Chinese Carved Lacquer Screen with Pavilion, Landscape and Figure Design in Ming Dynasty
Carved lacquer, as a Chinese traditional ethnic art, at least possesses a history of more than 1400 years, stretching across Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Carved lacquer wares belong to the royal court handicraft artifact, and consistently enjoy a high social status and artistic value.
In history, carved lacquer is also known as: lacquer carving (Qidiao), carved red lacquer (Tihong), carved yellow lacquer (Tihuang), carved green lacquer (Tilv), carved lacquer with cloud designs (Tixi), carved black lacquer(Tihei), carved color lacquer (Ticai), embossed red (Duizhu)and embossed lacquer (Duiqi). The handicraft is generally called carved lacquer until the middle and late Ming dynasty. Just like other traditional arts, the carved lacquer craft possesses its own history of development and style evolution. According to historical records, carved lacquer handicraft initiates in Tang dynasty and develops in Song and Yuan dynasties as well as flourishes in Ming and Qing dynasties. According to the only existing historical lacquer book – XiuShiLu, written by Huang Cheng who is a famous lacquerer in Ming dynasty and annotated by Yang Ming, the carved red lacquer wares have been emerged in Tang dynasty, featuring simplicity and enjoyability with sharp and fluent carving. At that time, the carved red lacquer wares are in the majority while those applied the methods of carved black lacquer, carved yellow lacquer and carved green lacquer are merely in the minority. In fact, all these methods belong to carved lacquer category, and what distinguishes them lies in their differences in coloring and techniques of expression.
The carved lacquer crafts in Song and Yuan dynasties has made great progress based on the development in Tang dynasty, and has gradually developed into the style of reticent carving and smooth polishing. The existing carved lacquer wares in Song dynasty are very few and rare to be appreciated. Currently, China has collected some works of Zhang Cheng and Yang Mao, the famous lacquerers in Ming dynasty. Their works stand for the carved lacquer style in Yuan dynasty and have profound influence on later carved lacquer handicraft. The carved lacquer wares are mainly carved with tin padding as well as gold and silver padding. The wares mostly are carved lacquer boxes. The wares are fluently and smoothly carved with floral designs but not on the basis of brocade pattern, which shows rich decorative fun and impresses people with vigorous simplicity.
Ming dynasty is a period that witnesses the maturity of the carved lacquer craft. The craft has developed rapidly at that time, in particular, during Yongle, and Xuande Period of Ming Dynasty. The famous lacquers of the time all learn the craft from generation to generation, such as Zhang Degang, son of Zhang Cheng, and Yang Xun, offspring of Yang Mao. During the reign of Emperor Yongle (1403-1424), the rulers have given orders to build an orchard factory for pleasure in Beijing. It serves as a large Official handicraft workshop where mainly produces carved lacquer wares for the use of the imperial family in large quantities. Meanwhile, the techniques also have reached a height on the basis of carrying forward the styles in Song and Yuan dynasties. Besides, the carved lacquer wares of the time also give priority to red while adding slight purple, which highlights the features of staidness and composure. Likewise, the carved lacquer boxes are produces mostly, and dishes and caskets come second. The small wares are produced more while the big ones less. For the paddings, it is mostly made by wood and tin, sometimes gold and silver as well. In terms of the design, more wares of Ming dynasty, unlike those of Yuan dynasty, choose designs of landscapes, figures, flowers, birds and beasts. At the same time, they are cut and carved fluently and exquisitely with more changes in way of cutting, which appears to be more vivid. Some of the excellent works of the period are still collected in the Palace Museum, Shanghai Museum and Nanjing Museum.
The carved lacquer works in Qing dynasty mostly are made during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) and Emperor Jiaqing (1796-1820). During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, due to the emperor's love of the carved lacquer wares, the country actively encourages their production and those used in the palace are various in styles, which leads to an unprecedented prosperity of the carved lacquer wares production. The carved lacquer wares have a wide variety, such as big screens, tables, chairs, small dishes, small boxes, small bottles and small pots. Most of them are made by wood and tin paddings while some are bodiless, but anyhow, they are characterized with exquisite carving, changeable styles, increased colors and jade inlay. In terms of the design, various kinds of lucky and pleasant designs have been applied in carved lacquer wares beside of flower, bird and figure designs. Meanwhile, the design compositions are fine and multilevel, which presents a feeling of preciseness, exquisiteness and gorgeousness. And the difference between the carved lacquer wares of Qing dynasty and those of Ming dynasty is that the former pay less attention to polishing. In addition, the designs mostly apply the theme of flowers and plants, and feature lush branches, vividness, nature, distinct levels and strong sense of three-dimensional and so forth.
The carved lacquer craft experiences a recession after the Reign of Emperor Qianlong.
The production cycle of carved lacquer wares is long, and most products need six months from design to ex factory while those high-end ones need two or three years. This is because before carving, the lacquerers must repeatedly coat the paddings in multi-layer with prepared paint vehicle, and only when the liquid paint becomes solid can they carve various designs and patterns on the paintcoats foiled with fine brocade designs, which will produce an effect of embossment. Due to the application of different techniques and lacquer with different colors, carved lacquer is also respectively called carved red lacquer (Tihong), carved yellow lacquer (Tihuang), carved black lacquer (Tihei), carved color lacquer (Ticai) and carved lacquer with cloud designs (Tixi). Hereinto, the process of Tixi is that first alternately coat the paddings with two or three kinds of colored paint with a certain thickness; then carve cloud patterns or frets at a certain angle, and finally people can see the different paintcoats from the cutting section. At present, Beijing carved lacquer mainly is Tihong and Tihei while Ticai (e.g. black designs on red ground, red designs on black ground, red designs on yellow ground, red designs on green ground and a mix of yellow, green and red colors) is also common.