Everyday objects enchant in exhibition of East Asian decorative arts

Provided photo
This Japanese document box with tray dates to the late 19th or early 20th century. It was a gift of Norbert Schimmel.

Table settings, combs and hairpins, belt toggles, boxes for documents — all are potentially unremarkable artifacts of daily life.

But in the exhibition “The Enchantment of the Everyday: East Asian Decorative Arts from the Permanent Collection,” on view at the Allen Memorial Art Museum through July 19, 2020, such objects offer a glimpse into a world in which everyday objects became magical in the hands of master artisans.

Gold lacquerware, delicately carved ivory, colorful enamelware, glass, metalwork and elaborate tapestries and embroideries all demonstrate the inspiration, ingenuity and technical accomplishments of artists specializing in these mediums.

The exhibition presents spectacular examples of East Asian decorative arts from the Allen’s collection, mainly dating to the 19th century, that complement the ceramics, jades and ivory netsuke on view in other museum galleries.

Featured objects, such as Chinese snuff bottles, capture the luxury of daily life through a staggering array of material and decorative techniques, such as glazed porcelain, overlay Peking glass, quartz, amber and enameled copper. In one of the most impressive decorative methods, called inside painting, the artist uses an angled brush to paint inside a clear bottle with a minuscule opening, beginning with the details and working in reverse, finally painting the background.

Large lacquer document boxes used to store important papers and other small valuables demonstrate the patience and skill of Japanese artists; the lacquer is highly toxic and must be applied in layers, with great care. Lacquer creates a highly durable finish that protects objects against extreme temperatures, humidity and insects.

A masterful representation of this technique can be seen firsthand in a box decorated with the image of a trained falcon perched on a stand. This depiction of falconry, a hobby practiced by members of Japan’s samurai class, makes this box a potent symbol of wealth and power.

The Enchantment of the Everyday was curated by Kevin Greenwood, Joan L. Danforth Curator of Asian Art. He will give a free gallery talk on the exhibition at 10:15 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 15.

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