Exhibition: Zeshin Shibata

The lusciousness of lacquer delights at the Mitsui

One of the most common pieces of advice given to prospective art collectors is to acquire objects that appeal to personal tastes. Although this tip is extremely obvious, it is also extremely apt, as "The Art of Shibata Zeshin" at the Mitsui Memorial Museum shows.

This excellent exhibition focuses on the works of an innovative lacquerware artist and painter whose life and career straddled Japan's revolutionary transformation from a closeted feudal society to a relatively modern one. It presents around 100 of Shibata's pieces, about two thirds of which are sourced from the collection of Catherine and Thomas Edson of San Antonio, Texas.

While many collectors follow trends and 'expert' opinion (and end up crowding one end of the market and thus paying heavier prices), the Edsons decided early on to trust their instincts. Living in the arid clime of southern Texas, they were drawn to the lush, aqueous beauty of lacquer. However, their first encounter with Shibata (1807–1891) was not actually his lacquer works but instead some color-on-silk paintings, including A Hawk Glaring at its Reflection in a Waterfall (1881).

Their interest was fortunate because, when they started collecting, Shibata was a difficult fit for the prevailing artistic categories. Scholars and curators at the time preferred figures who had specialized in one medium and represented one historical period. As both a painter and a lacquerware craftsman whose career had its roots in the Edo period but stretched into the Meiji, Shibata had been relatively neglected. It is only recently that scholars have made attempts to rightfully reappraise him as a major artist.

This show has much that you would expect from an exhibition of lacquerware: sleek sword mounts, dainty pieces of furniture, elegant trays and tea caddies, all enhanced by the restrained resplendence of lacquer. But there is much else besides.

As a young lacquerware craftsman, Shibata was not content to rely on preparatory drawings by others. He decided to study painting so that he could conceive his own designs. The exhibition includes a few color-on-silk works, but what really excites are Shibata's unconventional works done on paper, using lacquer in the place of paint.

One of the weaknesses of Japanese art vis-à-vis Western oil painting is a certain wishy-washy, anemic quality inherent in the much lighter, softer materials preferred in the East. But by turning what was essentially a means of enhancing three-dimensional objects into a two-dimensional method of expression, Shibata found a very Japanese way to strike some of the same deep, rich notes as European oil painting. A good example of this is the maki-e panel Mt. Fuji and Tagonoura (1872).

Lacquer also allows much stronger contrasts than are normal in Japanese art, something Shibata seems particularly conscious of in Heron and Crow in Flight (n.d.), which contrasts the sable plumage of a crow with the snow-white feathers of a heron against a background of gold leaf.

Another of Shibata’s fascinations was the ability of lacquer to mimic a large number of other materials. Tray Simulating a Pewter Dish (n.d.) uses a papier-maché body coated with lacquer, mixed with pigment, ash, and tin powder, to carefully imitate the dull luster of the metal alloy.

Just as convincing, but a lot more spectacular, is A Vase and Japanese Apricot (1881), in which the paper has been transformed to look like a rosewood panel. This serves as a setting for the vase holding the blossoming apricot twig, the textures of which the artist has also successfully recreated using lacquer.

With its mixture of the familiar and the surprising, this exhibition is ideal for those who love traditional Japanese art but crave a fresh twist.

Edo Chic and Meiji Craft: The Lacquer and Painting of Shibata Zeshin
Mitsui Memorial Museum, Until Feb 7

8th January, 2010
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