-The art of the lacquer-
the Japan is celebrated as a country of ceramics, it is hardly
less celebrate as a country of lacquer. In fact, in Victorian
days the name of Japan itself become a synonym for the products
of Japanese lacquer craftsman that found their way to England
and America, and one spoke of buying such things as Japan boxes
and Japan trays. Not in England and America alone, of course,
but in other countries as well, the lacquer ware of Japan exited
intense admiration, and it is hardly a cause for wonder that the
name of the country should have become a name for one of its famous
products, just as the word "China" once meant fine porcelain.
It must be pointed out, however, that the craft of lacquer is
not exclusively Japanese. It was known in Egypt as early as 3,000
B.C. and in China at least as early as the time of Emperor Shin
Huang Ti (third century B.C.), from whose tomb a number of lacquer-decorated
objects have been recovered. The techniques of lacquer were also
known in India and the countries of Southeast Asia, and there
is no doubt that influences from the Middle East as well as from
the Asian continent had their effect on Japanese lacquer art.
I ancient times such influences penetrated very slowly, and they
reached Japan by way of China and Korea. Although it is true,
then, that Japan cannot claim invention of the craft, it is also
true that Japanese artists brought it to perfection.
There are number of reasons for this achievement, but the principle
one is that Japanese culture made great use of wood, not only
for architecture but also for sculpture and for innumerable objects
of everyday use, including such various items as saddles, footgear,
and tableware. And wood, of course, is the base most commonly
used for lacquer ware. The lacquer itself originally served the
purpose of making wood moisture-proof and more durably, but its
decorative possibilities were quickly discovered. Ways of varying
its color were invented, and numerous techniques for embellishing
it with other materials appeared. Lacquer techniques were constantly
refined, and lacquer were become an intimate part of daily life
Archaeological research has revealed that the use of lacquer
in Japan dates back to the Stone Age. In those remote days, however,
it was not used for the production of handicraft object but for
adhesive purpose such as strengthening and fastening ropes made
of vine. During the prehistoric Jomon and Yayoi periods (roughly
from 4,000B.C. to A.D.250) earthenware was painted with lacquer,
sometimes in various colors, sometimes with designs, both to increase
its durability and to add decorative interest. But here lacquer
was merely an adjunct to the craft of ceramics, and it is not
until much later in history that we have any surviving examples
of lacquer as a handicraft in itself.
The seventh-century Tamamushi Shrine, a miniature construction
preserved at Horyu-ji, in Nara, and the numerous pieces of lacquer
ware among the eight-century treasures of the Shoso-in (also in
Nara) are the earliest works in which we can see the art of Japanese
lacquer craftsman displayed in its own right. The Tamamushi Shrine
and lower base are painted with plain lacquer, and its four sides,
as well as the panels of its square pedestal, are ornamented with
Buddhist paintings in various colors of lacquer an a black lacquer
ground. The Shoso-in pieces include a large number of boxes in
which lacquer covers a base of wood, bamboo, leather, or cloth,
as well as musical instrumentals whose lacquer surface is splendidly
decorated with designs in gold, silver, and mother-of-pearl.
At least as far back as the seventh and eight centuries, then,
and particularly during the Nara period (710-794), Japanese craftmen
were experimenting with new techniques of lacquer decoration.
From Nara times date such traditional methods of those of embedding
extremely thin pieces of gold and silver (the heidatsu method)
or mother-of-pearl (the raden method) in the wet lacquer surface
to create a design, adding another coat of lacquer, and then polishing
the surface to a brilliant luster. A more important technique
of Nara-period craftsman, however, was that of maki-e (literally,
"sown picture") in which gold or silver dust was "sown"
on the wet lacquer surface to form the design. In some cases no
further lacquering was done, but in others the surface was re-lacquered
and polished to give more brilliance to the ornamentation. Maki-e
was once thought to be a purely Japanese invention, but recent
research has shown that in existed in ancient China, long before
the Nara period began. It is not know, though, whether the Nara
craftmen developed the technique on their own or whether they
borrowed it from their Chinese predecessors.
The techniques of Nara times were further refined during the
succeeding Heian period (794-1185), and there exist from this
period several masterpieces in maki-e, including a Chinese ﾐstyle
chest decorated with a design of plovers and water plants (in
the Kongobuji on Mount Koya) and a cosmetic box with a design
of craft wheels in a stream (owned by the National commission
for the Protection of Cultural Properties). Mother-of-pearl was
often used to account the maki-e design, as in the case of the
cosmetic box just mentioned.
During the Kamakura period (later twelfth to early fourteenth
century) the maki-e technique became more elaborate, and such
variations as Takamaki-e (maki-e design in relief) were created.
This period also saw the introduction of a new technique in which
layers of different-colored lacquer were applied and then carved
to make a design in one color appear against a background of another.
The lacquer art of the Muromachi and Momoyama periods (late fourteenth
to seventeenth century) continued to place emphasis on maki-e.
The influence of Ming lacquer ware was particularly strong in
Muromachi time, and designs were often copied from Chinese paintings.
Momoyama lacquer, an the other hand, tended to emphasize purely
decorative rather than pictorial design, and influences from the
West inspired a greater use of color. An important Momoyama development
was the revival of painted design in lacquer decoration-a technique
once popular in the Asuka and Nara period.
The lacquer art of the Edo period (seventeenth to mid-nineteenth
century) attended its highest level in the work of Hon"ami"
Koetsu and Ogata Korin, two masters of the decorative style. Koetsu
revived the elegant designs of the Heian period, infusing them
with new vigor and a daring creativeness that seems modern even
today. H also developed a maki-e technique of his own to produce
ornamentation in simple but lively style. Korin, in his lacquer
pieces, expressed the same decorative boldness and subtle stylization
that characterize his superbly painted screen. After Korin and
Koetsu, however, techniques and designs became ever more elaborate
and complicated. A certain formality set in, and the artistic
level was lowered.
Nevertheless, in certain provincial areas where feudal lords
encouraged the craft of lacquer-just as they encouraged the crafts
of ceramics and weaving-a number of traditional local wares of
considerable artistry were produced. These, of course, were much
closer to the life of the common people then the over sophisticated
creations of stylish urban craftsmen, and they expressed the vigor
and wholesomeness of genuine folk craft products. Among such regional
wares were those of Tsugaru and Aizu in northern Honsyu, Wajima
and Wakasa in Ishikawa Prefecture, and the Shunkei lacquer produced
at Sakai, near Osaka.
It was the arrival of Japanﾕs modern period, just a century ago,
that brought Japanese lacquer ware to its position of renown in
the West. Ironically, however, this same event marked the beginning
of a disastrous decline in the craft itself, which could not compete
with machine in turning out large quantities of relatively inexpensive
products like those which have more and more replaced the traditional
lacquer ware of the past. It is a regrettable fact that the craft
is most inactive in present-day Japan and in many ways has the
aspect of a dying art.
(Excerpt from "The Enduring Craft of Japan" -Masataka