Encapsulating the Nature of Reality: 19th Century Lacquered Boxes from Korea and Japan

Korean box from the Joseon dynasty (left) and Japanese box from the late Edo — early Meiji period (right)

In this post, I analyze and compare two lacquered 19th-century wooden boxes from The Met Collection — one from the Joseon dynasty of Korea, and one from the late Edo to early Meiji period of Japan. The colors, lines, and stylistic elements of the paintings on the surfaces of these two boxes emanate strikingly different moods and energies, with the decorations on the surface of the Korean box expressing energy and movement, and the decorations of the Japanese box expressing stillness and calm. On a deeper level, the high-energy painting of the Korean box and the calm, lower-energy sensibilities of the Japanese box reflect the two cultures’ earliest origins and religious worldviews, especially the ways in which they conceptualize “movement” between the physical and spiritual worlds.

The color palettes of these two boxes are immediately, recognizably different. While the external surface of the Korean box is painted predominantly in bright orange, white, and green, with a bright red background, the Japanese box uses a more muted palette of grey, black, dark red, and a darker shade of yellow, with a dark greyish-green background. These differences in color choice strongly contribute to differences in the moods conveyed by the two boxes — with the contrasting bright, saturated colors of the Korean box expressing energy and vibrance, while the muted, darker colors of the Japanese box express more restraint and less energy.

In a similar manner, the lines on the boxes’ surfaces also significantly differ. On the top of the Korean box, the outlines of the birds and clouds look dynamic, as though they were painted quickly, and in some places the paint is not carefully “colored inside the lines.” For instance, for several of the clouds, the white paint is leaking out beyond the thin black outlines that are supposed to mark the clouds’ external outlines. This freehand painting style gives off a sense of spontaneity and movement. In contrast, the lines on the Japanese box are extremely delicate, fine, and precise. For instance, the pale yellow veins on the left-hand side of the leaf in the foreground taper off as they extend from the center of the leaf. In contrast to the more free, uninhibited lines sketched onto the Korean box, these precise and thin lines on the Japanese box likely required a very slow, steady hand and indicate restraint and stillness.

Finally, the overall style and subject matter of the two lacquered boxes also contrast. Again, similar to the visual elements of color and line described above, the stylistic elements of the boxes communicate a sense of energetic movement in the case of the Korean box and reflective stillness in the case of the Japanese box. However, they also shed light on why this difference may exist, considering each culture’s religious perspectives.

The top surface of the Korean box, for instance, portrays four highly stylized birds (two cranes and two roosters) flying among stylized clouds. The stylistic elements of the Korean box, and the subject matter of the birds seem to connect to Korea’s prehistoric ties to ancient Siberian shamanism, especially since birds symbolize the flight of the soul to the spirit realm in both Siberian shamanism and its descendant, Korean primal religion. For context, this style of bird motif is worn by Siberian shamans, and in both Korean primal religion and Siberian shamanism, only these divine shamans were believed to have the ability to communicate with the spirit realm and with the supreme Lord of Heaven on behalf of their people.

In contrast, although the Japanese box’s art style is still stylized, it appears more precise and realistic, and less symbolic in the way it represents its subject matter (of partially decaying leaves, flowers, and plant stalks). This Japanese art style represents the plants in extreme detail, paying attention to the physical texture of the blackening, decaying leaf in the foreground of the painting and the tiny, delicate individual dots that make up the pollen in the center of the flowers.

This relatively closer adherence to realism in the Japanese box’s painting seems aligned with the religious worldview underlying Shinto, which views the physical world and nature as being imbued with spirit and sacredness. For instance, there are Shinto shrines dedicated to the worship of many kami all over Japan, and although “kami” is often translated to mean “god” or “gods,” the kami that are worshipped in these shrines can be any aspect of nature, including certain plants, animals, mountains, and humans that are considered sacred. Therefore, the extreme attention to detail and to the physical qualities of the plants represented on the surface of the Japanese stacked food box makes sense, since this realism and detail can be seen as a way of elevating the importance, beauty, and spirit imbued within the plant.

In this way, the painted surfaces of these two boxes seem to symbolically capture the different metaphysical worldviews of Korean shamanism and Japanese Shinto. Considering that Korean shamanism involves the idea of spirituality that is far away in a spiritual realm that only special shamans can directly access, it would make sense that traditional Korean styles and artwork would be characterized by energy and movement, expressed in bright colors and dynamic lines — it takes energy to be transported to a far away, externalized spiritual realm. The more imaginative, symbolic depiction of the birds and clouds on the Korean box also reinforce this idea that travelling into the spiritual realm involves imagination and escape from reality rather than reflective contemplation of the physical world. In contrast, because Japanese Shinto views physical reality and nature itself as imbued with internal spirit, it would make sense that Japanese aesthetics (like the understated colors and precise lines of the lacquered box) would elevate stillness and restraint, as this is necessary for the prolonged contemplation of the sacredness imbued within the details of the physical realm.

In short, these two lacquered boxes visually represent the complexities and nuances of the cultures that produced them — in particular, the distance between the physical and spiritual realms, and therefore the level of movement and energy needed to bridge the gap between these two dimensions of reality. Although many of the comparisons made in this paper were likely not considered intentionally by the artists who created these boxes, these boxes contain visual allusions to the ways in which their respective cultures conceptualize physical reality and its relationship to spirituality.

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