Quality is abundant in Chinese ceramics exhibit

January 24, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Helen D. Ling, whose fine collection of Chinese ceramics is on exhibit at the University of Maryland at College Park, was indomitable. Born Helen Dalling in Ohio in 1901, raised in Pennsylvania, she studied art in New York and in 1925 met Ti-Gi Ling, a Chinese chemical engineer from Cornell.

He returned to China. In 1928, she joined him, and they were married. They settled in Shanghai, where she began to study and collect Chinese art and opened a shop.

She remained in Shanghai until almost a year after its fall to the Communists in 1949, finally leaving for Hong Kong. Subsequently settled with her husband in Singapore, she opened the Helen D. Ling shop, which in the ensuing decades became internationally famous. William Holden, Elizabeth Taylor, Martha Graham and Barbara Bush were among its visitors.

Her own collection of ceramics was so good that after her death in 1982, the Freer Gallery in Washington bought objects from it. There was enough left, however, that the selection on view at College Park amply attests to "her intuitive feel for quality," as art historian Martha Ann Bari puts it in the show's catalog.

The 98 pieces on view demonstrate that she was not attracted by the largest or the flashiest objects. Rather, she selected pieces that reflected their periods of creation and were distinguished by their rarity, integrity of form and restrained beauty.

The exhibit encompasses a time period stretching from three pieces created in the 7th to 5th centuries B.C., during the Eastern Zhou dynasty, down to works of the 19th century, in the late Qing dynasty. Among the distinguished early works are three jars from the Western Han dynasty (2nd and 1st century B.C.), with green glaze, simple but elegant incised and relief decoration and bold shapes.

From the Tang dynasty come nine charming figurines of people and animals (7th and 8th century), originally painted in multi-colors, including a pair of musicians on horseback, a pair of sinuously clad female dancers, a seated dog and a miniature lion.

Ling's penchant for the delightful is also shown in a tiny (only about 1 by 1 1/2 inches) Tang whistle in the shape of a plump, round bird with projecting beak (about 8th century); and in a Tang covered oil box with a tiny mouse decorating its top (about 9th century). According to scholar Fan Dongqing, writing in the catalog, it refers to "a Chinese nursery rhyme in which a mouse scurries up a lamp to steal some oil."

The collector's eye for the rare is attested by a Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) incense burner from Hebei province, in "purple" (actually reddish brown) Ding ware. There are only five known examples of this ware in the world.

From the early Qing dynasty comes a bowl decorated in blue, red and green -- all applied before the glaze was added and the piece fired. This underglaze color combination was used only during the reign of the Kangxi emperor (1662-1722), never earlier or later.

This exhibit can offer enjoyable and instructive hours; Fan Dongqing writes, "Even in this relatively small collection, which represents many centuries and numerous kilns of China, the essential history of porcelain unfolds."


What: "The Helen D. Ling Collection of Chinese Ceramics"

Where: Art Gallery, Art-Sociology Building, University of Maryland College Park

When: Noon to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays (until 9 p.m. Wednesdays), 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through March 9

Call: (301) 405-2763

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