Although lacquer is used in many Asian cultures, the art of carving lacquer is unique to China. Lacquer is the resin (or sap) of a family of trees (rhus verniciflua) found throughout southern China. It is an amazing material that hardens when exposed to oxygen and becomes a natural plastic that is resistant to water and can withstand heat and certain acids.
Known in China during the late Neolithic period (ca. 5000–ca. 2000 B.C.), lacquer was an important artistic medium from the sixth century B.C. to the second century A.D. and was often colored with minerals such as carbon (black), orpiment (yellow), and cinnabar (red) and used to paint the surfaces of sculptures and vessels. There is little evidence for the use of lacquer in China from the second to the eighth century: eighth- to tenth-century examples are often beautifully constructed but with simple shapes and little or no decoration. In the twelfth century, however, a new class of luxury lacquer objects—carved lacquer—appeared. Carved lacquer, which is predominantly red, is often known as "cinnabar" lacquer, a reference to the use of this powdered mercury sulphide as the primary colorant.
Like all lacquer objects, carved pieces have a base that is usually made of turned wood: it is the lacquer that is worked and not the underlying material. In the carved-lacquer technique, multiple layers (often thirty or thirty-five, but at times up to two hundred) are applied onto a substructure in the shape of a box or dish, exposed to air and dried, and carved to create lush geometric motifs, engaging scenes of figures enjoying nature, and lively birds flitting among flowers. In early examples, layers of yellow and green lacquer are interspersed among the predominant red to give a subtle depth to the overall design that is set against a plain background. The extraordinary narrative scenes found on lacquers of the late fourteenth and fifteenth century, on the other hand, have delicately carved backgrounds in which different geometric designs are used to show earth, water, and sky. In addition, in a related technique, a red lacquer background is carved with thin lines that are filled with gold, gold powder, or lacquer that has been tinted black, green, or yellow.
This exhibition, which celebrates the Museum's collection and includes significant loans from the Florence and Herbert Irving Collection, showcases approximately fifty examples dating from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century. It includes several recently acquired works as well as small boxes for holding incense or cosmetics and larger containers used for papers, scrolls, or presenting gifts. It also presents an important eighteenth-century screen that has recently been restored and is being displayed for the first time.