AN EXCEPTIONAL AND IMPORTANT CARVED CINNABAR LACQUER BOWL STAND MING DYNASTY HONGWU PERIOD, YONGLE AND XUANDE MARKS
- 21.4 cm., 8 3/8 in.
Keitaku Takagi (K. T. Lee).
Layered Beauty: The Baoyizhai Collection of Chinese Lacquer, Art Museum, Institute of Chinese Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2010, cat. no. 36.
This exquisitely designed and masterfully executed lacquer vessel exemplifies all the admired qualities of early Ming (1368-1644) imperial works of art. It is exceptional, however, in being one of the very rare courtly objects that is associated not only with one emperor, but seems to have been appreciated by no less than three rulers. As new imperial artefacts would be produced in virtually every Ming reign, the new emperors typically relegated wares of their predecessors to storage. Carved lacquer, however, far more precious and laborious to create than porcelain, for example, could pass from emperor to emperor. This tea-bowl stand was commissioned under the Hongwu Emperor (r. 1368-98), appropriated by the Yongle Emperor (r. 1403-24), who’s reign name was thinly engraved, and eventually taken over by the Xuande Emperor (r. 1426-35), whose magnificent carved and gilded reign mark was superimposed on top.
The Yongle and Xuande Emperors are well known as active patrons of the arts and their contribution to the artistic heritage of the Ming is fully appreciated. This is much less the case with the Hongwu Emperor who, as dynastic founder and conqueror who defeated the Mongols, is often considered a rough military man with no eye for beauty. This view seems supported by the fact that Yongle and Xuande reign marks appear on some of the finest works of art of the Ming dynasty, whereas no objects with reign marks exist of the Hongwu period. The present piece proves that we need to change our views about Hongwu connoisseurship.
Lacquer bowl stands were manufactured at least since the Song dynasty (960-1279) and in the Ming were incorporated into the repertoire of shapes produced by the imperial workshops. Made to support bowls of hot tea, they provided stable support for bowls with narrow bases, protected wooden and lacquer trays and tables from the hot vessel, added grandeur to any ceramic tea bowl, and turned the presentation of tea into a glamorous occasion. Carved lacquer was not new in the Ming dynasty either, the first pieces appear to have been made in the Song, and in the Yuan period (1279-1368) this branch of artistry experienced a first flowering. Like with porcelain, the Yuan style of lacquer carving is bold and vigorous, if still somewhat rough and angular. In the Ming dynasty, this form of decoration was transformed into a highly sophisticated art, as the carving style developed towards smoother and rounder reliefs that were not only pared with a knife but carefully rubbed down and polished.
In terms of design, no trouble was spared with this stand and no attempt made to simplify the work. The six blooms distributed around the sides are all different and the leaves varied to represent seasonal plants – a feature only fully appreciated when the stand is turned round in the hand. A congenial twist to ovoid boring formality is the distribution of these six blooms and their leaves over a seven-lobed dish – a layout challenge brilliantly mastered.
Whereas a Yongle carved lacquer style seemed firmly identified through pieces with reign marks, a Hongwu dating had until fairly recently been tentatively suggested for only a couple of pieces, which stylistically seemed to related to the style known from Hongwu porcelains.1 Dr. Hu Shih-chang himself has undertaken ground-breaking research on the identity of Hongwu lacquer ware, starting with the re-evaluation of an important Ming document recording gifts from the court of the Yongle Emperor to the Ashikaga Shogun of Japan.2 Between 1403 and 1407 the Chinese court sent 203 pieces of carved red lacquer to the Japanese ruler, with the most important gift of fifty-eight pieces occurring in the first year of the Yongle reign.
Carving lacquer wares is a laborious, time-consuming process that can stretch over years. It requires the gradual build-up of the lacquer coating by adding and preparing thin layers of lacquer, each of which needs to dry before it can be polished and the next one applied, and finally the carving of the design and the smoothing out of all irregularities. That this process could have been completed in the first year of the reign within a matter of months is considered impossible. It equally seems out of the question that such work could have been done in the unruly times of the short Jianwen period (1399-1402), particularly as the Emperor is known to have ordered all works that were not vital to be stopped. The types of lacquer included in the first list of gifts to Japan in 1403, which are well enough described to be identified, thus can only be of Hongwu date. Among them are ‘mallow-shaped bowl stands … carved … with flowers of the four seasons’, of which two examples were sent to the Shogun.
