Saturday, January 2, 1971

Lacquers

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The Far East has exercised a mysterious power on Europe from time immemorial. The trade relations established in the XVIth century by the East India Company aroused the public’s curiosity. The rage for objects “from China” would continue until the end of the XVIIIth century. Among the treasures that accumulated in European ports were boxes, chests, folding screens and cabinets covered in a strangely resistant black material decorated with bright colors: lacquer. 
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Lacquer is a natural blond-colored resin that is extracted fom the Asian sumac that is found in China, Japan, Tonkin and Cambodia. Working with lacquer is delicate and painstaking and can take months, even years it is said. It can entail as many as 30 consecutive operations, interspersed with long drying periods. A thick primer coat is applied to very dry and perfectly polished wood. Next come coats of lacquer (between three and 18) that are increasingly fluid and transparent, each coat being carefully sanded. The last coats—the purest—are tinted black to serve as a ground for the decoration. Red grounds are rare and those of other colors rarer still. The decorations are applied with a brush. The Chinese were fond of a rather strong polychromy, while the Japanese preferred silver and gold. 
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Chinese lacquer in relief: decorations in relief, used in the two countries, were obtained by applying a thick paste made of lacquer blended with other materials. This paste was modeled and sculpted with a burin and then painted as described above. 
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Traditional lacquer: polychromy on a black ground (see explanation above). Today often crazed due to the lacquer’s rigidity. 
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Coromandel lacquer: center of China. Decoration engraved into a reddish black lacquer. 
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The Europeans began to make varnishes, initially to join up the lacquer panels once they had been veneered onto the furniture, as well as for use on the ornamentation of accessory parts such as uprights, legs, sides, etc. They imitated Far Eastern taste. The final evolution corresponded to the abandonment of any reference to this taste in favor of pastoral and romantic scenes. 
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European varnish: less compact than lacquer, these varnishes only produce fine superficial crazing. 
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Pierre Kjellberg. Le Meuble français et européen du Moyen Age à nos jours. Les Editions de l’amateur.