During a recent buying excursion, I stumbled across these beautiful lacquered / painted armoires, from Shanxi province in Northern China. While not nearly as prized by Chinese buyers, who often prefer hardwoods like Hua li or Hong mu, the status of Shanxi painted furniture has nevertheless risen significantly over the years for its beauty and stunning colors and is a favorite of the noted Chinese collector Co La Ma.
Particularly interesting, is this close-up section of a door panel. Notice the change in color and patina which has occurred over the years? Once covered by a brass plate which was removed/lost within the last twenty or thirty years, (possibly during the great leap forward), the left side (where the colors are beautiful and subtle) has survived the years, protected by the brass or iron plate that would have originally been there. The colors on the right are faded and muted by comparison. The effect of daily life, pollution, coal dust and years of rough handling and exposure to the elements is clearly visible. And yet, it remains beautiful.
Known as “Bu Wen Qi” or “Da Qi,” the process used in this style of Chinese lacquering is both complex and unique. The first step would have involved covering the raw wood construction with a base layer of hemp, horsehair, straw or other fabric depending on the period in which it was made. This allows for the wood frame construction to shift to some degree without damaging the rigid upper layer of hardened lacquer. On older pieces this sometimes still visible in damaged areas and can be a good indicator of age.
The second step is the application of an even layer of gesso known as “ni zi, ” consisting of plaster mixed with pigs blood (which must be applied within a set period of time lest it spoil). This provides the base material and smooths any impurities or flaws in the wood, straw or fabric below. The third step is multiple coats of natural resin based lacquer, with vibrant red or “ink black” being the two most commonly used colors. Each coat of lacquer must be dried, and carefully wet sanded by hand with a very fine abrasive paper before receiving the next coat. The process is then repeated several times with even the most common pieces receiving at least five to seven coats, until the surface becomes smooth, glassy and mirror like. Finally in the forth step, an artist carefully hand paints motifs ranging from flowers and vases to city scenes to people.
Restoration of such pieces requires a extremely skilled craftsman in order to avoid further damage to the piece and to restore it to its former beauty.