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From Kiln and Kitchen to Gallery:
The Story of Asia’s Storage Jars

Twenty-four large stoneware and earthenware jars created between 771 B.C. and the 18th century will be on view Oct. 29, 2000 through March 10, 2002 at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art (Jefferson and 12th Streets S.W.) in “Storage Jars of Asia.” This exhibition chronicles in detail not only the manufacture but also the transformation of these robust jars-which for their time served the function of modern crates, barrels, bottles and “Tupperware” containers-from utilitarian objects to works of art.

“Until recently, throughout Asia stoneware storage jars were indispensable for countless needs of domestic life, commercial transactions and long-distance trade,” says Freer curator of ceramics Louise Cort. Jars held liquids or foodstuffs such as water, oil, wine, rice beer, soy sauce, pepper paste, vinegar and fish sauce. They protected seed grain, medicinal herbs and textiles from humidity, insects and rodents. Stashes of coins and jewelry as well as sacred texts were buried in jars, which were also used to ferment indigo baths for dyers. Employed as sounding devices beneath Japanese theater stages, they also served as the final resting place for the cremated remains of the dead. Some jars were so prized that their exchange played an integral part in marriage and peace negotiations while others were ignored as everyday kitchen objects.

“Big Chinese jars first made the transition from useful items to objects of connoisseurship in the countries that received them in trade-Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines-where they were exotic rather than common, scarce rather than abundant,” says Cort. Attracting the eye of collector and Freer founder, Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919), Asian storage jars have also become prized and admired in the West for their bold and beautiful, curvilinear forms. Bulbous or slim, narrow or large-necked, smooth or textured, unglazed jars were made in colors ranging from the lightest gray to deep red. Many sport lustrous gold, dark blue or black glazes.

This exhibition explains how the jars were shaped, fired and sometimes glazed as well as how function determined form. Large jars-too heavy to move when filled-were designed for storage. Slender jars-easy to lift and pack-were designed for transportation. Wide mouths with sturdy rims admitted ladles for dipping, and narrow mouths were more efficient for pouring or sealing shut. Smooth surfaces were slippery when wet, so textured surfaces were easier to hold.

The 24 jars presented here originated in China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Burma, Iran and Syria and have never before been exhibited together. The earliest, a Chinese jar from the Eastern Zhou period (771-223 B.C.), is made of unglazed pottery. A late-sixth-century Japanese, natural ash-glazed stoneware jar-placed as furnishing to hold food for the afterlife in the tomb of nobility-is an example of elite ceramic “sue” ware. The newest object in the exhibition, a SHIGARAKI or SETO ware jar, has a rice-straw ash glaze. Manufactured in Japan (circa 1700-1868) as an inexpensive alternative to more costly imported jars, it was probably used to hold merchandise in a teashop. Chinese jars it emulated, including a Yuan (1279-1368) or Ming (1368-1644) tea leaf storage jar purchased by Freer, also are on view.

Other objects in the exhibition include two glazed Syrian jars traditionally said to have been made around 1000-1200 in the old city of Raqqa on the Euphrates River; an inscribed Iranian jar from the Ilkhanid period (1284-1285); and glazed and unglazed “Martaban” jars from Thai and Burmese kilns. The most prized Martaban jars were considered by their owners in the highlands of insular Southeast Asia to be able to move on their own over long distances, to marry and produce offspring. Heirloom jars were essential as bride-wealth when negotiating marriages and were traded instead of human heads to conclude inter-village feuds.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries’ Web site at

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