,” Mr. Merrin commented. They sold well anyway and were used as burial vessels, he added.

Not all the decorations on the painted urns in this show are as uninspired. On a polychrome terra cotta Mayan pot, for example, we are drawn back to a palace of the 7th to 10th century A.D. in which attendants are shown bearing a mask and mirror to their ruler. Significantly, the vessel on which this miniature mural appears is one of the least interesting in its shape, which is a conventional cylindrical tub about six inches in height.

Collectors who specialize in one or more of the historical areas represented in this show may be quite at home with the variety of expressions shown. Actually, nothing is required of the viewer except to admire the great shapes, Mr. Merrin insists. He has, for that reason, included as many classical pieces as his inventory allowed. A Colima bowl from the west coast of Mexico is a case in point – its bulbous gadrooned body on three parrot feet, crafted of burnished terra cotta a century or two before or after Christ’s birth – must be the first shape we think of when recalling this culture.

Collectors who become interested in such vessels soon discover that most command lower prices than sculptural works, especially animal or human figures. The selections in this show range from $700 for the Greek wine jug or a two-handled cup crafted in southern Italy in the fourth century B.C., to $195,000, for the Persian silver vessel with bull handles.


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