Alicia Quinn

October 5th, 2017

Cinnabar: The Chinese Art of Carved Lacquer from the 14th to the 19th Century

The Metropolitan Museum of Art organized an exhibition that explored The Chinese Art of Carved Lacquer from the 14th to the 19th Century. This gallery is titled “Cinnabar” and it is showcasing through October 9th of 2017 in gallery 221. The exhibitions 45 works shows beauty in traditional Chinese art through carved lacquer tinted with cinnabar.

This exhibition is not only relaxing to be in, but it gives you space to freely walk through and take all the time you need. It is small enough to fit into a four-walled room, with two walls of showcased materials corner to corner, one wall of open showed items, and one wall of two podiums with identical showcased items on each. There’s also two showcases in the center of the room separated by a bench. The floor is cherry wood, giving the red cinnabar a complimentary feeling.

Starting with the wall consisting of two podiums that contain one box in each showcase, you can view the box from three sides. The octagonal box consists of extremely detailed carvings of pommel scrolls, as well as carvings of humans or what appears to be Buddha’s. The pieces carved seem to be a darker red than the surface. This is due to the coating of cinnabar on the outer layer. The imagery of the human in nature is on the top section and bottom section of the box. The image varies on each of the eight sides of the box. On one side the human may appear to be picking fruit. In the next, the human may appear to be playing an instrument, looking different directions, thinking, or fanning ones-self. According to the museum, “A historical group of Daoist immortals is seated in the individual cartouches carved on the sides of the box”.


Figure 1. Box with Daoist’s welcoming immortal Shoulao. Qing dynasty (1644-1911), 19th century. Carved red and green lacquer. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

The second showcased item along this wall appears identical to the box in the first showcase. As you can see in the images above, there is fine detail and symbolism carved into the red lacquer. This detail and symbolism is carried through the rest of the pieces in this exhibition.

The wall directly across from the two podium showcases is covered with two items. The items appear to be a hanging carpet or tapestry and a long narrow table. As you approach the wall you notice the hanging tapestry is made of bamboo. The museum states that it is a “blind made of bamboo with multicolored silk threads”. The reoccurring symbol of Pommel scrolls are clearly visible on this blind. As for the table, it is very long and the width is very thin. The legs of the table are attached to each-other by decorative carved panels. With carved dragons and flowers also the pommel scrolls, this table symbolizes power and strength. Pommel scrolls are still a decorative symbol in the Chinese culture. They carry through to each showcase display in this exhibition.


Figure 2. Side Table. Late Ming (1368-1644) or Qing dynasty (1644-1911), 17th century. Wood. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

The other two walls in this exhibition are showcases corner to corner. One wall appears to be boxes and dishes. All carved lacquer with extreme details featuring the common symbols in the Chinese culture. There’s a repetition of the symbol of immortality appearing on the larger boxes, and some have the common dragon. This wall ranges from the Ming and Yuan dynasty.

The fourth and final wall in this gallery contains vases, boxes, and brush holders that the museum states were mainly for gardening tools. The museum also states that the boxes inside of this showcase were mainly purposed for holding treasured items. Besides a black carved lacquer tray, everything in this showcase is red lacquer with cinnabar coatings. This rectangular black lacquer carved tray holds many symbolic meanings. Carved into it are peonies and birds. The museum claims, “The plump birds flying above the peonies in this densely-carved tray may be magpies or sparrows. Both birds are considered good omens in Chinese culture”.

Figure 3. Tray with peonies and birds. Ming dynasty (1368-1644), 16th century. Carved black lacquer. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

This black lacquer seems to have red cinnabar in the creases of the cut outs as well.

The MET claims “Lacquer is a type of resin epoxy found in southern china and it becomes a form of plastic. It has been a major artist medium since the 6th century”. The center display cases separated by a bench contain boxes from the Qing dynasty and Ming dynasty and a few pieces from the Yuan dynasty. One work that interests many is a tool that appears in a whip like structure. A beautifully red lacquer carved handle with what looks like black course hair coming off the end. This tool is a fly whisk with flowers carved on. This was made during the Ming dynasty. The museum states, “this grouping of bamboo, chrysanthemums, orchids, and plum blossoms has a rich symbolic meaning”. During this dynasty, they used this flowers in the means to represent the four seasons passing. In literature, it symbolizes virtues. There was a piece similar in the showcase beside this. This piece looks like a paint brush. Again, carved red lacquer floral designs as the base, with hair coming off the end. The hair on this is much shorter, and the shape of the piece reminded me of a pen with a cap on it. There is a separate piece that went over the hair like a pen cap would go over the pen tip. There are floral carvings in various stages of blooming depicted on this piece. This was created in the Ming Dynasty as well.

This exhibition leaves you with the knowledge of Chinese art traditions as well as the over-all feeling of comfort from the symbolism in each piece of work. Chinese art of carved lacquer from the 14th to the 19th century is something so beautifully presented in this exhibition. One hundred percent a sight that is worth seeing.


Alicia is a Parsons student studying Integrated Design.

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