Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Goryeo Dynasty Lacquerware

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옻칠: 한국의 찬란한 예술 (Lacquer: Korea's Brilliant Art)
Carla Stansifer, Junior Fulbright Researcher, gave her presentation "The Mysteries of Goryeo Dynasty Shell Inlay Lacquer Ware" <고려시대 나전칠기의 신비> at the open Fulbright forum a couple of weeks ago. Her research has been centered around the Goryeo Dynasty lacquer ware for the purpose of making the first documentary on Korean lacquer ware in English.

Only 16 Goryeo lacquer ware pieces are extant worldwide with only 1 in Korea - the only one in Korea is a monk's whisk that had a wealth of horsetail strands on each end and was used for whisking evil impediments out of one's path as one proceded through life. 10 pieces are in Japan, 3 in the U.S. and Carla discovered one in England (I believe it was at the British Museum), but I didn't catch where the remaining one is. All of the 16 extant pieces are related to Buddhist rituals, which is really not surprising for Buddhism flourished in the Goryeo Dynasty. The following dynasty, Chosun, and its ideological purges of Buddhism and simplification of art due to the more ascetic demands of the new dynasty, demanded change. Therefore, through the remaining 16 Goryeo pieces, vital understanding of the philosophical changes between dynasties can be traced.

4 unique characteristics of the Goryeo dynasty lacquer ware are:
(1) inlay of wire and twisted wire - some pieces have delicate strands of twisted wire as small as .4mm
(2 & 3) mother-of-pearl (shiny, glossy and reflective) and tortoise-shell (most frequently red) inlay
(4) same motifs and patterns - most common examples: geometric patterns, peonies, chrysanthemums (9-petaled and sometimes more), clouds, turtles, c-shaped petals [many of these items seem reflective of the 10 eternal symbols (싶장생) but when I asked Carla about this, she said that the 싶장생 were first apparent in Chosun lacquer ware art, not in the 16 extant Goryeo pieces.]

However, with the change of dynasties, the changes in philosophies were reflected in the art. Functions of lacquer ware objects no longer were limited to Buddhist rituals but became more mundane and common - make-up holders for example. And designs became more naturalistic meaning you can identify the object but it was not a realistic reproduction. It seems that as Buddhism was forced from the towns and villages to secluded mountain retreats the 오상화 (the imaginary flower in Buddhist art) also disappeared as the philosophies of Buddhism were purged [an arguable statement] from the peninsula.

What exactly is 'lacquer'?
The lacquer is derived from the sap of the Toxicodendron verniciflua (Latin) tree or 옻칠, which is related to poison ivy and sumac and can cause a skin break out in some when in contact with it. That said, however, Toxicondendron verniciflua is believed to also have medicinal aspects obtained through its bark and leaves, and can be used to treat colds while it is currently being used for a cancer therapy. To create it into a symbolically rich lacquer for artistic purposes, the sap, which is deep brown in its raw form, has iron added to make a black lacquer or cinnabar to make red. Each color was representative of a purpose with black as the color usual for ritual ceremonies while red was for the nobility (commoners were prohibited from using red lacquer ware items).

The Toxicodendron verniciflua grows in China, the Koreas, Japan and parts of Southeast Asia; however, North Korea is deemed to have the best but unavailable sources and so Wonju in South Korea is known for its high grade tree specimens. In the Q&A session I asked about the affects of global warming on the Toxicodendron verniciflua, especially since there is concern that the pine tree will disappear from the peninsula if the temperature rises only 2 degrees Celsius more. The reply was that there is concern about the rising temperatures affecting the abundance and supply of the tree as the tree grows particularly well along the 38th parallel with the healthiest and best examples in China, the Koreas and Japan.

Lacquer in some form seems to have originated in Southeast Asia, but in transporting it along trade routes, lacquer evolved as did the art that corresponded with each country as it adapted lacquer to fit in with its own art. The lacquer in Korea is a time-exacting process for extracting the sap, coloring it appropriately and applying it with care as the final art process over an even more time-consuming process of carving, inlay of shells from all over the world (abalone however makes the finest and best inlay) and wire application. Lacquer is NOT shellac; shellac is cheap and tawdry in comparison. At present, lacquers are made from the cashew tree, other trees and plastic. Lacquer is to be touched, smelled, tasted, experienced! To identify the quality of "lacquer", stroke it, rub it, warm it up and you can smell and easily distinguish it from cheaper forms of shellac or gloss.

Although several artisans are on the Internet and show great skill in their lacquer ware application, 오형만 (Oh, Hyung Man) is one of the human resources who is famous for his inlay shell and lacquer ware art and is a nationally designated cultural property holder.

The 2 items below are more representative of Chosun Dynasty style of red and black lacquer ware as they are more domestic in purpose (2 styles of jewelry boxes) and certainly not related to Buddhism or religious purposes.

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