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Learn About Asian Art



Lacquer has been used in Japan to coat objects, initially for preservation and later for decoration, for about fifteen hundred years. Raw lacquer is harvested as sap from the Rhus verniciflua, a tree related to poison sumac. The lacquer process is very complex and time consuming. Each layer of lacquer must be applied, cured to make it hard, and then polished before this step can be repeated with many more layers. For luxurious objects this may take months or a year. Here are merely a few of the many different lacquer techniques and terms the Japanese artist employs:

Urushi lacquer is the milky white latex-like sap of the lacquer tree which is exuded when the bark is cut off the tree and which consists of urushiol, water, gum, a nitrogenous element, and oil. The special art of Japanese lacquer is that it incorporates pictorial images, often with the help of gold and silver sprinkled onto the damp lacquer to create a pattern. The lacquer acts as an adhesive to these metal particles. Esoteric as well as utilitarian objects were thus turned into precious objects.

Maki-e (gold lacquer picture) designs are created with gold flecks – in the form of metal or pigment powder- often sprinkled with a screen to create a design. Maki-e can be flat gold (hira maki-e) , or polished-out (togidashi maki-e) or raised gold (taka maki-e).

Taka maki-e or raised maki-e involves building up design patterns above the surface through a mixture of metal powder, lacquer and charcoal or clay dust. In togidashi maki-e black lacquer without oil is put on the metal decoration as an additional coat. And with hira maki-e the design is created using urushi lacquer and raw lacquer which is then coated with gold powder.

Shibayama – zaiku or lacquer is a technique in which thin flakes of ivory, animal horn or shell, often painted in various colors, and with incised design motifs, are inlaid on the surface of a lacquer object.

Negoro – nuri lacquer is a type of hana-nuri technique where the final finish is with red lacquer over a black lacquer undercoating.

Nashiji – technique whereby irregular shaped fine gold dust is applied.

Rade – inlaid decoration as it refers to lacquer.

Chinkin-bori – technique where a pattern is engraved in fine lines into the lacquer surface which is then rubbed with gold.

Kamakura-bori – is made by carving patterns in wood, and then lacquering it with layers of red,blue,yellow and other colors, before polishing it.

Ban-e – a circular design in lacquer.

I-kakeji – densely sprinkled gold ground of lacquer decoration.

Roiro-Nuri – application of glossy black lacquer. Japanese lacquer has been admired and collected for centuries. But it is only recently that 20th century Japanese lacquer art has attracted more attention. I just read an article about Takahashi Setsuro (1914-2007) who used many new and contemporary forms for his lacquer art, in addition to the more traditional screens and boxes. Takahashi was a painter and a poet and a lacquer artist. The Museum for Lacquer Art (Museum fuer Lackkunst) in Muester, Germany has a splendid exhibition of his traditional and non-traditional works of art. Let me know if you want to read this article.

More about Asian Art – OJIME

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