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Fine Lacquerware Is Time-Honored Art in Japan

November 02, 1986|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer.

TOKYO — The mystique of the Orient is reflected in the deep, lustrous shine of Japanese lacquerware. This traditional art has been handed down from generation to generation of craftsmen, from ancient times to the present.

Although machine-made lacquer items are now mass-produced and relatively inexpensive, the Japanese continue to have tremendous respect for the skill and artistry of handmade lacquerware. In fact, objects made by contemporary masters of the craft are considered to be treasures. And well they should be. The painstaking process requires great skill.

For example, in producing the basic soup bowl, the shape is first roughly cut out of wood and then, through several steps, refined to be a very thin, but even, lightweight vessel. The bowl is next given eight to 10 coats of lacquer. After each application, the bowl is placed in a damp room while the lacquer hardens. Primer coats take eight hours to harden; finishing layers take about four days.

Up to 60 Layers

Each layer is buffed with ash, whetstone and water. Fragile edges are reinforced during the process with strips of cloth. Pieces of finer quality have up to 60 layers of lacquer and may take more than a year to complete. Even in the final stages of production, a speck of dust that lands on the surface of the lacquer before it hardens can ruin the work.

The lacquer comes from the sap of the Japanese sumac tree. Sumacs grow in other Asian countries, but the Japanese variety has 50% to 90% more of the hardening ingredient in its sap. At one time, Japanese law required farmers to grow and harvest a number of the sap-producing trees so the supply would be sufficient for production of lacquerware for the aristocracy.

Today the trees are relatively rare. Most of them were cut down during World War II to make room for food crops. They were never replaced after the war. It takes about 15 years to cultivate the trees to maturation, then top sap production only lasts about six years.

Today, the restricted supply of lacquer from Japanese trees is used primarily by top masters such as the elderly Gonroku Matsuda, who has been designated a national living treasure and whose works are collected by museums. Lacquer from other Asian countries is used by artisans working with age-old methods in a network of small, family-run factories in rural west coast towns like Wajima on the coast of the Sea of Japan, and in other nearby communities.

Collectors in History

Japanese lacquerware was first brought to the attention of the West in the mid-16th Century when Joao Rodriguez, a Portuguese missionary, wrote about the lustrous coating he saw on all sorts of items of value--jewelry, tableware, chests and even armor.

When lacquerware pieces were exported to Europe, owning lacquer became popular. Marie Antoinette, for example, is known to have had a large collection of pieces. Throughout history, lacquerware has been considered a gift of distinction.

In 1854 Commodore Perry gave a lacquerware gift to President Millard Fillmore. And Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone, on an official visit to the United States in 1983, took President Reagan a lacquer chest decorated with golden butterflies.

The technique by which those butterflies were applied to the chest is known as maki-e, the sprinkling of gold or silver powder through a very thin bamboo stick onto the lacquer before it has hardened.

Although the oldest examples of Japanese lacquerware date from around 2400 BC (they were excavated in an archeological dig near Fukui by the Sea of Japan), maki-e and other techniques were developed by Buddhist monks during the 6th Century. At that time they also began to add pigment to the lacquer to give color to their work and develop the art of inlay with mother of pearl, ivory, precious stones and gold or silver flakes. Most lacquerware is either red or black, but other colors, including greens, blues and purples, may be found.

Techniques, Styles Vary

Other styles were developed throughout Japan. For example, in Kamakura and Murakami, artisans applied many layers of vermilion lacquer to chestnut wood. A bas-relief effect was created by carving the wood before application of the lacquer, or by actually carving into the lacquer surface once it had hardened.

Additional variations of style and technique were developed in Bugaru, Kyoto, Kanazawa and other areas. Much of the work is done on wood, but lacquer adheres to almost anything, including metal, bamboo, linen, paper and stone.

Anyone who is used to the cheap prices of machine-made lacquer bowls, usually made of plastic, will be shocked at the high cost of handmade objects. A set of five wood-based, basic bowls costs about $100 and up. But when you consider the amount of time and skill required to produce them, the price seems more reasonable. These are, after all, works of art.

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