Walk through the history of lacquerware craftsmanship at the National Museum of Korea


Covered box in the shape of a clover decorated with chrysanthemums dating from the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392) [NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KOREA]

Ottchil, or the lacquer coating technique, calls on the best know-how.

It takes several months just to collect the sap and refine the lacquer. Then the process of coating a wooden object such as a bowl or cabinet takes a lot of patience as it requires a repetitive process of painting over a coat of lacquer, drying and applying another coat.

This traditional technique of coating wooden crafts with sap grown from lacquer trees has long been admired for the beautifully shimmering and sturdy finished products it produces. Wooden crafts finished with ottchil were in particular demand during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) because they were known to be resistant to insects, water and humidity.

With the advent of many alternatives to wood, from plastic to stainless steel and glass, lacquered products are gradually losing favor.

Visitors visit the exhibition, "Ottchil, the splendor coated with Asian lacquers," at the National Museum of Korea in central Seoul. [YONHAP]

Visitors view the “Ottchil, Splendor Coated with Asian Lacquer” exhibit at the National Museum of Korea in central Seoul. [YONHAP]

To shed light on this endangered traditional craft, the National Museum of Korea has organized a special exhibition titled “Ottchil, Splendor in Asiatic Lacquer”.

The ottchil technique has been widely used in Korea, China, and Japan. According to Noh Nam-hee, an exhibition curator, there aren’t many specimens of lacquerware that show when the technique was first invented. In Korea, some of the earliest lacquered relics date back to the 3rd century BC.

The exhibition features 263 lacquered handicrafts from the three countries that reveal how lacquer techniques developed in accordance with the unique regional and local characteristics of each country.

Usually when people think of ottchil crafts, things that are reddish in color may come to their mind.

The beautiful mother-of-pearl jewelry boxes that every woman wants to own are also associated with the lacquered crafts developed in Korea.

Mother-of-pearl inlaid box for clothing dating from the mid-Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) [JOONGANG ILBO]

Mother-of-pearl inlaid box for clothing dating from the mid-Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) [JOONGANG ILBO]

According to Noh, Korea, China, and Japan shared similar lacquer cultures until the Unified Silla (668-935), but began to develop their own styles thereafter. As for Korea, mother-of-pearl encrusted lacquer began to appear during the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392), while Japan’s unique technique of “maki-e” or drawing of lacquer surface paintings using de sap and sprinkling gold and silver power on the surface, developed during the Nara period (710-784). The unique lacquer technique in China is known as “jo”, which involves sculpting patterns on thick layers of sap.

A video image of a craftsman producing lacquered crafts [YONHAP]

A video image of a craftsman producing lacquered crafts [YONHAP]

The exhibition is divided into four sections, taking visitors through an array of lacquered crafts produced in chronological order.

The first “Meeting Lacquerware” focuses on explaining the general concept of what ottchil is. Visitors can witness the production process of lacquered crafts through a video installed in this section. The parts here demonstrate the complex manufacturing process which requires a long period of preparation and repeated effort.

The second “Lacquer Decor” is where you can witness the diversity of lacquer.

The fine lacquer was originally colorless but turns brown when applied to wooden objects. The reddish brown color we see today is due to the addition of iron oxide or copper red pigment.

“The two contrasting colors were then used to draw pictures and patterns to decorate the lacquers. Korean lacquerware extracted from the ruins of Daho-ri in Changwon and Chinese lacquerware from the Han period particularly showcase this technique, ”Noh said.

Dish with birds and clouds, dating from the pre-Han dynasty in China [SHANGHAI MUSEUM]

Dish with birds and clouds, dating from the pre-Han dynasty in China [SHANGHAI MUSEUM]

Inkstone Box dating from the Edo period of the 19th century in Japan [NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KOREA]

Inkstone Box dating from the Edo period of the 19th century in Japan [NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KOREA]

The unique characteristics of lacquered handicrafts from different countries can be observed in the third section “Revealing regional characteristics”.

Here, a “clover-shaped covered box with chrysanthemum decoration” dating from the Goryeo dynasty is on display for the first time after returning home last year. According to the museum, the government bought back “this precious Korean cultural heritage in Japan” in 2020.

“The hallmark of this period is that artisans sliced ​​mother-of-pearl into thin slices and created patterned shapes as patterns,” Noh said. “People used other materials to decorate lacquerware, such as wire and tortoiseshell.”

Mounted dish, excavated from Daho-ri in Changwon [GIMHAE NATIONAL MUSEUM]

Mounted dish, excavated from Daho-ri in Changwon [GIMHAE NATIONAL MUSEUM]

Also on display are more than 30 sculpted lacquer pieces from China, which have rarely been exhibited in Korea. They traveled here from the Shanghai Museum.

There are also lacquers from Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar. It’s interesting to see the difference between mother-of-pearl encrusted lacquers from Korea and Vietnam, Noh says.

The last section, “Transcending Boundaries”, traces the evolution of lacquer, going beyond regions and classes. It shows how lacquer, which was mainly used among the nobles in the early to mid-Joseon Dynasty, began to enter the lives of ordinary people during the latter part of the Joseon period.

The exhibition runs until March 20, 2022.

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [[email protected]]


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