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Chinese Red Lacquerware Exhibition at Metropolitan Museum

Showcasing some 50 wondrously wrought examples, Cinnabar: The Chinese Art of Carved Lacquer, opening on August 6, will explore the development of this important artistic tradition from the 13th to the 18th century. Drawn from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s holdings as well as the collection of Florence and Herbert Irving, the installation will feature a number of masterworks, including newly acquired, rare 13th-century lacquer boxes for holding incense or cosmetics, and a recently restored eight-panel screen depicting a birthday celebration in an elaborate private compound. Dated 1773, this screen has never before been exhibited in public.

Ming dynasty“Lacquer is an art form that is easily appreciated for its bold colors and strong pictorial quality. However, it is worth remembering that carved lacquer requires extraordinary time and care in its creation,” said Denise Patry Leidy, Curator in the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Asian Art. “A tiny little slip, for example, can cause the artist to re-start the whole process again from the beginning. Any of a number of the objects you’ll see in this installation would have taken several years to complete,” she continued.

Known in China as early as the last Neolithic period (ca. 5000-2000 B.C.), the production of luxury articles in lacquer suffered an eclipse after the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–220). During the Tang dynasty (618-907), lacquer objects were finely constructed but were still rather plain in design. In the 12th century, however, a new class of luxury lacquer objects—carved lacquer—emerged. From then on, carved lacquer made significant advances both artistically and stylistically.

Lacquer is the resin, or sap, of rhus verniciflua, a family of trees found throughout southern China. The resin hardens when exposed to oxygen and becomes a natural plastic that is resistant to water and can withstand heat and certain acids. The red lacquer derives its color from cinnabar (powdered red sulphide of mercury) that is the most prominent colorant employed in carved lacquer, also identified as “cinnabar” lacquer. The production of carved lacquer requires laborious processes. Multiple layers of raw lacquer—often 30 or 35 but at times up to 200—are applied onto a substructure, usually made of wood. After drying in air, each layer is carved individually to create a lush geometric motif or engaging scenes of figures in landscapes and lively birds flitting among flowers.

Lacquer was—and still is—highly prized, especially when the artist manipulated the strata of resin to create meticulously carved imagery. Among the works on view, a 13th- or 14th-century incense box, adorned entirely with a bold design of pommel scrolls, demonstrates a characteristic feature of early carved lacquer in China: numerous layers of green and yellow lacquer are interspersed among the predominant red to give subtle depth to the overall design. In the late 14th and the 15th century, extraordinary lacquers with delicately carved backgrounds, in which different geometric designs are used to show earth, water, and sky, were produced. A supreme example of this type in the installation is the Seven-lobed Platter with Children at Play, a 14th-century masterpiece depicting women and children in a garden setting. The early 15th-century Sutra Box with Dragon is another impressive work on view. Thin lines carved into a red lacquer background are filled with gold to create the motif prowling along the sides of the box. The installation will also include a beautifully carved dish with a Chinese word for longevity entitled Octagonal Dish with Decoration of a Shou Character from the 16th century.

Cinnabar: The Chinese Art of Carved Lacquer is organized by Denise Patry Leidy. Installation design is by Michael Batista, Exhibition Design Manager; graphics are by Norie Morimoto, Graphic Designer; and lighting is by Clint Ross Coller and Richard Lichte, Lighting Design Managers, all of the Metropolitan Museum’s Design Department.