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The Mysterious Beauty of Lacquer Painting

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There’s a sophistication to lacquer painting—it’s precise, but also refined and delicate. It draws its audience first to the vibrancy of its colours, to the lustre of its surface, and holds them with artistic and polished strokes culminating in tranquil, idyllic images.

Lacquer art has a history that spans some 7,000 years, with its origins traced back to ancient China and to Japan 3,000 years ago. Through the centuries, lacquering went from being purely utilitarian—providing a water-proof protective coating for objects—to something more decorative: it initially served to embellish objects and later evolved into a painting technique in its own right.

Right: A beautiful example of lacquer painting, this is High Crest Showcasing Emerald Green Ⅱ by artist Wang Hsien-chi, Wang Junwei’s father.

Lacquer art reached Europe in the 17th century through trading posts that bartered luxury objects from the Far East. In the 20th century, it famously caught the eye of fashion icon Coco Chanel.

Displayed prominently in her Rue Cambon apartment in Paris were beautiful Chinese Coromandel screens made with dark mahogany lacquer in-laid with mother-of-pearl. These ebony screens inspired many of Chanel’s designs, which to this day remain an integral motif for her brand.

While lacquer art came to influence other artistic disciplines, making its way to contemporary art and even fashion, many people have little knowledge of this ancient art.


Keeping lacquer art alive

Third-generation lacquer artist Wang Junwei is an advocate of keeping this art form relevant. “It’s a pity that there aren’t many people who understand lacquer art—its history and process,” he says.

Three generations of lacquer painting masters: Wang Qingshuang (middle), his wife Chen Caiyan, their two sons—Wang Hsien-ming (second from left) and Wang Hsien-chi (first from left)—and Wang Junwei (back).

According to Wang, lacquer art is the quintessential Eastern art form. Its key ingredient, the resin derived from lacquer trees, is inextricably linked to Asia. Traditional lacquer art and lacquer paintings were made from trees found exclusively along Lacquer Road, an area that spans various Asian countries.

“It was crucial that they came from this area because once the trees were transplanted they would no longer have any resin. That’s why Lacquer Road is truly a rare treasure in Asia and why lacquer art is unique to Asia,” Wang says.

Lacquer art was initially used to decorate objects for the nobility and the imperial court. Craftsmen painted raw lacquer over the surfaces of tableware, furniture, vases, and jewellery boxes, and then covered them with intricate designs using precious materials like gold and silver powders, pearls, and shells.


A precise and arduous skill

Through the centuries, iterations of lacquer paintings emerged, including Japan’s signature maki-e and the mother-of-pearl lacquer art of China and Korea. Despite the stylistic differences, the techniques behind them are equally precise and meticulous.

Order the Magnifissance print edition to read the full story.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 117

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Inspired for a Beautiful Life

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