6 Extraordinary Works of Japanese Lacquer You Should See
by Anna Jamieson | CRAFT
Japanese lacquerware is a craft intrinsic to Japan, a hallmark of the country. You will often find tourists taking a lacquer miso bowl home with them, as a memento of their travels. But Japanese lacquer – urushi - is far from simply an airport souvenir.
Part of Japan’s rich material culture, lacquerware goes all the way back to the Jomon period - as early as 5000 BCE - and has been used in urushi-e (paintings created using lacquer), prints, and a wide variety of other objects.
We’ve selected a few of the most extraordinary and exquisite lacquer objects around, from stunning boxes, intricate three-dimensional pieces and beautiful wall art. Read on to learn more about urushi and enjoy these 6 inspirational works of Japanese lacquer art.
1. Jyubako Box by Kagyo Yuasa
Kagyo Yuasa’s exquisite lacquered, five-tiered wooden jyubako box features the motif of Shikunshi (the Four Noble Ones) and dates from the Showa period (1926-1989).
Used to present food on celebration days, a jyubako was used much like an ornamental bento box. On this extraordinary piece the stunning plant design symbolizes the four seasons. The orchid stands for the spring; the bamboo, summer; the chrysanthemum, fall; and the plum blossom, winter. Yuasa was known as a master lacquer artist in Kyoto, fond of using classical, resonant motifs such as the one displayed here. It’s clear from this beautiful piece why he was viewed as a master of the craft.
2. Lacquer Sculpture by Yoshihiko Murata
Crucial to Yoshihiko Murata’s work is the interplay between light and shadow, and the silhouette. Using anthropomorphic forms of various animals made from maplewood and coats of polished lacquer, these svelte and twisted compositions reveal the malleable nature of the wood beneath. The finish conveys a feeling of effortlessness, through the application of the thick lacquer. A sense of balance is felt with this piece, as the compelling image of a stag seems to teeter on its spindly, thin legs.
Murata himself explains his relationship with urushi in this video. Head on over to Keiko Art International to find out more.
3. Lacquer Jewelry by Sakurako Matsushima
The incredible creations of Sakurako Matsushima see lacquer objects as beautiful jewelry, body ornaments, and unusual two-dimensional forms. Matsushima uses a wide variety of lacquer making techniques, including kanshitsu, where layers of hemp cloth are folded over a clay form, similar to papier mache, before applying the urushi over the solidified shape. In this way she is able to manipulate the material to explore its many decorative possibilities. This can be seen in this exquisite piece, where three intertwining, oscillating pieces meet at a central, circular form.
You can learn more about her work at Sakurako Matsushima’s Tremendous Lacquer Jewelry.
4. Tea Caddy by Kiyose Ikko
The intricate detail of Kiyose Ikko’s gold lacquer box, with its gorgeous blended tones of soft gold and amber, and the exquisite detailing along the trunk of the pine tree, demonstrates the depth of both feeling and artistry that lacquer can ultimately convey.
This precious object is a tea caddy, used to contain the leaves or powder for the tea ceremony. The demand for lacquer utensils like this for use during the tea ceremony has for centuries provided artisans with an constant demand for their services. This has allowed the perfection of lacquer making skills that can be seen in the Ikko’s work today. You can learn more about how the tea ceremony and Japanese craftspeople supported each other at Master Crafts of the Tea Ceremony.
Kiyose Ikko’s work is available at the Erik Thomsen Gallery in New York.
5. Urushi-e ‘Painting’ by Koken Murata
Simply mesmerizing, the work of Koken Murata sees his trademark iridescent golden hues applied onto the black lacquer, in a variety of forms. From more traditional pieces like plates or boxes, to stunning two-dimensional art to adorn gallery walls, Murata’s work emphasizes the scope of lacquer. In this piece, Meditation Room, Murata contrasts the striking depth of the black lacquer with the lightness of the gold and vibrance of the red, to wonderful effect.
Check out more of Murata's extraordinary lacquer objects in the video below:
6. Lacquer Bowl by Isao Onishi
There’s something rather mesmerizing about the concentric pattern of Isao Onishi’s traditional yet contemporary lacquer bowl, which then culminates in the inky black of the bowl’s base. A prime example of the simplicity that lacquer can convey.
Onishi was born in coal-mining area of Fukuoka Prefecture in 1944, where he worked as a carpenter, mechanic, and electrician, before joining the workshop of lacquer artisan Akaji Yusai. Japanese Lacquer is often valued for its rich blackness; however in creating the dark colored base of this urushi bowl, Onishi was not aiming for a pitch black, but rather a lighter tone, recreating his memory of the coal heaps he witnessed in his youth.
Would you like to know more about Japanese lacquer? Do you have a favorite lacquer artist that we haven't mentioned? Let us know in the comments below!