The A to Z of Lacquer

A as in Aventurine lacquer
This term originates from the 18th century and describes the imitation of the Japanese nashiji, a sprinkled gold ground. The technique involves sprinkling small metallic particles – usually gold – onto the still-wet lacquer and then coating it with a reddish-yellow clearcoat. The European name is derived from its similarity to aventurine stone, a reddish-brown ore with a gold shimmer that is also known as “sunstone.”
A technique that imitates the Japanese sprinkled gold ground can also be found in Islamic lacquer art, where it is called moraqqash.

B as in Bantam work the term commonly used in England for what is known as Coromandel lacquer. The name is derived from the Javanese port city of Bantam, from where the Dutch East India Company exported the majority of the lacquerware destined for the European market. Coromandel lacquer is based on a colorful technique known in China as kehui (“carved chalk”) or quancai (“engraved colorfulness”) and was first mentioned in the Xiushi lu ("On Lacquering") treatise that dates back to the late 16th century. A multi-layer chalk ground was applied to wood, which served as the substrate, and was then coated with black lacquer. When it had hardened, most of the scenic and floral images were cut out all the way down to the chalk ground and painted with colored fillings or coated with gold powder mixed with glue. The white substrate intensified the brilliance of the inlaid colors many times over.

C as in chinkin-bori
…is the name for a Japanese lacquer technique that derives its origin from the Chinese qiangjin technique. The underlying Chinese decorative technique has been known since the late Song period (960-1279) and was presumably not introduced to Japan until the Muromachi period (1336-1573). Both chinkin-bori and qiangjin translate to “sunken gold.” With this technique, the décor is carved into the surface of the lacquer and then rubbed out with gold.

D as in Dagly
The Daglys were a family of lacquer artists and craftspeople from the Belgian town now known as Spa. During the 17th and 18th century, some members of the Dagly family, among them brothers Gérard (1660-1715) and Jacques (1665-1728), exhibited their craftsman’s skill at princely courts and royal courts throughout Europe, including the court of the Prussian King in Berlin and the royal Hôtel des Gobelins manufacture in Paris. 

E as in Eggshell decoration
Since East Asian lacquer was so aggressive and toxic, there were only a few natural pigments that could be used for coloring it in former times. It was generally not possible to make white lacquer. So as to still be able to produce the color white for designing décor and grounding whole areas, shells from quails’ eggs were broken into small pieces or ground to a powder and then placed on the still-wet lacquer. This lacquer technique was and is traditionally applied in Southeast Asia in particular. 

F as in Friends
“The three friends of winter” – bamboo, pine and Chinese plum – are a special subject that occurs frequently in Far Eastern lacquer work. They form an ensemble of early flowering and evergreen plants that brave even the snow and ice in the winter and are a symbol for solidarity precisely during this cold time of year. This décor therefore represents a symbol of loyalty, friendship and consistency.

G as in guri lacquer
The literal translation of the Japanese word guri is “arch” or “circle,” and it refers to specific lacquers carved with abstract geometric décor. To create this décor, the substrate, wood, is first coated with layers of differently colored lacquers in a rhythmic sequence. Red, black, and ochre usually dominate the alternating play of colors of the layers of lacquer that are applied one on top of the other. The actual fascination and art lies in the following step: The artist cuts out the subject of the décor by making V-shaped cuts in the multi-layer lacquer, thereby bringing out the polychromy of the lacquer structure. This technique originated in China, which is verified by examples that date back as far as the 6th century.

H as in Herberts, Prof. Dr. Kurt
A substantial part of the lacquer objects displayed in our museum can be traced back to our acquisition of the collection belonging to Prof. Dr. Kurt Herberts, a lacquer manufacturer from Wuppertal. He began his collection out of the desire to document the manifold artistic possibilities of applying paint and lacquer. After the lacquer factory Dr. Kurt Herberts & Co. was sold to Hoechst AG in 1976, the artifacts that had been collected over several decades remained the private property of the entrepreneur. When the opportunity arose in 1982 to offer his whole collection to BASF subsidiary Farben+Fasern AG (now BASF Coatings GmbH) and to unite it with the collections of the former Herbig-Haarhaus AG in Cologne, Herberts parted with his lacquer art objects.

I as in inro
Inro is the Japanese word for small containers that consist of several compartments and are covered by a lid – similar to a stacked box. Inros were a man’s business, since their kimonos – in contrast to the women’s – had no pockets whatsoever. So this was how men carried their most important objects: Their own seal, sealing wax and, if necessary, medicines. While the seals were so small that they could fit into a compartment of the info, they were of great importance nevertheless. These certified stamps that bear the owner’s name carried (and still carry) the same weight as a personal signature in Japan and other East Asian countries.
Inros were not only convenient, they soon became a status symbol that was worn on the belt of the kimono, where it was clearly visible. As a counterweight, men wore what are known as “netsukes,” often small, artistically carved figures.

