Shining examples

For antique lovers, weathered ancient objects open a window to the past, and Liang Yi Museum, located on Hollywood Road – a well-known destination for antique hunters – is a bottomless mine.

The ongoing exhibition Beneath the Surface: Chinese Inlay; Japanese Maki-e; and European Cloisonne Enamel showcases more than 200 objects crafted from two of the most iconic and laborious surface decorative arts: lacquering and enameling.

Home to one of the world’s largest collections of Chinese antique furniture, a selection of 60 pieces of furniture and vanities featuring baibaoqian (or inlay of 100 treasures) among the museum’s more than 400 permanent objects, is on display in the first part of its Art of Lacquer exhibition.

A dragon-themed huanghuali inlaid table-top chest takes pride of place. While inlaid decorations on chests usually depict themes such as “100 boys” and flower-and-bird, here the dragons are done with a mother-of-pearl inlay instead of the more common relief carving.

Besides creating delicate patterns with superb craftsmanship, baibaoqian is unique in its use of precious materials of varying colors and textures, making objects more colorful and ornamental, said curator Stephanie Fong.

“As well as the pair of five-clawed dragons, the blue and red auspicious clouds made with precious materials also suggest the chest is likely of imperial origin,” Fong said.

Two exhibits highlight the collector’s fascination with Chinese antique furniture, both of which have taken nearly three decades to find. The frame of the zitan standing screen with inlaid central panel is among the earlier pieces acquired for the Liang Yi collection.

But the central panel, decorated with a “Magu celebrating her birthday” motif with inlaid stones and bats – lucky symbols in ancient China – in gold on lacquer, wasn’t found until nearly 30 years later. “The craftsmanship of the panel parallels that of the wood carving on the frame, as you can see its delicacy in the figures’ faces, costumes and overall three-dimensional sense,” Fong said.

A pair of huanghuali inlaid kang tables, decorated with mother-of-pearl and semiprecious stones depicting an ensemble of archaic vessels and scholarly accouterments, is displayed prominently.

Fong proudly noted that they were the 11th reunited pair in the museum’s permanent collection. “Some scholars thought it was the only one of its kind,” she said. “However, the discovery of the second identical piece after 20 years debunked that thinking.”

Scholarly accoutrements occupy a large proportion of the exhibits, and archaic vessels, paintings and flowers that symbolize the virtues of a gentleman are adorned with plum blossom, orchids, bamboo and chrysanthemums – common themes in baibaoqian.

Also featured in the first section is a collection of Japanese maki-e objects, a lacquering technique in which designs are worked onto a lacquered surface with sprinklings of gold and silver powder.

“We put baibaoqian and maki-e together because the latter was actually introduced to Japan in the Tang dynasty,” Fong said. The highlight exhibit is a kazaridana or display cabinet. The sliding door panels are decorated using the shibayama technique – an inlay of mother-of-pearl and ivory similar to baibaoqian – and the main body is painted with a carved lacquer.

It catered to the aesthetic tastes of Western customers, who wanted to embody several techniques on the same object, Fong said.

Connecting two sections of the exhibition is a Qing imperial-style book chest, in which the surface is inlaid with 2,000 tortoise shells cut to the same size.

Starting with two spaces featuring big names such as Cartier, Boucheron and Van Cleef & Arpels, the second section, Art of Enamel, further explores the craftsmanship through Japanese shippo (cloisonne enamelware) and Russian cloisonne enamel.

Among the exhibits that form the chronological progression of the development of enameling, a vase that used three shippo techniques to depict goldfish, which creates an ink painting effect, and a set of silver gilt and cloisonne enamel tea and coffee service made in Russia in the early 20th century for Tiffany & Co are on display.

The exhibition (HK$200, which includes a guided tour) runs until March 2021 and is by appointment only.

(This article was published at The Standard on June 5, 2020: Weekend Glitz: Shining examples )

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