Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Maria João Petisca and Cantonese lacquerware: A study of Chinese culture and Portuguese activity

Arts and CultureMaria João Petisca and Cantonese lacquerware: A study of Chinese culture and Portuguese activity

Associate Arts and Culture Editor

From April 15-19, the university’s Asian Studies program partnered up with the Departments of History, Art Conservation, Art History, the Chinese Studies program, the Center for Historic Architecture and Design and the Winterthur Museum to hold “Global Chinese Week: A Week of Chinese Art, Culture, and History.” The week presented various lectures hosted on Zoom, in Old College Hall and at Winterthur.

The first lecture hosted by Maria João Petisca on April 15 was titled “Cantonese Lacquerware: Global Travels of the Gilded Objects made for Export.” Petisca, a former graduate student in the Preservation Studies Program and Department of Art Conservation, wrote her dissertation on “Investigations into Chinese export lacquerware” and was invited to speak over Zoom by Vimalin Rujivacharakul, director of Asian Studies at the university.

Petisca’s lecture focused on the origins of Cantonese lacquer from Guangzhou and how it differs from other lacquerware ranging from the Far East to the Americas. Lacquerware are objects made of either wood or metal that are coated with a liquid called lacquer. The liquid is called Urushi , a type of tree sap from the Chinese lacquer tree, which contributes to the coated object’s durability and resistance.

“It’s been used in a wide range of objects and covering very different substrates such as wood, bamboo, leather and metal,” Petisca said.

The main producing species of the lacquer’s varnish is a tree called “toxicodendron vernicifluum,” more commonly known as the Chinese lacquer tree. 

“They stay toxic or they lose value, and as such mainly grow in Japan, China and Korea,” Petisca said in the lecture.

Petisca explained that because the trees are indigenous to the Asian continent, the production of Asian lacquer in subsequent artifacts was not found in Europe or the United States. In fact, in the early 19th century, three trees were brought to France but never survived more than three years, according to Petisca.

Petisca attributed their introduction to John Randidly, an English botanist serving in Canton (the European translation of Guangzhou) from 1769 to 1773, whom Petisca stated was interested in seeing their potential use for Britain. Furthermore, Petisca pointed out that Sir Francis, a French royal, created a garden in 1856 showcasing the tree among exotic species from around the world.

According to Petisca, between 1861 to 1906, several specimens of toxicodendron vernicifluum were distributed to Moscow, in which some scientists recorded their overall observations. One record, dated April 1961 said, “the fact that the trees can develop outside of the Asian continent does not necessarily mean they are appropriate for production; there are collective factors such as altitude and precipitation.”

Furthermore, in 2011, a group of agronomy students attempted to collect sap from a tree for identification, but due to precipitation they were only able to get up to 10 milliliters,  according to Petisca.

Petisca stated that it is unknown whether there were successful uses of the tree sap varnish in Europe. Moreover, she mentioned there are no reported cases of objects created using the varnish in the continent from the 17th or 18th centuries. Several hypotheses have been raised for this enigma, from degrading from the long travel or lack of dependable knowledge regarding its proper application techniques.

Despite this, many objects have been recreated in European countries. According to Petisca, materials familiar to European artisans are used for imitation, such as shellac, a secreted insect resin that has some medicinal purposes.

Portugal has been a frequent collector of lacquered objects, from trays and boxes to tables, each of them attributed with Indian or Chinese reservations and adjectives. 

“It is difficult to attribute country of origin, since the use of such adjectives were used with no concern of their correspondence with the region or country of provenance,” Petisca said in her presentation.

Petisca explained that in 1511, the Portuguese royals positioned the country to have privileged access to “commodities from distant countries such as Japan, China, and the UK,” Due to this, today the country promotes the distribution of lacquerware to other European courts. As with most European distributions, these particular objects have no clear origin because their decorations plant them in more than one geographical area. 

Finally in 1557, Portugal settled their distribution base in Macau, China, which lasted until 1999 when the territory returned to China’s jurisdiction. In spite of this, Petisca pointed out that Portuguese Jesuit priests still worked in Asia following China’s reclamation of the territory, spreading Christian ideals from Japanese territory into Guangzhou, which was 100 miles away from Macau.

Guangzhou’s lacquer was produced with singular painted decorations, defining their style. Petisca explained that with its clear indication of where it was shipped, it could finally be exported to domestic countries. This was especially handy since, into the 18th century, Guangzhou was one of the biggest cities worldwide next to London and Paris.

The lecture continued to delve deeper into the trading exports and the intricacies of Guangzhou’s lacquer and its connection with Japan and China. At the end of the lecture, Rujivacharakul opened up the floor for questions to Petisca.

One student asked Petisca if Chinese lacquer had anything in its technique or making that was region-specific. 

“It needs particular conditions to grow a set of specific trees, but then you need specific conditions to be able to build the object,” Petisca said. “So you will need a good substrate.”

According to Petisca, the process is very complicated, as there are a complex amount of ground layers and “lacquer layers,” alongside needing certain temperatures to contain its delicate decor. 

“That’s one of the reasons why it was very difficult to copy it in Europe because we didn’t have all those conditions to be able to produce objects like this,” Petisca said.

Another student asked about South America’s role in the global trade of Chinese lacquerware exporting. Petisca stated that there were great influences, such as several painted decorations inspired by paintings of Chinese flowers. 

“Each piece of lacquerware, they are contemporary to the time period when they were made,” Petisca said.

Through the history of lacquer and efforts of the Portuguese, Chinese lacquerware is an ongoing curiosity and treasure to many who take up artifact conservation, like Petisca. 




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