Frances Klapthor, Associate Curator for Asian Art
One of the BMA’s founding trustees, Julius Levy, was a successful businessman whose family company made men’s hats in the days when well dressed men wore hats. In summer, those would have been straw hats. And that straw came from China and Japan. Mr. Levy was so committed to establishing a public museum in Baltimore that he and another trustee purchased the Museum’s first home in Mount Vernon. There it opened in 1922 and remained until moving to Wyman Park in 1930.
Sadly, Julius Levy didn’t live to see the Museum relocated to its present building. But to honor his engagement with the Far East, as well as his devotion to the BMA, his family established in his memory a fund to purchase Asian art and a gallery for its display. What had originally been designated on architectural drawings as a children’s classroom instead became a gallery for Oriental Art, with beautiful paneled pearwood walls and a coffered silvergilt ceiling. It was the renovation and reopening of this gallery that caused my first encounter with this blue-and-white bottle.
Thirty years ago, the Museum had recently emerged from major construction: adding galleries for temporary exhibitions, a sculpture garden, visitor entrance, auditorium, shop, and restaurant. Now the BMA turned to the final part of the project: the Julius Levy Memorial Gallery for Asian Art. For me three decades ago a door swung open. That door was a vault door I unlocked with a dedicated key, which I had signed out at the guard’s station. It seemed an ordinary key to an ordinary room, a room painted battleship gray – not just the walls but even the concrete floor, all were the same gray. In the room were objects in storage cabinets and still-unpacked boxes returned from off-site storage. Just an ordinary room, yet guarded 24 hours a day. So: a vault. Vaults aren’t really ordinary. They hold treasure.
The bottle was in the vault, third cabinet on a middle shelf at eye level. I was drawn to the drawing on its surface, and to its shape. This bottle bore the symbol of China’s empress like a badge: a phoenix with spiky wings outspread, head turned sideways, beak slightly open and one small eye visible, feathered jaw and scaly chest, and long tail trailing out. The bottle’s edge was shaped like an elongated S, its lip turned outward, long neck arced down, its shoulder sloped into a round body that rested on the circle of its foot. The serpentine shape was further defined by the decoration: upright leaves ringing the neck, lotus panels descending around the shoulder, two phoenixes against leafy vines, upright lotus panels surrounding the bottom of the body, and beneath each of these a narrow patterned band. An early example of underglaze cobalt decoration on porcelain, the bottle embodies a combination of materials that would come to be desired almost around the world for many centuries. All of these things are its formal qualities. But the phoenix! That is the mythical creature that symbolizes rebirth.
The carpeted China room that opened in June 1985 will return next autumn as an education and community space, while the Asian art collection will be reborn in larger and more visible galleries that will open April 26, 2015. It could be that this bottle will be the first work you encounter in the new galleries. It bewitched me thirty years ago. It thrills me still.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.