Designed to dazzle: a lacquerware celebration

The quintessential Japanese aesthetic is that of wabi sabi, a beauty associated with things that are simple, rustic, unpolished or even plain rundown. It is perhaps surprising, then, that this aesthetic is so little in evidence at an extensive exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum of one of Japan's most celebrated craft arts.

This is because the 151 items on display are examples of maki-e lacquerware from the Edo Period (1603-1867), lustrous luxury items in a highly decorative style that owe their beauty as much to their expensive materials and solid craftsmanship as to artistic inspiration.

Maki-e is distinctive for the gold or silver powder and leaf applied during the lacquering process, in which wood is coated and strengthened with the sap of various species of lacquer tree, most particularly Rhus verniciflua. This technique creates a hard, highly polished and ornate finish. As curator Taishu Komatsu points out, this style of lacquering is largely confined to Japan.

Rather than triggering off some subtle satori of aesthetic appreciation, pieces like a large Western-style chest from the 1630s are clearly designed to dazzle the senses with a panoply of decorative techniques that compete for the viewer's attention. Although created as Japan closed its door to the outside world, this piece, which garishly combines maki-e designs with ray-skin shagreen and mother-of-pearl inlay, has something of the baroque about it, especially in the lush carved foliage of the stand on which it rests. Not surprisingly, the chest was exported through the Dutch East India Company.

Komatsu confirms that Japanese lacquerware always had a special attraction for foreigners, with large quantities being exported from the 17th century onward. Both gaudy and exotic, the maki-e aesthetic is accessible to Japanese and Europeans alike.

"I think the beauty of lacquerware is positioned opposite to the aesthetic of wabi-sabi," Komatsu suggests. "Compared to an aesthetic that tries to put value on something simple, which can be rather dreary or poor, the gorgeous decoration of maki-e works are much more directly appealing."

Some of the pieces on display, however, seem overwhelmed by their ornamentation, as with a flute case designed by Hon'ami Koetsu (1558-1637), one of the founders of the Rimpa School, a highly influential movement that favored strongly stylized, decorative art. There is no denying the craftsmanship of this cylinder, which is covered in gold leaf and mother-of-pearl and decorated with a deer motif in relief. But one questions the sense of a design that crams such an elegant image onto a surface so narrow and curved that it is almost impossible to appreciate.

The excellent selection of inro shows how small spaces can be put to better use. In the latter half of the Edo Period, these small medicine cases and their netsuke toggles became fashionable personal accessories, often decorated with lacquer and through other techniques. One of the most charming examples has a maki-e fish-and-net pattern on a black lacquer background, with the aquatic theme being taken up by the accompanying netsuke toggle, which is in the shape of a clam.

Although maki-e has adorned items ranging in size from tiny inro to a stunning lady's palanquin, on display here, lavishly decorated with a design of bamboo and peonies, the most famous artists generally used it on medium-size objects, like smoking sets and writing boxes. One noted artist was Ogata Korin (1658-1716), Hon'ami's successor in the Rimpa movement, a painter of large folding screens who was renowned for his bold designs and striking color contrasts, as well as his skillful compositional use of empty space. These characteristics can be seen in his lacquerware, too. One fine example is a writing box decorated with a motif suggestive of Yatsuhashi, a location celebrated in the Tale of Ise for its irises and zigzagging bridges. Adorned with irises in mother-of-pearl inlay, this masterpiece is now a designated national treasure.

One of the most refreshing presences at this exhibition is that of Ogawa Haritsu (1663-1747). The unusual trajectory of Ogawa's career - he turned to lacquerware only at the age of 51 - perhaps explains his distinctive style. While other artists were happy to embed gold flakes or slivers of mother-of-pearl, Ogawa created wonderful effects by skillfully incorporating such objects as shells, stones and, in one remarkable box for keeping shikishi paper, even netsuke toggles into his work.

But this exhibition, it must be stressed, is not just about artistry and design. The real poetry of many of the works lies in their ability to take us out of the craftsman's shop and into the daily lives of the people for whom they were made. A wonderful 19th-century boxed set for carrying food delights with its various motifs, including carps and birds. In an open-sided case with a handle on top, tiers of hexagonal bento boxes are compactly stacked next to a sake container in the shape of a drum, evoking some elegant picnic or hanami. Their power to evoke everyday life gives a poignant touch to many items displayed at this splendid exhibition.

"Gorgeous Maki-e Lacquerware from the Edo Period" runs till Oct. 6 at the Tokyo National Museum

Japan Times
September 4th, 2002
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