A trio of pebbles: Korean mother-of-pearl lacquerware, part 2

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These massive, lustrous pebbles dominate the final section of the current Korean mother-of-pearl lacquerware exhibit at the Asian Art Museum. They are displayed in an adjoining gallery, alongside other contemporary works inspired by the mother-of-pearl concept.

The three giant pebbles by Hwang Samyong (b.1960) are made from lacquer and mother-of-pearl applied to fibreglass. This involves slicing the mother-of-pearl into very thin strips, a technique used on some of the more traditional pieces in the main exhibit.

Each pebble is a different colour, depending on the material used. The dark pebble (2014) uses black-pearl oyster shell from the Philippines and Indonesia. The green pebble (2015) uses native Korean abalone shell. The white pebble (2016) uses white-pearl oyster shell from Tahiti. The artist works from photographs of real pebbles, magnified up to 100 times.

I love how materials lifted from one type of natural object (seashells) are manipulated to recreate another type of natural object (pebbles), and one that you might also find on the seashore, suggested here by the mirrored surface on which the pebbles have come to rest.

Mother-of-Pearl Lacquerware from Korea
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
29 April to 23 October 2016

Above: Hwang Samyong, Pebble (P1409), 2014; Pebble (P1501), 2015; Pebble (P1602), 2016. Mother-of-pearl and lacquer on fibreglass. Length of longest pebble: 90cm. Crosspoint Cultural Foundation, Korea. Seen at Asian Art Museum, San Francisco in 2016. Photo: SF.

Black and white and nacreous all over: Korean mother-of-pearl lacquerware

image lacquer box
An exhibition of Korean mother-of-pearl lacquerware, on view at the Asian Art Museum, is one of those small but precious shows that invites you to delve deep into one particular subject.  A selection of 25 pieces, crafted between the 1600s and the 1900s, showcases the exceptional skills of Korean artisans in this field, and the wide variety of objects that were decorated in this way.

A rectangular box features a design of peonies, configured in rhythmic, curving lines. The peony was a common motif on mother-of-pearl lacquerware, signifying fortune and prosperity.  However, in this case the technique used is especially demanding, with the tendrils made from mother-of-pearl instead of wires. This involves preparing a very thin sheet of mother-of-pearl, from which long thin strips are cut with a special saw, and then applied to the surface.

A more pictorial design is found on a table, decorated with a bird on a plum branch, the plum being one of the “Three Friends of Winter” (plum, pine and bamboo) that stood for the virtues of the literati, especially in the face of hardship.  Very thin strips of mother-of-pearl have been used to create the individual bamboo leaves and pine needles.

Plum blossoms make another appearance on a lobed round dish, the lacquer applied this time not over wood but over paper, thickly layered. Korean paper was much sought after, in China as well as Korea, and its use here shows how versatile it could be. Both this dish and the table with the bird and trees were newly acquired in 2016.

These few examples illustrate some of the beauty and variety on offer. They are complemented by useful displays that explain the technical steps involved, and a short video that covers the same steps in more detail. Recommended.

Mother-of-Pearl Lacquerware from Korea
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
29 April to 23 October 2016

Above: Box with peony motif. 1550-1650. Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Lacquered wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Height 14cm; width 38.1cm; depth 30.8cm. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo: SF.

Below: Table with bird and trees motif. 1700-1800. Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Lacquered wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Height 11cm; width 49.1cm; depth 26cm. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo: SF.

image lacquer table v2

Below: Dish with moon and plum blossoms motif. 1800-1900. Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Lacquered paper with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Diameter 27cm. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo: SF.

image lacquer dish v2

Ming blockbuster at the British Museum

pic gold basin
Just opened at the British Museum is a new blockbuster show on the art of China’s Ming dynasty, focused on the years 1400 to 1450. There is something for everyone here: exceptional ceramics, red lacquer boxes, gold jewellery, weapons, robes, handscrolls, printed books, and the list goes on.

The displays are thematic, surveying different contexts for which objects were produced, including the military, culture, religion and trade and diplomacy. This style of presentation is the norm, but I felt in one respect it fell short.

Many items are on loan from China, in particular numerous pieces excavated in 2001 from the Tomb of Prince Zhuang Liang and Lady Wei, in Zhongxiang, Hubei Province. You encounter them in a trickle as you go round the exhibition, arranged according to theme, but I think this could have been a centrepiece of the exhibition, and the impact would have been so much greater – something to capture the imagination of budding archaeologists, along the lines of Tomb Treasures of Han China (2012), at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

That said, I loved what I saw. Particular highlights for me were: two evocative handscrolls from Berlin, Spring Rain at the Xiang River by Xia Chang and Plum Blossom in Moonlight by Chen Lu; an exquisite Buddhist sutra from a private collection, delicately inscribed in gold ink on shiny black paper; a large gilt bronze bodhisattva from the Musée Cernuschi; and a very fine gold basin and ewer from Philadelphia, decorated with engraved dragons and semi-precious stones.

A particular strength of the show is its systematic exploration of China’s interactions with other nations, such as Korea, Japan, south-east Asia, the Timurids in Iran, Central Asia and the Islamic world. One not to be missed – you will definitely learn something new.