J as in jolités de Spa
These containers and small pieces of furniture, also known as bois de Spa, are made from beech wood and coated with five to six layers of paint, on which a flat relief or an ink drawing is applied. It was then accentuated with shell gold and gouache edging and finally coated with a clearcoat. Since the 16th century, the town of Spa, which lies in what is now Belgium, has been known to the aristocracy as a sophisticated bathing resort on the one hand, and as a town that manufactures decorative handcrafted objects on the other. Lacquered fashion accessories were part of the resident artists’ repertoire since the late 17th century.

K as in Kodaiji lacquers
The social ascent of the warrior class during the Momoyama period (1568-1598) was accompanied by the emergence of a new style of lacquer work that involved a rich, very finely and very flatly worked sprinkled gold decor (maki-e): The Kodaiji lacquers. The name for this type of lacquer work is derived from the Kyoto temple of the same name, which was commissioned by court lady O-e after the death of her husband, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598). The interior décor of the mausoleum displays the characteristic features of the Kodaiji lacquers: loosely spread vibrant maki-e décors of delicate autumn grasses, vines and, from a top view, flatly spread out blossoms on a black lacquer ground. Between them are static, motionless, decoratively stylized paulownia and chrysanthemum emblems.

L as in Lacquer tree
The lacquer tree, which is native to East Asia, is divided into three subspecies: rhus verniciflua, which can be found in China, Korea and Japan, and rhus succedanea and melanorrhoea usitata, which are both native to Southeast Asia. The tradition of extracting and processing the sap from these trees, which can be used as lacquer immediately after it is harvested, dates back to the early Neolithic period (approximately 8000-2000 BC). Due to its preservative and protective features as well as its aesthetic characteristics, lacquer art developed very early on in China and later also in Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia. This tree, which is called gishu in China and urushi no ki in Japan, is very rare in Europe, but you can see one in the parking lot outside our museum. 

M as in maki-e
Maki-e is the Japanese term for “sprinkled picture.” Maki-e describes a technique in which the décor, powdered metal of various colors and grain sizes, is sprinkled onto the still-wet lacquer ground. The particles consist mainly of gold, which is partly mixed with silver, copper or other materials to accentuate the colors, and are sprinkled on with varying density. In combination with other sprinkling techniques, whole landscapes emerge, giving the observer an impression of three-dimensionality. This technique is famous for Japanese lacquer work and has been used since the early Heian period (794-1185). Over the centuries, it was continuously refined and differentiated, and in the course of time, a highly diversified range of various sprinkling techniques developed, which are still in use today. 

N as in Negoro lacquers
This term is used for objects that were first coated with black lacquer, followed by several layers of red lacquer, and were not decorated any further. With real Negoro lacquers, the top layers of red lacquer in those places that are particularly well-worn are gradually worn down during use. As a result, the underlying black lacquer becomes visible in the form of irregular traces of use. It is these “wear marks” that are characteristic of Negoro lacquers and that give them their special charm by giving each object its own patina.
This effect can also be created artificially by abrading specific parts. Works of art created this way are also called “artificial Negoro lacquers.” The name for this technique is derived from the Negoro-dera temple of the Buddhist Shigon sect on the Katsuragi mountain near Iwade in Japan. There, the monks used the technique described above to make lacquer containers for their own personal use.

O as in okibirame
The Japanese term translates to “superimposed flat eye” and describes a sprinkling technique which involves placing individual, small rectangular pieces of metal foil made of gold or silver onto the lacquer décor for further accentuation.

P as in Palekh
…is the name of a small Russian town approximately 300 km east of Moscow in the Vladimir-Suzdal region.
Triggered by the October Revolution and by government-imposed atheism, religious art in Russia abruptly saw the legs knocked out from underneath it in 1917. In Palekh, an ancient center of icon painting, artists turned to lacquer miniatures in search of a livelihood and new artistic direction. After tentative beginnings under the influence of Art Deco, the transformation of religious subjects and of a traditional style vocabulary became part of young Soviet art. In the center of this movement stood the painter Ivan Golikov, who together with six other former icon artists in Palekh brought the “cooperative for old painting” to life in 1924. This tradition has survived to this day – and icon paintings too are once again produced in the small village.

Q as in Qalamdān
This Persian term describes a pencil box that was used in the Islamic cultural region to store quills and other utensils, such as India ink. This type of container for storing writing utensils originated in the late 16th century and was mostly carried in a protective cover made of velvet or embroidered material. 

R as in “Rose and Nightingale”
This is one of the most popular subjects of Islamic lacquer work, such as book covers and mirror cases – the Persian term is gul-u-bulbul. The short and tragic love story makes reference to poetry with an oriental influence in a sublime way: The nightingale that is in love with the rose sees the flower of the evening wither and offers to stick a thorn in its heart to strengthen itself. And so it happened, and while the nightingale sings all through the night for its beloved rose, the rose gains strength and is in full bloom again the next morning. The nightingale, however, lies dead on the ground. There is evidence in the form of paintings up to the 11th century that lacquer was used as a simple protective coating. It is proven to have been an independent form of art since the 15th century, but it only saw its peak beginning in the 17th century.

