Marianne Moore: Poetry

September 27, 2014

“Bowls” and Precision

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The red lacquer throne from the court of the Chinese emperor Ch’ien-lung, who reigned from 1735 to 1796, now at the Victoria and Albert Museum

 

 

“. . . this survival of ancient punctilio

in the manner of Chinese lacquer carving,

layer after layer exposed by certainty of touch and unhurried incision

so that only so much color shall be revealed as is necessary to the picture,

I learn that we are precisionists. . . .”

“Bowls,” first published in Secession, No. 5 (July 1923), 12. This version is from Comlete Poems, p. 59.

 

“The throne here illustrated was made for the emperor Kien-Lung, in whose sixty-year reign Chinese art was at its height. It is one of the only two such thrones in existence, and probably is the largest single piece of eighteenth-century carved red lacquer in the world. . . . It is 4 ft. high and 4 ft. wide. The seat is still covered with the original pad of silk and gold brocade. It forms the pièce de résistance of a wonderful collection of old Chinese red lacquer . . . on view at the galleries of Messrs. Spink and Son, in King Street, St. James.”

From “An Emperor of China’s Throne: 18th-century Red Lacquer.” Illustrated London News [London, England] 8 July 1922: 59.

 

“Lacquer, as used in China and Japan,  is a purely vegetable substance, the product of a tree indigenous to China, the Rhus vernicifera. The sap is extracted from this tree . . . by means of incisions in the bark, purified by straining through a hempen cloth, and, in the form of a viscid, evenly flowing liquid, is then ready for the lacquerer’s use. On exposure t the air, it rapidly takes on an extreme hardness and is capable of receiving a brilliant, translucent polish which at its best, surpasses that of any other known substance with which it can be compared.  It can be coloured, without losing its quality, by the addition of the necessary substances; and, when once set, will resist both heat and moisture. Its chief enemy is light, which, if too strong, destroys its brilliancy and gives it a dried-up, faded appearance. The basis of carved, and indeed, of almost all Chinese and Japanese is wood, worked to extreme smoothness of surface, very carefully fitted, and the joints luted with lacquer composition, hardened and polished. . . . [The] next process was the over-laying of the wood with linen or hempen cloth, then the application of a coat of lacquer composition,  on which come various successive layers of true lacquer, forming the material at the disposal of the carver. To build up a thickness of lacquer sufficient for the work of the latter, a considerable number of these layers was necessary–not less than ten in any piece of importance, and probably many more in the examples described here. As each of these layers needed three or four weeks to harden, and then had to be polished before any addition could be made, it will be realized that the preliminary processes only–before the carver could get to work–involved a period of months or even years.

“. . . The fine red was obtained by grinding native cinnabar (chu sha) with raw lac . . . . The carver, working with sharp knives and gravers, then cut inwards from the surface, working with absolute precision [emphasis added], so as to expose precisely the layer of colour–and no more–that was needed for his design. It will at once be seen how necessary was the building up of the lacquer. Were it applied more hurriedly and without each layer being given time to dry and harden, the inside textures would be uneven and the perfection of workmanship seen in all the best examples could never have been reached.  , , , It is especially to the Emperor Ch’ien Lung [Kien Lung] (A.D. 1736-1796) that we owe the final perfection of technique. . . .

“With the exception of the seat and the inner portion of the base, the whole of the surface, back and front, is richly carved. The lacquer is mainly red, of an unusually fine quality, cut through into layers of light or dark olive green, brown and yellow.”

–Lieut. Colonel E. F. Strange, “Chinese Carved Red Lacquer.” Illustrated London News [London, England] 8 July 1922: 72-73.

The article further describes the carvings on the throne, from an elephant bearing jewels, five bats for the Five Blessings, a pair of fish, the Musical Stone, a frieze of dragons pursuing the Sacred Jewel, and, on the elephant-shaped legs, a Taoist symbol of the mountain in the Isles of the Blessed. Despite this description’s allusions to elephants and bats, favorites of Moore, it is likely the process of creating the piece and its demand for precision that appealed most to the poet.

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