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-The art of the lacquer-

If 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 in Japan.
 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 Ogawa- 1968)




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