Exhibiting Historical Art: Out of the Vault: Stories of People and Things

Lotus Flowers in a Wood Vase: The Use of Wood as a Medium

Medium: Wood
          The use of wood as an artistic medium has existed in China for millennia. Wood held many symbolic meanings when used for artistic purposes. As discussed earlier, organic materials were prized in Confucian thought for demonstrating the qi of both the scholar and the natural world. In addition, wood held great importance in both the Buddhist and Daoist philosophical traditions. Daoism pioneered the idea of qi and later neo-Confucian thought was responsible for merging the Daoist concept with Confucian practices. Daoists focused on developing a close relationship with nature as a way to achieve a more meaningful and spiritual life. Similarly, followers of Buddhism viewed detachment from the material world as a key step towards achieving enlightenment. In Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian philosophy alike, the use of wood was emblematic of the superiority of nature to man. By using untamed natural materials like an organically-shaped root, the artist was showing that natural forms exceeded the beauty of man-made objects. Also, the twisted shapes of roots were thought to resemble the warped ancient trees that symbolized the wisdom of the sages. [1] Our object was surely contemplated by a scholar in an effort to tap into the wisdom of these ancient sages.
            Decorative arts such as furniture and statuary were the main area in which wood was used as a medium. Under previous Yuan and Ming dynasties, displays of opulence were often found within the decorative arts as aristocrats sought to decorate their homes with lavish goods to demonstrate their great wealth. Decorative arts carved from wood were a way to reject this opulence while still creating beautiful objects containing the wild and twisted forms appealing to the artistic sensibility within the Qing dynasty. Under the Qing dynasty, The Workshops of the Imperial Household Department established a studio dedicated to wooden arts known as the “Canton woodworking workshop.”[2] Many examples of furniture as well as small scale statues similar to ours were produced during the Qing dynasty highlighting the importance of wood as a medium during this time.

[1]  "Exhibitions." PEM. Accessed April 14, 2016. http://pem.org/exhibitions/32-carved_by_nature_untamed_traditions_in_chinese_decorative_art. 
[2]  "Wood Carving." Wood Carving. Accessed April 14, 2016. http://www.chinaonlinemuseum.com/carving-wood.php. 

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