Korean lacquer art has a rich history as a national handicraft in Korea, and throughout the centuries the art form readily transformed along with the dominant culture of the period. The systems for harvesting and refining the sap of the lacquer tree to protect and beautify objects formed 7,000 years ago. Not only is lacquer an extremely durable material, but the design motifs are malleable. Works of lacquer reflect the values and ideals of the artists, the patrons and the users of beautiful objects from the distant past to the present day.
Artisans throughout East Asia created a variety of complex decorative forms. However, in Korea it was najeon chilgi (shell inlayed lacquer ware) that was cultivated as a national icon of fine arts. According to historic references, najeon chilgi reached its full development by the Goryeo period (918-1392). Literary sources, such as the Goryeo-Dogyeong of 1123, written by a Chinese ambassador, indicate that this particular technique surpassed Chinese examples.
Goryeo period najeon chilgi pieces are extremely rare. There are only 16 objects extant world wide, and only one is in Korea. That object is a monk’s whiskbroom handle housed at the National Museum of Korea. The rest are found in Japan, Netherlands, England, and the United States. All of these objects are associated with Buddhist rituals.
During the shift to establish Confucianism as the state religion during the Joseon period (1392-1910), all things Buddhist were officially purged. This explains the rarity of Goryeo lacquer wares, as Buddhist temples comprised the major patronage for lacquer workshops. The swing in philosophical values was also evidenced in the visual themes of lacquer wares.
As we examine Joseon period najeon chilgi, we find two major changes: form and function. In accord with the more conservative Confucian values, designs were less ostentatious and more emphasis was on a balanced foreground and background in all patterns. We also find more themes incorporating literature and famous landscapes. In addition, we discover objects connected to everyday activities such as comb chests, boxes for storing clothes and writing implements, and small trays for eating.
In the modern era, most traditional pieces incorporate Joseon tastes. The use of only all natural materials has continued and contemporary lacquer artisans fervently resist using anything synthetic. Admittedly some changes occurred due to the use of electricity, for example the sanding of a core object might be done with machines, but the majority of the work is still delicate enough to require a human touch.
Once again, we see that form and function change with contemporary culture. The comforts of modern life; cars, mobile phones, computers, and apartments; have provided new life for amazing art works. Lacquer is ideal for cell phones and computers because it repels electromagnetic rays. Refrigerators, speakers, and hard drives decorated with beautiful shell inlay are available for purchase today. To accommodate the transition from hanok (traditional Korean house) to apartments, artisans adjusted furniture sizes to suit smaller rooms and lower ceilings. Cityscapes or pop culture images can readily be found, as contemporary artists find innovative ways to use the natural qualities of lacquer to artistic advantage.
In the future we will find various novel appearances and uses of najeon chilgi. The role of international connoisseurs, museums, and galleries plays a major part in the expansion of Korean lacquer arts. As new audiences discover the beneficial properties of lacquer, its beauty can be better appreciated. In particular the ability of najeon chilgi to not only reflect colorful light, but also our own ever changing cultural values will be treasured.
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