Brittle Beauty: Understanding and Conserving Chinese Export Lacquer


Miniature desk-and-bookcaseThrough a display of lacquered furniture, boxes, and tablewares, the Winterthur exhibition Brittle Beauty: Understanding and Conserving Chinese Export Lacquer explores the materials and history of Asian lacquer, Asian export lacquer, and imitation lacquer in the West. It also highlights a program of scientific analysis and conservation currently under way at Winterthur to treat Asian export lacquerwares (funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services).


Asian Lacquer
Since ancient times, Asian artisans have decorated household goods with lacquer, a hard, glossy material derived from plant resins and often embellished with precious metals. The lustrous black lacquer surfaces of a set of Japanese covered bowls and trays, on view in the exhibition, were created following a process that took years to complete. Decorated with gold leaf, gold flakes, and gold dust in a style known as make-i, these objects epitomize high-quality lacquer produced for use in Asia.


Asian Export Lacquer
A lacquered miniature desk-and-bookcase, table, and small boxes in the exhibition are examples of Asian lacquer specifically made for export to the West. In producing such objects, workers cut corners in order to have products ready quickly for Western merchants. The use of lesser-quality materials, abbreviated methods, and inadequate drying times has resulted in lacquer with unstable surfaces that tend to crack, peel, and separate, creating conservation challenges. A comparison of restored and unrestored objects in the exhibition highlights these challenges as well as innovative treatment methods developed in the Winterthur conservation labs.


Imitation Lacquer (japanning)
Because supplies of Asian export lacquer were inadequate to meet consumer demand, Western artists developed a process known as “japanning”—using familiar materials to imitate Asian lacquer. Japanned wares (examples of chinoiserie) can also be seen in the exhibition.


*A related symposium, Exotic Surfaces: Chinese Export Lacquer Symposium and Workshop, presented by The Foundation of American Institute for Conservation and Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, occurred October 29–30, 2015. Visit the web page for more information.

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