One of the joys of being an art dealer is discovering objects in different categories or encountering new artists. In ‘Transforming Traditions’, I present some of the recent discoveries that I find exciting. The theme is one of continuation—whether it is building on traditions consciously, like the lacquer furniture from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), or unconsciously, like the Japanese mingei lacquersmith’s work paraphernalia, to create objects of beauty.
Lacquer furniture, or daqi jiaju, reached its peak during the Ming dynasty, when it was reserved for imperial use, and officials and commoners were banned from using red and gold lacquer decoration on their furniture. ‘Cinnabar red’, or zhuhong, used in lacquer became the official colour of the Ming imperial court. During this period, lacquer furniture was valued far more than hardwood furniture; rather than: the latter only gained popularity at a later date, when the lifting of the maritime ban in the mid-16th century allowed for its import. Unfortunately, most pieces of lacquered furniture were either destroyed over time or survived in badly weathered condition. Therefore, I am pleased to feature a group that has survived with a significant portion of the lacquer intact and in original condition with sympathetic repair. Almost all of the pieces originate from Shanxi province, the heartland of ancient China, where the dry weather ensured the survival of a great deal of architecture. Added to this group is an unusual qiangjin (‘engraving filled in with gold’) and tianqi (‘inlaid with lacquer of a different colour’) lacquer kang table of curved form, typically decorated in 17th century style.
In conjunction with Chinese lacquer furniture is a selection of Japanese mingei lacquersmith’s work paraphernalia. These extraordinary objects were primarily associated with the making of lacquer pieces, from the boards upon which the craftsmen worked to the bowls in which they kept their tools. As they are inevitably coated with lacquer over time, the tools take centre stage and became expressive objets d’art themselves. Certain pieces were obviously recognized as such, enhanced through polishing, while others were left in their natural state revealing the multi-layers of thick lacquer built over the years.
Against the lacquer works from China and Japan are set the works of two artists: powerful calligraphy by Yuichi Inoue and contemplative tree paintings by Wang Mansheng. The former used traditional calligraphy to channel his inner state of mind and was able to create a contemporary artistic medium. The latter uses his vast knowledge of Chinese classical texts and paintings to experiment with brushes fashioned out of reeds to create a dry textural feel to his trees. Across culture and time, the works by these two master artists echo each other as they transform traditions.