Art of the Day V.5- Square Red Lacquer table with stools- Qing Dynasty 1644-1911

Rarely does furniture deserve to be anthropomorphized with words like "sexy" or "smokin'". This Qing dynasty table is the exception. The proportions, curves, and color make this set a lesson in seduction. Curves like these have been symbols of abundance/fertility dating back to the Venus de Willendorf. The color red also has long time links to attraction- i.e. red lip stick, red sports car, that are connected to the mammalian tendency to blush red during arousal. As a whole this table displays similar qualities to the form language I like in pottery.

A closer look at the table's surface reveals multiple layers of floral and landscape patterns. Notice there are multiple species of flowers in various orientations. They are incorporated into the overall pattern in a way that doesn't over emphasize one specific type of flower. They are reduced to motif and repeated to fill the space. The "wall papering" affect lets the artist spread the design three dimensionally around corners that could be a real challenge to decorate. (Imagine building a pot with equal volumetric contrast to the seats and legs of these stools.) The craftsman has filled every available space with decoration. There is even a classic Chinese "human in nature" scene carved into the fringe of the stool. This excess works because the scale of the decoration is small and the color scheme is monochromatic. The bordering system of curvilinear lines also helps transition from pattern to pattern.

The wood is covered with red lacquer for a rich semi-gloss surface. Lacquer is a finish that is prevalent in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean wood working. The basic method consists of applying multiple layers of a thin sealing medium. A quick trip to Wikipedia found that " Known applications of lacquer in China included coffins, plates, music instruments and furniture. Lacquer mixed with powdered cinnabar is used to produce the traditional red lacquerware from China." Cinnabar is the ore that yields mercury. Its interesting to think the same material that made the standard thermometer work is the coloring agent that produces the unique red of Chinese lacquer.  The tone and toxicity of Chinese red lacquer remind me of Ben Owens III low fire lead red glaze. (Click here for his Art and Perception article. Many of the pots pictured where in a Blue Spiral One solo show that I saw years ago.) It goes to show that getting a vibrant red has always been a toxic endeavor in wood and ceramics.

This set is part of the Shanghai Museum's permanent collection. I will be posting more lacquer ware from the collection in future posts. 

The Art of the Day series features art that I encounter on my visits to museums. These are from the Shanghai Museum collection, which offers a broad range of Chinese Art from 3,000 BC to the mid-1900's. For the museum website please click here.

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