Horse and rider from the tomb of princess Yongtai.
Horses are not indigenous to China although they formed a crucial part of the military power of the Tang dynasty, whose emperors ruled the Empire from 618 to 907 AD. At that time riding was a popular pass-time among the Chinese elite who could afford the upkeep of their stables: horses were a status symbol, much like art is now. The Tang dynasty is known for its cultural openness and the resulting quality of its arts – pottery horses in particular. Elegant yet sturdy in shape they are often embellished with vibrant green and yellow glazes and fine examples in good condition are a sight to behold. I will take any opportunity to go see one where I can and this month I got lucky at TEFAF in Maastricht and the Drents Museum in Assen, the provincial capital of Drenthe in the Northern Netherlands.
Thanks to the quality of the pieces on show TEFAF is probably the most prominent fine art and antiques fair worldwide. From the 15th until the 24th of March an astonishing array of Old Master paintings, antique furniture and collectibles, contemporary art and antiquities were on lavish display at the MECC in Maastricht. This year was TEFAF’s 25th anniversary and the hefty catalogue included an informative booklet on the history of the fair. The public at TEFAF is distinctly Northern-European, more so than at Art Basel, the Armory or Frieze: clearly well-off but classically dressed without overt displays of wealth. Walking around with a glass of wine and a couple of oysters would be pleasant anywhere but at the TEFAF it is an experience that I look forward to every year: there are just so many fantastic artworks to admire. I found my Tang horse at Ben Janssens Oriental Art: a particularly attractive Sancai (a type of lead-glazed) pottery horse and rider, prominently displayed at the back of the stand.
Sancai pottery horse and rider. Image courtesy of Ben Janssens Oriental Art.
Not having had the time to see even one-third of all of TEFAF’s treasures, the following week I visited the Drents Museum in Assen to check out its exhibition on China’s Golden Age. Designed for the museum’s newly-built wing, the exhibition comprises five sleek pavilions housing approximately 150 archeological treasures made of silver, gold, glass, stone and pottery. The Tang dynasty has been compared to the Dutch Golden Age which took place in the 16th and 17th centuries and which was well-known for its religious tolerance. By the same token, this dynasty was the wealthiest in Chinese history due to the trade generated by the Silk Route and the interactions with India, the Middle East and Europe. The resulting economic and political stability facilitated an unusually open and tolerant era for China in which the visual arts were allowed to flourish. The well-preserved artefacts at the exhibition – including, neatly displayed on their own shelves, a number of beautiful horses – are testimony to the craftsmanship of the Tang artisans. It is fascinating that two millennia ago these objects were considered precious enough to be buried with their owners and that today, exhibited in high-end art galleries and public museums, they evoke a similar admiration.