Since then, Lee and Hu continued to work on this subject and proposed nearly twenty carved lacquer pieces in all as candidates of Hongwu imperial manufacture.3 They have identified some distinguishing features, for example, that the carving of seasonal flowers is characteristic of the Hongwu reign, while Yongle flower-decorated pieces are carved with only a single flower.4 Nevertheless, it is not easy to separate a Hongwu from a Yongle style of carved lacquer ware, and at present we just have to recognize that the ‘characteristic’ Yongle style in fact had its origins in the Hongwu reign.
Lee and Hu have also studied the various lacquer pieces inscribed, like the present stand, with a finely carved and gilded Xuande reign mark over a partly effaced, thinly scratched Yongle mark. They believe that on lacquer Yongle marks were not added at the workshops but later in the reign, after the pieces were moved from Nanjing to the new capital, Beijing. This would explain why pieces from the Hongwu reign could also bear a Yongle reign mark, and why the calligraphy is less accomplished than one would expect from an imperial workshop. The exact reason why some Yongle-marked items are also inscribed with a Xuande reign mark is still unresolved. Lee and Hu have identified over thirty such pieces, several of which they have ascribed to the Hongwu period. It is possible that new lacquer pieces could simply not be provided quickly enough, when the new emperor ascended the throne, so that existing ones were re-attributed. Whereas the feeble Yongle mark seen on the present stand is characteristic of lacquer ware and is not inscribed in this way on other works of art, the magnificent Xuande mark follows the official style of writing also seen on other imperial artefacts and was probably devised by a court calligrapher.5
The number of pieces comparable to our stand is extremely small. Only two closely related seven-lobed bowl stands carved with seasonal flowers are preserved, one with Yongle reign mark in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in Zhongguo qiqi quanji [Complete series on Chinese lacquer], Fuzhou, 1993-8, vol. 5, pl. 26 (fig. 1); the other without reign mark in the Seikadō Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, included in the exhibition Carved Lacquer Tokugawa Art Museum, Nagoya, and Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, Tokyo, 1984, cat. no. 83 (fig. 2). Neither of the two stands bears the additional Xuande inscription.
Four other related pieces are known, all apparently of the less eccentric and less complicated six-lobed form, which could indicate a slightly later, i.e. Yongle rather than Hongwu, date: a Yongle-marked piece probably from a private Japanese collection published in Tōyō no shikkōgei/Oriental Lacquer Arts, Tokyo National Museum, 1977, cat. no. 508; another stand with Yongle mark included in the exhibition Masterpieces of Chinese Lacquer from the Mike Healy Collection, Honolulu Academy of Arts, 2002, cat. no. 27; an unmarked stand in the Tokyo National Museum, illustrated in Hirota Collection. Gift of Mr. Hirota Matsushige, Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, 1973, cat. no. 297; and one from the collection of Sir Harry and Lady Garner in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, published in Sir Harry Garner, Chinese Lacquer, London, 1979, pl. 33. Another Yongle-marked stand carved with seasonal flowers, but probably five-lobed, is illustrated in Lee Yu-kuan, Oriental Lacquer Art, Tokyo, 1972, pl. 107.
1 E.g. Regina Krahl and Brian Morgan, From Innovation to Conformity. Chinese Lacquer from the 13th to 16th Centuries, Bluett & Sons, London, 1989, cat. no. 1.
2 Lee King-tsi and Hu Shih-chang, ‘Carved Lacquer of the Hongwu Period’, Oriental Art, vol. 47, no. 1, 2001, pp. 10-20, reprinted in Layered Beauty. The Baoyizhai Collection of Chinese Lacquer, Art Museum, Institute of Chinese Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2010, pp. 171-82.
3 Lee King-tsi and Hu Shih-chang, ‘Further Observations on Carved Lacquer of the Hongwu Period’, Oriental Art, vol. 55, no. 3, 2005-6, pp. 41-7; reprinted in Layered Beauty, op.cit., pp. 183-90.
4 Layered Beauty, op.cit., p. 185.
5 Liu Xinyuan, 'Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen', Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1989, pp. 74-5.