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Mother of Pearl

The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue are made possible by The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation.

Exhibition objects

Mother-of-Pearl

A Tradition in Asian Lacquer

December 2, 2006–April 1, 2007

Accompanied by a catalogue

Produced in places as diverse as China, Korea, Japan, India, and Thailand, and ranging in date from the eighth to the nineteenth century, the objects in this exhibition illustrate the technical and thematic development found in works of art made using a combination of lacquer and mother-of-pearl. They range in size from small boxes used for incense or cosmetics to large screens that divided and decorated interiors. Many of the objects have ritual or cultural significance. Some were used to hold religious texts or papers and other supplies associated with the art of writing. Others illustrate themes important in the history and literature of their respective cultures.

Lacquer—an English word derived from the Portuguese word lacré (sealing wax)—refers to the resin of a family of trees (rhus verniciflua) widely found in southern China, Korea and Japan, and mainland Southeast Asia. Lacquer is an amazing material. When tapped from the tree, it is white or light gray in color and has a consistency similar to that of molasses. When exposed to oxygen and humidity (about 70 or 80 degrees Fahrenheit), lacquer hardens, or polymerizes, becoming a natural plastic. It is resistant to water and certain acids and can withstand heat, making it an ideal protective covering.

The term "mother-of-pearl" has been used since at least the sixteenth century to describe the lustrous material in the interior of mollusks, such as the sea-ear, nautilus, and green snail, found in warm waters, both fresh and marine, in many parts of the world. Harvesting mother-of-pearl requires, at a minimum, the boiling and cutting of the shell and the careful trimming and polishing of pieces into desired shapes. Additional steps are needed to inlay the mother-of-pearl into a lacquer base.

A Variety of Traditions

The combination of lacquer and mother-of-pearl can be traced to some of China's earliest cultures. Works using both materials dating from as early as the eighth century have also been found in Korea, Japan, and Thailand. By the twelfth century, artisans working in southern China began to use smaller and thinner pieces of mother-of-pearl to create sumptuous painted scenes of flora and fauna, and figures in landscapes. In later periods, these mosaic-like images were sometimes enhanced with gold leaf and other precious materials. Examples of Chinese artistic influence is often found in Korean lacquers and in works produced in the Ryukyu Islands (better known as Okinawa).

Japanese lacquers illustrate a distinctive technique known as makie, or "sprinkled gold," in which the surface of the ground is gold rather than black. New forms and designs appear in Japanese lacquer beginning in the late 16th and early 17th century, reflecting the arrival in India of the Portuguese (followed by the Dutch and English) and the subsequent development of global maritime trade. Indian and Japanese craftsman also made objects with shapes and designs that were intended for trade to Europe. In Japan, these goods were often known as nanban, or works made for "southern barbarians," a term widely used to designate Europeans in the 16th and early 17th centuries. Indian goods decorated with mother-of-pearl set into a lacquer-like base are preserved in Europe in some number, often in the holdings of cathedrals and royal treasuries. The continuing use in the West of the inelegant and somewhat inaccurate term "japanning" to describe the wonderful and varied tradition of Asian lacquer reflects the striking and long-lasting impact of these works on European and American artistic traditions.