The Art of Korean Lacquer

The Korean art of najeon is just one of the beautiful traditions we’re exploring in our upcoming Korean Gallery. This traditional art of mother-of-pearl inlay on lacquerware takes a great amount of skill–  a single piece requires woodwork, metalwork and lacquer techniques as well as mother-of-pearl carving and inlay. Read on for the history and techniques associated with this art form, as well as an upcoming opportunity to try it yourself!

Lacquer is an important art form in Korea, and throughout Asia. Evidence suggests that lacquer works were produced in Korea by the Neolithic period (6000–1000 BCE) as both China and Japan had lacquer by that time. Lacquerware is produced by layering the processed sap of the lacquer tree onto a core of wood, bamboo or other material to create a variety of items including furniture and other household decor. Each thin layer must dry completely before the next is applied, resulting in resistance to heat and moisture. Pigments can be mixed into the lacquer for different colors in the finished product. Because of the many layers involved and long drying times, a single piece can take months or even a year to complete.

The technique of mother-of-pearl inlay (najeon) also originated in China, and evidence suggests that the technique had reached the Korean peninsula by the eighth century. Today, this is a dominant feature of Korean lacquerware. In this technique, the thin inner layer of shells like abalone are carefully cut and inlaid on the lacquerware. Sometimes the design will be laid on top of the many base coats of lacquer and coated until submerged. Then, the top layer of lacquer is ground down until the mother-of-pearl is exposed. Alternatively, the design is carved into the surface and the material inset, and again more lacquer is applied and ground down. Occasionally other materials such as metal, tortoise shell or sharkskin, are used alongside the mother-of-pearl. Artisans in the Goryeo period (936–1392 CE) began using copper-alloy wires in their inlay designs, and this has remained unique to Korean lacquerware. Usually, only visible surfaces of a work are decorated– the inside of a box, for example, is usually not inlaid.

During the Goryeo period, lacquerware was prized among the elites and was mostly produced in connection with Buddhist practices. Production was monopolized by the imperial workshop during this time, but during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910 CE) lacquer became more accessible and applied to secular objects as Buddhist influence weakened.  The expansion of najeon use also saw new design motifs including auspicious plants, animals and mythological figures (for more on these motifs, check out our previous post on last year’s exhibition Auspicious Beauty: Korean Folk Painting). 

There are still many Korean artisans who create najeon today, and we’re hosting one of them on September 26 for a full-day workshop. Master artist Myung-Che Jung, an Intangible Cultural Property of Seoul, will give an illustrated overview of the art of najeon and conduct a live demonstration. Following dosirak (Korean box lunch), guests will have the unique opportunity to create their own najeon object in a hands-on workshop. More information is available on our website— don’t miss this chance to try this beautiful traditional art for yourself! ~CM


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