Asian Art Week – Ben Janssens

Also exhibiting in Asian Art Week is Ben Janssens, who has a wonderful selection of Chinese boxes on display. These include enamel, ivory tortoiseshell and hardwood examples, although the real highlight of the exhibition is the group of carved lacquer boxes. Carved lacquer dates back as far as the Tang dynasty (618-907) although it reached a peak during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1735-96), who was such a fan of the medium that he when he died he had his coffin decorated with it. Many of the pieces on show date from this period, including this exquisite example in double peach form.

Peaches are a symbol of longevity, also referred to here by the pine tree and the wan characters (swastikas) carved around the side of the box. Indeed, the piece is full of  symbolism, as the central motif of boys playing in a garden alludes to a desire for many sons. Chinese boxes are often decorated with such auspicious signs, suggesting that they were given as gifts, as they could be used to convey messages of harmony and goodwill. Here, this symbolism is coupled with a charming realism, as the boys to the right rush towards their playmate, one carrying his shoe, whilst their companion carries his peach branch in his mouth to make his climb easier. There is also a delightful play of texture across the surface of the box, as the craftsmen effectively contrasts areas of smooth, polished lacquer with extremely intricate carving.

Lacquer is a coloured varnish, and needs to be built up gradually with many thin layers. Each layer must be completely dry before the next can be applied, and it takes months to achieve a piece of lacquer thick enough to carve. This striking example extends this process, incorporating layers of green and ochre lacquer, which are revealed as the upper layer of red is cut away. The craftsmen have even included two layers of green, one beneath the top, red layer, and another beneath the ochre. This adds a dramatic sense of depth to the box, particularly where the red surface designs give way to the lower green layer, as can be seen in the central panel and in the lozenges displaying the attributes of the Eight Immortals. The depth of the cutting almost creates a sense that these red motifs are floating above the box, an apt effect for the banks of clouds and flying dragons.

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