From Functional to Decorative: How Did Vases Transition Into Sculpture?

We may think of vases as a purely functional item, you put flowers and water in them and that’s it, but vases have come to be more than that. These days they can be just as ornamental and complex as any other piece of sculpture or art. But how did this happen? How did vases transition into being a form of art?

Almost every culture and civilisation to ever exist has utilised vases in their everyday life in one form or another. In the initial stages, vases were a tool to transport and store liquid usually water, they were essential for survival. In some ways, this basic function has not changed, think about how we use bottles to store liquid still, the only difference being the material we use to do so.

Pottery wheels require a lot of delicacy, patience and also knowing when to stop. It is easy to ruin the structural integrity of a piece by removing too much clay.

Primitive techniques of ceramic making included using coiling techniques involving coiling long thin rolls of clay on top of each other to create a basic shape and then smoothing the side down to create a watertight container. This technique is still in use today and is often one of the first things one learns when starting ceramics before moving onto the pottery wheel.

An unadorned clay vase with a very bulbous shape achieved by the structural stability the pottery wheel allows.

The pottery wheel is one of the most well-known aspects of pottery making and rightly so as its invention altered pottery making for millennia to come. It is widely thought that the pottery wheel was invented in Mesopotamia around the 4th millennium BCE and spread throughout Eurasia and Africa. Its invention allowed for vases and other tablewares to be produced more efficiently and with greater structural integrity, this intern allowed for potters to experiment with shapes and gave them the ability to push their craft beyond previously thought limits. This combined with the ancient tradition of giving flowers to mark an occasion pushed demand for vases to accentuate and compliment the beauty of the flowers that they held or act as a tribute in memory of someone’s life for use as an urn.

The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians were particularly known for their decorative pottery and much of modern pottery still uses the shapes and patterns developed by these cultures. However, it was the discovery of porcelain by the Chinese during the Shang Dynasty (1600 - 1046BC) that truly changed the face of ceramics.

A stunning example of the progression of how intricate vases became even during ancient times with this vase from Ancient Egypt.

Porcelain Vases

Lladró’s Gold Naturofantastic Vase is a beautiful combination of modern sculptural aesthetic mixed with a classic shape and material.

The creation of porcelain was a long and arduous process taking centuries to perfect and become what we recognise today as porcelain. Almost immediately, porcelain drew the attention of the rich and powerful in ancient China because of its pristine, white surface. Porcelain was also noted for how well it holds its colour, being favoured because it remains as vibrant as the day it was created. This is evidenced by the sheer number of ancient Chinese vases around the world today that still brilliantly hold their rich and vibrant blues, reds and white colours. Read more about how porcelain retains its colour.

Cultural transmission via the silk road and during the crusades allowed for moulding, firing and decorative techniques to be shared throughout the Middle East and Europe. It is thought that because Chinese porcelain was so highly prized, particularly by Islamic and Arab buyers that the decorations on vases became more and more intricate to compliment the aesthetics of Islamic art. This flow-on effect, eventually reach Europe around the 14th Century, captivating the market there for hundreds of years with many artisans trying to replicate Chinese porcelain with little success.

The eventual discovery of the formula and techniques used to create China-ware in Europe allowed for new possibilities and aesthetics to develop. Many of the styles associated with porcelain vases today are a mixture of traditional European aesthetics favoured since antiquity and also the Rococo aesthetics of the time used by 19th Century Meissen who were one of the first porcelain brands in Europe. However, many of the techniques used by Meissen and other European ceramicists are techniques developed and pioneered by Chinese sculptors for thousands of years beforehand.

Lladró’s Vases

In today’s day and age, vases have become far more sculptural than ever before, this is partly thanks to a greater knowledge of different cultures and access to modern technology. It is also a result of post-modernist art movements that shaped much of the 20th Century and still continue to influence contemporary art and current tastes.

Lladró’s vases range from practical with subtle ornamental touches to modern works of art in their own right. Lladró has a unique ability to expertly merge the style of modern designers such as Jamie Hayon with their signature pastels, creating eyecatching yet subtle pieces. Read more about how to decorate with vases.

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