What to expect from this prose ? A rational critic about an art exhibition, a humble account of my thoughts on lacquers.
Two of my articles, wrote in haste and thus poorly written, were accused by people with very delicate taste of being full of sad jokes and shocking words. I daresay I never penned an article to grieve neither to mock; those people should reflect upon the fable of the heron and not be so picky.
Lacquer is a very well know form of decorative art originated in China’s greatest antiquity, and popular throughout Asia. Due to its high price, and the complexity of its crafting, it has always been a luxury item: the best lacquers are indeed fine and lavish furniture or dishes, outcomes of a long and technical process.
Lacquered objects, also revered in the West as valuable and precious adornments, are most of all celebrated for their durability: ancient funerary objects from China and Japan are legacies of ancient civilization, moving evidence that art can outlive the sound and furry of human life.
This fiction of heritage, Chinese people being known as inventor of this technique, is central in the museum’s narratives: wordy explanations in the exhibition room link those artworks to a long tradition, but very serious aesthetic questions remained unanswered.
Art or decoration?
All of this can be seen on the featured image of this article. I must confess I was hurt, as an aesthete, to see the words art, decoration and fun mixed together. I took solace in the fact that it is written in English, therefore a lost in translation wording was responsible for this blasphemy against art. Anyway, nothing of artistic importance can be found in this exhibition but the majestous 一起？ translated as Together? elegant rendition of the taoists yin and yang symbol. Beside this one, almost everything here is barely a decorative object.
After spending a lot of times in museum I have come to encounter innocent people, visitors of naive honesty, judging a painting with a dry “What a strange one! Was the artist crazy and drawing his ravings? I would not dare put this in my living room”. And happy, dreaming of his cosy living room, him who thought he was judging the artwork was in fact the one being judged by the masterpiece.
Would Mona Lisa be of a great effect above my sofa? I submit this riddle to those unhappy people who judge art by the size of their house. I also strongly advise them to go to this exhibition: good looking decorative objects can be admired there.
Different genres of lacquer?
Some works here can easily be related to a conceptual message. I will spare the details of a laborious classification: anyone with good sense can judge this matter by going to this exhibition. Out of modesty I will not show here pieces with a crude content. This out of fashion way to shock the audience should not be advertised.
The exhibition, outcome of « research » by a Chinese group of artisans, is therefore a reflection upon the theme “How to renew a tradition“, and they pay their homage to the different categories and genres associated with lacquers. Where is the liberty then, the 開放 promised in the title of the exhibition? Not in the craftsmanship, lacquer being a minor technique, hard to process and control, lacking all the expression of a painting or a sculpture.
Neither in the themes, decorative objects being interchangeable and lacking any meaning. An exception has to be made for a couple representations of nature, a most urgent matter in the current state of our planet. Controlled and processed by the human and thus immortal as lacquer, numerous and colourful like the proverbial thousand cranes, are those leaves a symbol of hope or a dry allegory of human’s abusive exploitation?
The liberty of this exhibition can be found in the strong affirmation of uselessness by those artists. This question, compared with the trivial problem of renewing a tradition, is of capital importance. Instead of the plain and insipid preface of the exhibition I thought of those sonorous words from Théophile Gauthier:
“Nothing is really beautiful but that which cannot be made use of; everything that is useful is ugly, for it is the expression of some need, and the needs of man are vile and disgusting, like his poor, weak nature.—The most useful part of a house is the privy.”
I must say the thought of a world where art would be useless, not the expression of some need, is agonising. Useless beauty is morbid and cannot be excused. I will drop this philosophical matter, those amused by metaphysic would discuss it forever. Instead, let us think about an other issue: what will happen to those items after the exhibition, useless as they are? I am sure the museum foresaw this problem, but as an amateur of irony, I would have like to know what will happen to those artworks.
What to do with damn lacquer anyway
Lacquer was a good theme too raise many topics, and different themes would have been, in my humble opinion, up to discussion. Because it is rot-resistant, it has been used, until nowadays, for the purpose of art in at least two striking ways: for music and arts of the brush. First in music, with a lot of instruments, whether in wood like guitar and guqin, or with reeds, like oboe or clarinet, being lacquered. Are those useless? Can a music instrument be a decorative one? I do believe instruments of music are not mere objects amongst others, some kind of mysterious and solemn existence was granted to them, only waiting their moment to be part of the symphony of art.
By an amusing twist of technique, fate being capricious, lacquer was used to reproduce music through the well known vinyl. Regarding this matter, lacquer is also deeply connected with plastic, those two sharing multiple qualities. Is the material of art itself not worthy a thought?
For an exhibition making use of this subject please have a look here
Used in the crafting of musical instruments, lacquer is also highly enjoyed in ink making. Ink, alleged to be one of the four treasure of the study, along with brush, paper and ink stone, being a major part of the Chinese calligraphic art, and also a simple metaphor of literary creation, could have been used as a way to renew the tradition by mentioning different form of artistic creation: namely writing and painting.
Lacquers is used for weaponry, watchmaking and tyre production. All of these are intriguing from an artistic point of view for obvious reasons that I do not have to explain, especially in the case of watches: smart readers can imagine a Picasso or a Baudelaire in lacquers. Weapons and tyres are also very civilized and desirable devices and no one will argue how useful they are.
Last but not least, lacquer itself is toxic and allergen, which is sharply ironic for those leaves and fruits petrified in such a poisonous way, and we can find here a very literal example of useless beauty’s morbidity. The only serious ecological matter is: can useless luxury be tolerated besides lack of resources around our world.
Of course a part of the exhibition will show you scientific installations used by the tamer of lacquer, as sad and absurd as those dead butterflies in a Natural history museum. Not only those are unpleasant to the eye, but they are a sacrilege against the mystery of craftsmanship, where, like in magic, the explanation of the trick is a complete negation of art itself.
30 March-3 June 2018
Hubei Fine Arts Museum
No entrance after 4 pm