Aside from the rise in the last 10 years of today’s contemporary Chinese fine artists like Ai Weiwei , Yue Minjun and Zhou Fan, China’s artistic past has been tied to its glorious historic fine and decorative arts tradition that ceased around the fall of the Qing dynasty in the early years of the 20th century.
Think of the incredible and infinitely beautiful jades I’ve highlighted in the past or of the ivory carvings that seem to spring to life with their delicate flowers and tracery. Perhaps to our modern sensibility these arts are passé, but if you dig deep, it is possible to find such precious pieces with the simple lines and colors that are easy on today’s eye. How many times have I said … “it’s so old it’s new”!
Case in point, is this little gem-like cup made from rhinoceros horn. These cups have become incredibly rare and sought after by connoisseurs, commanding huge prices as ever more prosperous Chinese compete to own treasures from their past. Rhinoceros horn has a long history in Chinese art, with the earliest pieces dating from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. when the large beasts roamed the area around the Yellow River. By the time of the Ming Court (1368-1644), there was so much demand for the horns that they had to be imported from Indonesia and India.
The best artistic workshops produced rhinoceros horn carvings exclusively for the Imperial Court. No doubt this explains the high quality of these pieces (as well as the increased modern demand). To add to the fury over the horns, the Chinese use the horn in traditional medicine, and the fact that so many carvings are of cups is no coincidence; it’s believed that the medicinal properties of the horn will transfer to the liquids and on to the user.
Most of the rhinoceros cups I’ve seen are overly carved with figures, lotus and flowers, but the pure simplicity of this piece fits perfectly with our modern aesthetic. The light amber color that radiates a warm glow and the simple petal-formed rim are all the decoration that’s required.