S as in Schnell, Martin (1675-1740)
He was Augustus the Strong’s court lacquerer and came to Dresden the same year that the Meissen porcelain factory was founded: 1710. Having already worked as a lacquerer in the Dagly brothers’ workshop in Berlin, he was invited to the town on the Elbe River by the Elector of Saxony, where he worked closely with the Meissen factory until 1715. He had specialized in decorating the earliest Meissen porcelain, Böttger stoneware, with gold and lacquer painting. Later, he was involved in the interior decoration of the Green Vault (Grünes Gewölbe) and the Dutch Palace (Holländisches Palais) in Dresden, as well as Wilanow Palace in Warsaw, where his masterfully crafted cabinets with chinoiserie décor came into use and caused a sensation.

T as in tihei and tihong
The Chinese terms tihei and tihong translate to “carved black” and “carved red” and refer to carved or cut lacquer, the most important technique of multi-faceted Chinese lacquer art. This method flourished in the 14th and early 15th centuries during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The carved lacquer technique is very costly and time-consuming and involves carving representational or abstractly geometrical décor into the lacquer, whose formation alone was often a process that took several months to complete: Multiple priming coats of varying fineness are applied to the substrate, which is covered by fabric, and are sanded smooth and polished after they have dried. The actual build-up of the fine layers of lacquer cannot be started until this foundation has been completed. The extremely thin layers are applied one after the other, with each individual layer having to dry for several days before the next layer can be applied. The lacquer build-up of most carved lacquers has an average total thickness of three to four millimeters, which corresponds to one hundred or more individually applied layers. 

U as in Undying, the Eight Immortals
The Eight Immortals (baxian) of Daoism are said to be sages or saints, who travel across the land and spread Daoist teachings. The Eight Immortals have been known as a group in China since the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368); as individuals, however, some of them played an important role in Chinese mythology long before then. The group of eight represents all social classes and age groups, ranging from a member of the imperial family to a beggar, with each one of them being recognizable by their typical attribute, such as the flute, the gourd or the fan.

V as in Vernis Martin
…is the term used for 18th century French lacquer work that features a high level of craftsmanship and perfection. This term goes back to the Martin family, a family of lacquer craftsmen who enabled French lacquer art to free itself from the East Asian model and turn towards subjects of contemporary court painting. They developed a very pale, extremely transparent lacquer on the basis of Zanzibar copal, which was called Vernis Martin. The Martin family used this lacquer as a final coat on their miniature works of art to not only protect the underlying oil painting, but also to make it shine.

W as in Wolfers, Marcel
Belgian Marcel Wolfers (1886-1976) was one of the outstanding artists of Art Deco, who earned his reputation primarily as a metal sculptor. Beginning in the mid 1920s and into the 1950s, he was involved intensively with creating lacquer objects using Rhus lacquer, which comes from Asia. Like him, other European artists of this epoch, including British artist Eileen Gray (1878-1976) and French artist Jean Dunand (1877-1942), had discovered Japanese lacquer and were enthralled by it.

X as in Xiushi lu
The Chinese opus Xiushi lu (“On Lacquering”) is a treatise from the late Ming Dynasty that focuses on the craft of lacquering and various techniques for decorating lacquer. The treatise is the only known Chinese text that is dedicated solely to lacquer and its techniques. In 1625, Yang Ming from Xitang added a preface to the Xiushi lu, indicating that the original text was written by master lacquerer Huang Pingsha, also known as Huang Cheng.

Y as in Yang Mao
Yang Mao was a famous Chinese master lacquerer who had a workshop in Xitang in the Chinese province of Zheijang towards the end of the 14th century. During the Mongol Wars, his lacquer works were taken to Japan by fleeing Chinese monks, where they were greatly admired by the ruling class. Like the works of his contemporary Zhang Cheng, Mao's works were collected in Japan and were elevated to ritual objects for the tea ceremony. Chinese and Japanese lacquer artists not only copied their style and technical perfection, they also frequently signed their work with the name of their role model. 

Z as in Zeshin
Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) was a Japanese painter and lacquer artist who was born in Edo, what is now Tokyo. He was outstandingly skilled in the traditional techniques of lacquer art, but also pursued new and innovative paths in art. It was Zeshin who brought the imitation of rusty iron and patinated bronze in combination with lacquer to perfection, who revived forgotten techniques and perfected them by further developing them himself. The inro shown here displays the exceptional talent of this important 19th century Japanese lacquer artist. It is reduced to tonal gray-black lacquer that is compacted to an image representation solely through its relief-like structures, such as the combed-in wave structure (seigai) and the confidently positioned gold elevations. The image depicts plovers flying over waves.