Ming: 50 years that changed China
British Museum, London
18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015

Above: Gold basin. Ming dynasty (1368-1644); early 15th century; Xuande period (1426-1435). Gold with engraved decoration of five-clawed dragons; gemstones. Height 7.1cm; breadth 25.9cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image: Philadelphia Museum of Art, at http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/168506.html?mulR=1396734987|2#

Below: Bodhisattva. Ming Dynasty (1368-1644); mark of Yongle period (1403-1424). Gilt bronze. Height 136cm. Musée Cernuschi. Image: Musée Cernuschi, at http://www.cernuschi.paris.fr/en/collections/bodhisattva-0

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Encounters with samurai at the Pitt Rivers

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The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is cramped but always intriguing, its cases packed with treasures from around the world. Objects are grouped thematically but a good starting point for the japanophile is the Upper Gallery, “Shields, Spears, Samurai”. For some reason, I have tended to shy away from displays of samurai armour and weaponry, but here you come nose-to-nose with it.

First is a suit of okegawa-do, or “tub-shaped armour”, characteristic of the suits that were mass-produced for retainers of a daimyo, or lord. Like most armour, it has plates called lamellae – separate plates flexibly laced together. But the bodice is of solid construction, hinged at the side.

Moving up the social hierarchy, there is a complete suit of very ornate parade armour for a daimyo, or possibly presentation armour for diplomatic gifting. The helmet is made of 32 plates riveted together, topped with a stunning gilt demon crest. There is a special baton with lobed plates on each side – the military leader’s war fan or gunbai-uchiwa. It functioned as a symbol of rank, for directing troops or even as a makeshift weapon. You can see the red circle in the centre for the rising sun.

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
Permanent display

Above: Suit of tub-shaped armour. Edo period (1615-1868), ca. 1650-1800. Pitt Rivers Museum. Image: STF.

Below: Suit of parade armour. Edo period (1615-1868), ca. 1750. Pitt Rivers Museum. Image: Pitt Rivers Museum, at http://objects.prm.ox.ac.uk/pages/PRMUID36030.html

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Talks on kimono design and Japanese lacquer

yuzen kimono

As part of Asian Art in London, the RCA hosted presentations by two outstanding practitioners of Japanese traditional arts, Moriguchi Kunihiko and Murose Kazumi, both Japanese Living National Treasures.  Moriguchi designs yuzen textiles, using a resist-dyeing technique that became popular in the 17th century.  He is identified particularly with geometric patterns that change subtly from one end of the design to the other.  A video was shown that traced the development of a single piece, a stunning kimono with triangles of onyx black, white and yellow.  Murose produces maki-e (“sprinkled picture”) lacquer pieces of all kinds, ranging in size from tiny boxes to a frieze for a railway station, 1.5m high and 4m long.  His illuminating talk explored the origins and properties of urushi (the basic lacquer substance) and the different steps in maki-e technique: an exquisite box with a design of foliage and flowers took six months to complete.

Presentations by Japanese Living National Treasures
Royal College of Art, London
1 November 2013

The presentations accompany the exhibition Four Living National Treasures of Japan at The Fine Art Society.

Above: Formal kimono by Moriguchi Kunihiko, 2012. Yuzen dyed silk. Image: Nihon Kogeikai at: http://www.nihon-kogeikai.com/KOGEITEN/KOGEITEN-059/KOGEITEN-059-00292-E.html.

Drinking vessels from Asia at the British Museum

This might loosely be described as a show about “drinking culture”.  It explores the significance of water, tea and alcohol across Asia, looking at specific types of vessel that evolved in different regions: in South Asia, the lota and the kamandalu; in Southeast Asia, the kendi; in Korea, the kundika; everywhere, the ewer.  It matches vessels with related images – from Japan, a sake cup of lacquered wood by Heisensai Jokyu, shown with a woodblock print by Ichirakutei Eisui of a courtesan holding a sake cup.  This very structured approach had its merits but there was more to enjoy in certain “wildcard” items chosen, I think, to say something about the broader context – from Rajasthan, a glorious painting of the goddess Lakshmi, associated with fertility and good fortune, seated on a lotus flower, with a handsome pair of winged elephants pouring water over her from pitchers held high in their trunks.

Ritual and revelry: the art of drinking in Asia
British Museum, London
27 September 2012 to 6 January 2013

Above: Gaja-Lakshmi. India, Bundi, Rajasthan. Ca. 1780. Gouache on paper. Height 22.9cm; width 27.7cm. British Museum. Image: Trustees of the British Museum, at http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database.aspx.

Talk on Japanese lacquer

I returned to the British Museum on Saturday for another delightful gallery talk, “Japanese lacquer of the Edo period”, given by Anne Haworth.  Lacquer comes from the sap of the lacquer tree (Rhus verniciflua) and in Japan is coloured either red using cinnabar, or black using iron treated with acetic acid. It is applied over a wooden core, one very thin layer after another, so that it dries properly and achieves its characteristic hardness and resistance to corrosion. An inlaid design can be created using pieces of shell or mother-of-pearl: a coating of lacquer is applied over the top of the shell and then polished back so that the shell is flush with the lacquer surface. This was popular in European markets, so it is common on nanban pieces. Another technique is to apply gold particles to the lacquer while wet (makie), giving breathtaking designs in gold and black.

Japanese lacquer of the Edo period
Talk by Anne Haworth, at the British Museum, London
17 August 2012

Above: Inner sword case with grapevine design. Momoyama period (1573-1603). Late 16th or early 17th century. Lacquered wood with gold makie and shell inlay. Length: 112.5 cm (outer case including lid). British Museum. Image: Trustees of the British Museum, at http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database.aspx.