Characterised by a sheen as limpid as the surface of an ornamental pond on a still day, Japanese lacquerware perfectly embodies the concept of ‘shibui’, a term used to denote the elegantly beautiful.
Its visual charm and unparalleled craftsmanship have made Japanese lacquerware the obsession of collectors throughout history, a notable example being the French queen Marie-Antoinette (1755–1793) whose collection of lacquer boxes is regarded as one of the finest ever amassed in Europe. Primarily hailing from the mid-Edo tradition (the late 17th through to the mid-18th centuries), the collection represents the zenith of lacquerware artistry.
Lacquerware, known as ‘shikki’ in Japan even has its own canon of famed practitioners, such as Shibata Zeshin (19th century) often called ‘Japan's
greatest lacquerer’, whose work in the Edo tradition has come to be seen as the gold standard of lacquerware inventiveness.
So what gives Japanese lacquerware its irresistible allure? The durable sheen of lacquer paint is commonly black or red in colour, with the pigmentation of those hues lent exquisite depth by the lacquer’s lustrous quality. However Japanese lacquerware’s long and sophisticated history has seen other finishes and textures, from gold dust to mother of pearl, to exquisitely painted birds, flowers, insects, trees, rivers and waterfalls, deployed to stunning effect.
The time-honoured art revolves around a central element of lacquer paint production; the sap of the lacquer tree Toxicodendron vernicifluum, which
produces urushiol lacquer. Essentially the oxidation and polymerisation of urushiol in the tree's sap in the presence of moisture allows it
to form an extremely hard lacquer when applied to surfaces such as timber, bamboo, paper, papier maché or even leather.
Traditionally lacquer paint, either containing pigment – typically red or black – or used in a clear solution as a finish, is applied in multiple layers using a special brush with extremely soft bristles, although spray lacquer techniques can also be used. Due to the meticulous application of numerous paint layers and the drying times between them, as well as the exquisite ornamentation in the form of painting or the inclusion of other decorative elements, ‘painstaking’ and ‘time consuming’ are terms often associated with the creation of a single piece of lacquerware. As a result, while the appeal of lacquer has spawned innumerable low cost imitations, original pieces, particularly those with a provenance among the historic masters of the art, can attract sums totalling hundreds and thousands of dollars.
Japanese lacquer’s roots originated in China, where the highly valued ‘cinnabar’ style lacquer is still found today. Lacquerware began emerging in Japanese
culture as early as 5000 BCE, during the Jōmon period. As with many imported concepts, the Japanese evolved lacquerware to new heights of sophistication
and artistic mastery, creating a tradition that has seen both everyday and ceremonial objects raised to new heights.
Lacquer has been used to decorate and preserve a wide array of items from furniture such as tea ceremony cabinets to smaller pieces including lidded bowls or bento boxes. Antique document boxes, ryoshi-bako particularly common during the 17th century but still sought after as objects of virtue today, are also frequently finished in lacquer. Lacquer was used to make and embellish exquisite medicine bottles or ‘inro’ - a traditional Japanese case consisting of a stack of nested boxes that were used to carry small objects such as seals, tobacco and medicines, often ornamented with ‘netsuke’, delicate carvings that doubled as closures.
A kōbako or incense storage box will often be decorated with lustrous lacquer and pictorial designs. Stacking food boxes or wedding sweet boxes are also commonly made from lacquerware. Even a simple item such as a lacquer rice bowl can be transformed into high value object; the highest quality versions made using sections of glued sandalwood and finished with layer upon layer of lacquer.
Just as there are countless categories of lacquerware objects, there are many kinds of lacquer finishes, all expressing unique forms of beauty. Traditional red and black lacquers can be decorated with inlay such as mother of pearl or the application of gold powder in a technique called Maki-e. There are many regional differences in lacquerware which include Negoro, Wakasa and Wajima lacquerware. The four main lacquerware provinces in Japan are Kishu, Echizen, Aizu and Yamanaka and each has developed their own identifiable style and traditions. Negoro, for example, is a famous style of lacquerware originally hailing from Negoro-ji temple complex, in the Wakayama prefecture within the Kishu area. Developed in the Kamakura period (1188-1333) by the monks for use in the temple, Negoro is characterised by the application of layers of red lacquer onto a black lacquer base, the red layers designed to gradually wear away with use, revealing the black lacquer underneath.
Nashiji is frequently employed for the background of a lacquerware design. This technique uses gold or silver flakes or ‘nashiji-ko’ sprinkled onto the surface of the object. Lacquer is then applied and burnished with charcoal, allowing the gold or silver to be seen through the lacquer, with the surface finally resembling the skin of a pear (hence the name, nashiji).
Antique lacquerware forms an important part of many heirloom collections, but the tradition still thrives, with modern examples demonstrating Japan’s ongoing love for and commitment to this ‘many layered’ tradition. The revival of mid-century styling has sparked interest in pared back designs and finishes reflecting 1950s and 1960s aesthetics, while contemporary applications continue the evolution of the form into present day design pieces.