Friday, March 19, 2010

Designer of the Month: Jean Dunand

Week 3: lacquer and artistic influences

In working with lacquer, Jean Dunand chose a highly toxic material. The process of lacquering is a dangerous one because natural lacquer, when in a form that can be manipulated, emits noxious fumes that are difficult to tolerate, and the overexposure to these fumes can cause the side effects of nauseousness and a severe skin rash.[1] Natural lacquer is a resin extracted from two trees that grow most notably in Japan and China, with the Japanese name urushi indicating the tree as well as the sap that is the basis of both lacquer and the finished product itself.[2] Because the color of the lacquer is created with vegetable dyes, the color palate available is fairly limited, and it is often through a combination of utilizing dyes and allowing for the process of oxidation to occur that colors such as an inky black are produced.[3] The lacquer has to be added onto the object in very thin layers, with each layer being left to harden for a few days - with this process only occurring in a hot and humid environment - and each layer has to be ground and polished before the next layer can be added.[4] In all, 20 or more layers of lacquer are needed to achieve a desired result.[5] Below is an example of a set-up for lacquering and the thirty-five stages in the making of a lacquer sake cup. This picture, beginning at the top left with the light-brown wooden cup, continuing from left to right on each row, and ending at the bottom right with the finished cup, shows an example of the lacquering process.[6] As was mentioned before, after each stage, the lacquer would have to be given a chance to harden, with the piece then being polished before moving on to the next step, and this illustration shows just low long and complicated a process is necessary for even such a small object as a cup.

Thirty-five stages in the making of a lacquer sake cup [7]

Because the process of lacquering is such a difficult one, this material was highly valued not only for its look, but also because of the time and effort it took in creating each piece, with a unique and beautiful effect achieved as a result. As one writer from Harper’s Bazar says about the use of lacquer in 1920, “it was new, distinctly novel…oh so very, very expensive.”[8] As Dunand himself wrote about the lacquer process and his love for it:
…there exists labors of pure patience, such as lacquer, which I love so much!…Twenty coats are needed, no forty, as the job has to be repeated on the other side to keep the wood from warping: otherwise it would crack, for you wouldn’t believe how easily the lacquer can twist…Actually not forty but as many as a hundred preparations are required since after each varnishing you have to polish and before each varnishing there have to be twenty seasonings, each lasting four days while drying…[9]

Doesn't Dunand sound enthusiastic about his work? It's no wonder that he achieved the level of fame that he did. Dunand was a master craftsman who truly loved the work he did, and the use of lacquer in his artwork changed Dunand’s life. Having begun his career as an almost entirely solitary artisan, Dunand soon rose to the head of a number of workshops.[10]

Vase based on Egyptian motifs [11]

Much of Dunand’s work embodies ideas of the time about exoticism, not only through the revival of lacquerwork, but also with the motifs that he chooses to use in his artwork. During the Art Deco period, the term exotic was commonly used in a variety of different ways, most frequently describing tribal artifacts, but also making reference to modern culture influenced by ancient or eastern art.[12] To call something exotic was rarely seen during this time as a negative or derogatory term; exoticism “suggested an exciting, sensual and decorative vision that carried into a global future,” with part of the vogue for exoticism due to easier tourism and cheaper travel. [13] Additionally, archeological studies, including the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb, also played a large role in the incorporation of exotic motifs.[14]

Vase with fish motif [15]

Another example of exotic influences used by Jean Dunand and other artists of the Art Deco period was that of Asian art, and most notably, the art of Japan. Since trade between Europe and Asia was established in the sixteenth century, Asian art had provided an inspiration to European artists, with this influence being particularly strong during the Art Deco period.[16] When, in the second half of the nineteenth century, Europe opened Japan to foreign trade and diplomacy, Japan became the main influence of new artistic styles.[17] Can you imagine what an exciting time this must have been? As the example of the vase above shows, Dunand made much use of Japanese motifs in his art, not only through his use of lacquer, but also in the motifs he applied to his vases. As Anthony Delorenzo writes about this particular design in his book about Dunand: “No other decorative motif exemplifies better the dual influences of East and West on Dunand than his designs for goldfish…He retained the Japanese naturalistic design of the fish, and applied it with a selection of European modernistic linear and abstract patterns in the most colourful of lacquers.”[18] Dunand uses these fish, which are a common form often found in Japanese art, on many of his objects and vases, making the motif entirely his own.


[1] Anthony Delorenzo, Jean Dunand (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1985), 3.

[2] Mechthild Baumeister, “Jean Duand –A French Art D├ęco Artist Working With Asian
Lacquer,” in Postprints of the Wooden Artifacts Group (Miami: Wooden Artifacts Group, American Institute for Conservation, 2002), 3.

[3] Katherine Morrison McClinton, “Jean Dunand, Art Deco Craftsman,” Apollo 116, no. 247 (September 1982): 178.

[4] Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Lacquer: An International History and Illustrated Survey (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1984), 15.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] Ibid., 15.

[7] Ibid., 15.

[8] Anna Jackson, “Inspiration from the East”, in Art Deco: 1910-1939, ed. Charlotte Benton, Jim Benton and Ghislaine Wood (London: V&A Publications, 2003), 77.

[9] Anthony Delorenzo, Jean Dunand (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1985), 4.

[10] Yvonne Brunhammer, Jean Dunand, Jean Goulden (Paris: Galerie du Luxembourg, 1973), 41.

[11] Anthony Delorenzo, Jean Dunand (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1985), 131.

[12] Ghislaine Wood, “The Exotic,” in Art Deco: 1919-1939, ed. Charlotte Benton, Jim Benton and Ghislaine Wood (London: V&A Publications, 2003), 125.

[13] Christopher Frayling, “Egyptomania,” in Art Deco: 1910-1939, ed. Charlotte Benton, Jim Benton and Ghislaine Wood (London: V&A Publications, 2003), 41.

[14] Ibid., 41.

[15] Anthony Delorenzo, Jean Dunand (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1985), 134.

[16] Anna Jackson, “Inspiration from the East”, in Art Deco: 1910-1939, ed. Charlotte Benton, Jim Benton and Ghislaine Wood (London: V&A Publications, 2003), 67.

[17] Ibid., 67.

[18] Anthony Delorenzo, Jean Dunand (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1985), 18.

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