I’ve got a confession to make: I’m a bit obsessed with these tiles.
Made in Delft at the end of the seventeenth or start of the eighteenth century, they speak of many different threads of the story of international trade and European expansion. Most of the motifs are authentically Chinese, derived from Kangxi era (1661-1722) porcelain, although the deities, warriors and young maidens have been cut from their original context and rearranged in a manner that makes little sense within Chinese decorative tradition. This was of no importance to European craftsmen, who believed that Chinese art was inherently illogical. Such an idea is articulated by Jean Pillement in ‘The Ladies Amusement, or, Whole Art of Japanning Made Easy,’ an English treatise aimed at amateur japanners, which argued that ‘with Indian and Chinese Subjects, greater Liberties may be taken, because Luxuriance of Fancy recommends their Productions more than Propriety, for in them is often seen a Butterfly supporting an Elephant, or Things equally ab- surd.’ This can be seen in the tiles with the oversized and out of proportion birds and flowers that inhabit the landscape, creating a sense of prodigality and wondrousness.
However, most bizarre of all (and totally unique to these tiles) are the black figures, who are inspired by Albert Eckhout’s paintings of African slaves in Dutch Brazil. In this way they allude to many aspects of globalisation, from the European fashion for Chinese porcelain, to the new taste for sugar, fuelled by the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. The tiles even hint at this tragic waste of human life, as the African figure towards the bottom is pursued by warriors, her fleshy, near-naked body seemingly in danger of being very literally consumed.
Click through for more information about the tiles (and Albert Eckhout’s pictures) on the Rijksmuseum website.