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Earth and Fire – Engobe Pots

The special appeal of old things is hard to define. It evokes diverse subjective sentiments. In the case of these ancient bonsai pots one could be of the opinion that they are too ornate and kitschy, or otherwise that they are an expression of a sensual life close to nature.

The latter has a special appeal for me, because these pots are evidence of a culture which was able to relate itself to nature and to merge with nature. The facets of being a part of nature are the daily routine of cultural and spiritual life.

Thinking about those old pots brings many aspects to my mind. Our western linear perception of time is opposed to a cyclic expression of time in Chinese painting, circular, ever repeating, endless. This is symbolized by the change of the seasons, the sun, moon, tides, becoming and deceasing.

Viewing such ancient pots makes you feel that even perfection is transitory. Cracks, fissures and chippings are symbols of transience and they give a special dignity and patina to the pots.


This pot impresses with its shape and finish. It is a remarkably beautiful pot that will not have been produced in a series. I am fascinated ever again that old Chinese pots which have an exactly symmetrical shape look perfectly balanced in spite of the unevenly placed image frames, figures and ornaments. In this pot, which is beyond all criticism of being amateurish, the even and the uneven create an inimitable harmonic unity.

The unusual shape of the pot measures 28 cm x 17 cm x 18 cm. If you want to learn more about this pot please read the article „Fingertraces“ in the category „The Taste of Fire“ of this website,.



In the following I will tell you about the engobe technique.
The word engobe is from the French language and means a suspended and diluted clay. (More about the different engobe techniques can be found here).

The engobe technique is as old as the handcraft of pottery itself and of course it was also used in old China for decorating bonsai pots. The pots shown in this article were coloured with a pale yellow engobe on a red clay body. Inside the pots the red colour of the basic clay is clearly visible.

The single manufacturing processes were carried out by several persons in most cases. The potter created the basic shape. The artist of the family took over and decorated it with motifs and characters, mostly extracts from poems or songs.

Those were carved or cut into the moist clay using diverse bamboo knifes. After this the coloured engobe was applied onto the leatherhard pot with a sponge ore a brush.

The ornaments or characters were deeper that the pot's wall and because of this they remained uncoloured. Now they became clearly visible contrasting the coloured engobe. After drying the pots were fired in a single firing process.

(Article to be continued as required)

All these pots are from the collection of Paul Lesniewicz.
Text and photographs: Peter Krebs
Translation: Heike van Gunst