A Guide to Masterpieces of Japanese Lacquer
Japanese lacquer, or urushi, is a transformative and highly prized material that has been refined for over 7000 years.
Cherished for its infinite versatility, urushi is a distinctive art form that has spread across all facets of Japanese culture from the tea ceremony to modern abstract sculpture.
Above all, no discussion of Japanese crafts can be complete without understanding some of the ingenious techniques behind artistic objects such as lacquer tableware, furniture and even jewelry.
Read on to discover the limitless possibilities of Japanese lacquer!
What is Urushi?
Japanese lacquer, 漆 urushi, is made from the sap of the lacquer tree. The tree must be tapped carefully, as in its raw form the liquid is poisonous to the touch, and even breathing in the fumes can be dangerous. But people in Japan have been working with this material for many millennia, so there has been time to refine the technique!
After heating and filtering, urushi can be applied directly to a solid, usually wooden, base. Pure urushi dries into a transparent film, while the more familiar black and red colors are created by adding minerals to the material. Each layer is left to dry and polished before the next layer is added. This process can be very time-consuming and labor-intensive, which contributes to the desirability, and high costs, of traditionally made lacquer goods.
Japanese Lacquer Bowls
When considering the uses of Japanese lacquer, perhaps the most classic example is the lacquerware bowl. Urushi is ideally suited to such items, producing lightweight, watertight, and of course beautiful tableware.
The skills and techniques of Japanese lacquer have been passed down through the generations for many centuries. For four hundred years, the master artisans of Zohiko’s Kyoto workshop have provided refined lacquer articles for the imperial household and discriminating buyers throughout the world. Today you can purchase their wares yourself from their stores in Kyoto or Tokyo.
This lacquered bowl is presented for the new year, with the sprig of evergreen pine representing new growth.
Japanese Lacquer Techniques
Many creative opportunites are provided by the layering of different colors of lacquer. The style known as Negoro, after the Buddhist monastery where it was developed, was used to create this classic water pitcher. This technique involves successive coats of lacquer of different thicknesses in two colors. With use and time the rich red top layer starts to wear, exposing the deep black underneath.
This wonderful example is the work of Jihei Murase, whose family have honed their lacquerware skills for three generations. Take a look at the Ippodo Gallery for further examples to purchase.
What is Maki-e?
Some of the finer pieces of decorative lacquer art are made possible through the process of maki-e (蒔絵). This thousand year old technique involves sprinkling the upper layer of the urushi with gold or silver powder while still wet. The resulting designs are set into place with further layers of polished transparent lacquer.
The golden leaves on this tea caddy are fantastic examples of the technique. To obtain this perfect gradation and shading requires keen skills and a wealth of experience. Master craftsman Kazumi Murose has both. Now considered a living national treasure in Japan, Murose is dedicated to the promotion and practice of traditional lacquerware skills.
This flawless piece is available from the Onishi Gallery.
Japanese Lacquer Jewelry
The creative possibilities of maki-e have inspired artisans from many disciplines, including artists such as Mariko Kobayakawa.
Kobayakawa is master of many of Kanazawa’s local crafts, in particular maki-e, which she uses to decorate this artfully constructed piece. This intricate necklace resembles a constellation of planets: you could stare at it for hours! If you’re visiting Kanazawa, you should check out her work at the Higashiyama Edge store.
Inlay and Inro
Before the adoption of western clothing in the 19th century, Japan had to find a way to deal with the acute shortage of pockets! The solution was the inro, a multi-layered cased, that hang off a belt. While Edo period law dictated that clothes should remain quite plain, the inro escaped legal regulation. Consequently they were often highly decorative objects, with light-weight water-proof urushi as the ideal material.
This 18th century piece from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, used a variety of materials to create this aquatic design, including gold, silver, shell, horn and stone. The inlays were delicately placed onto the wet black urushi, before being sealed in with further layers of transparent lacquer.
There are endless possibilities for the use and decoration of lacquer. Kyoto-born Yoko Zeltersman-Miyaji takes advantage of this flexibility to create her unique furniture.
She designs and makes the forms herself, using nail-free traditional wood-working techniques, before bringing to bear her command of urushi for the finishing touches.
This mahogany cabinet, is inlayed with egg shell and mother of pearl. The fine finished is achieved through a technique known as kawari nuri, which involves carefully combining layers of textured lacquer before polishing to the perfectly smooth surface you see here.
Artist Chie Aoki has found a more unusual use for urushi: to create lacquer sculptures that express feelings on human existence that I’m sure we can all relate to sometimes!
The process begins with carving the legs and feet of her sculptures, modeled on her own, from a large styrofoam block. Then begins the painstaking process of layering the thick black lacquer. Small lacquer bowls can take many weeks to produce, so imagine the effort needed to produce a piece of this size. As Aoki herself says, most of lacquerwork is polishing!
If your Japanese is up to it, visit Aoki’s blog to find out more about this fascinating process. If Minneapolis is closer to home, you can check out her works at the Minneapolis Institute of Art as part of the exhibition Hard Bodies: Contemporary Japanese Lacquer Sculpture from October 7.
Intrigued? Delighted? Questions? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!