A FEW REMARKS ON THE METAL MOUNTS
Some Western scholars consider mounted porcelains as a "charming marriage of East and West" in the words of Will Strafford.
Deborah Gribbon, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, wrote that the Oriental porcelain with Parisian gilt-bronze mounts, which forms a small but significant part of the Getty Museum's collection of decorative arts, «provide tangible evidence of cultural contact in the eighteenth century between China and Japan and the West.» (in Gillian Wilson, Mounted Oriental Porcelain in the J. Paul Getty Museum, cit.).
I do not agree.
Let's abandon a Euro-centric approach to adopt a cross-cultural sensitive perspective to look at the application of metal fitting: well then, the highly ambiguous attitude of the Europeans comes to light.
This ambiguity is well conveyed by the term used in France during the 17th and 18th centuries to indicate the application of a metal mount: enjoliver. This verb has two different meanings in French.
- It means rendre quelque chose plus joli, to embellish something in the precise sense of decorating it, making it more beautiful by adding decorative elements.
- It means embellir quelque chose de détails plus ou moins fausses, embellish something in the sense of sugarcoating it; enjoliver une histoire ou la vérité means to embellish a story or the truth by camouflaging some of its aspects and adding fake details.
This ambiguity was not a 'privilege' of France, of course: it was well shared by many Europeans. On one hand, the use of semi-precious metal mounts shows their admiration and the high regard in which they kept Chinese and Japanese porcelain pieces, at least the most valued and fine ones. On the other, however, the ease with which they could manipulate them and turn them into different objects tells us the widespread tendency to regard those dearly paid items not as expressions of different cultures but as precious playthings and possessions that gave the possessor any right on them. Was it a 'cultural' appropriation? A kind of aggressive consumption? Was it a subtle form of 'colonialism'?
I will discuss this issue at the end of all chapters.
Many times the porcelain pieces were heavily altered to be fitted: the rim had to be filed to accept the silver collar, the foot or the spout had to be cut down to suit the mount, the body drilled to become the upper part of a potpourri or a fountain, and so on. Moreover, the application of an 'alien' and heavy metal mount had the effect of watering down and even erasing the meanings embedded in the original shapes and decorations. Was it a form of spoliation?
Sometimes, I get the impression that in this "charming marriage of East and West", each Chinese piece had to be a 'tamed shrew ' to be fully 'embellished and accepted within the European family'. We should not forget, moreover, that the application of richly elaborate metal mounts did not have simply ornamental and functional purposes: it also served to embed a new social meaning and add new values to the pieces. Europe viewed Chinese objects as luxurious commodities, status symbols, displays of social power, expressions of fine taste, a fashionable trend, a mania, a craze, an obsession... always with a fascination imbued with superficial exoticism but devoid of deep cultural interest. In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, most of the wealthy buyers and collectors had a vague idea of China, made up of truths, half-truths, fantasies, and pure hogwash, held together by the image of a very distant, rich, and exotic kingdom full of strange wonders. Most admirers and users of Chinese porcelain ware had no deep interest in knowing China culture, and their attitude was devoid of cultural respect. As we'll see in the next chapters and discuss in the last, this respect develops from a cultural encounter, not from a commercial and emotional surface relationship.
Lastly, I would add that some forms of this "marriage of East and West" are not happy unions. The metal mounts, especially the English ones, which are so stuffy and overdecorated, and the ormolu French fittings, so heavy and gaudy, end up suffocating the purity of design and the harmony of shape and function of many Asian pieces. Look at the ensemble below.