Mon, Dec 14, 2020

Japanese art according to Sophie Richard: Stylish lacquerware of geometric precision

Mother of pearl lacquer box (2017)
Lacquer, mother-of-pearl, gold powder
H2×W10.8×D11.3 cm
(Photo courtesy of Ippodo Gallery, New York)

Lacquer, mother-of-pearl, abalone shell, ivory, paper-thin pieces of shellfish, eggshell, powdered gold, silver or iron… The exquisite works created by Shinya Yamamura are small enough to be held in the palm of one’s hand yet contain microcosms of precious materials.

Incense Box (2011)
Cypress wood, carved, lacquered and decorated with mother-of-pearl
(© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Born in 1960, Yamamura originally wanted to study design. But when he was 19 years old in his native Tokyo, he saw a craft exhibition that changed everything. What particularly caught his eye was a box decorated with a delicate white egret made of eggshell by the hand of Gonroku Matsuda (1896-1986), a towering figure in the world of modern Japanese lacquer. Yamamura decided to leave for Kanazawa and study lacquer at the Kanazawa College of Art, a prestigious university where he is now a professor. The city of Kanazawa has been for centuries one of the main centres for lacquer production in Japan.  

Shinya Yamamura
(© Ippodo Gallery)

Lacquer is made from the sap that gathers between the bark and the trunk of the urushi tree. The resinous liquid has unique qualities: its viscosity makes it an ideal binding agent and its long hardening time results in a tough, hard-wearing waterproof surface that is resistant to heat and corrosion (the only thing it really fears is sunlight).

Lacquer is almost transparent and can be mixed with pigments or powdered metals to heighten its deep gloss. Laborious and careful steps are necessary to create a flat, regular and fine surface. Each layer must be left to dry in a humid environment for at least a day before being smoothed by burnishing with a succession of stones of varying hardness.

A wealth of refined and subtle decoration techniques has been devised by Japanese lacquerers, from shell inlays to the imitation of wood grain or even rust. One of the most emblematic of these techniques is called maki-e and consists of sprinkling gold dust into the soft lacquer before it hardens. Another decorative method, urazaishiki, involves the application of a thin coat of gold, silver or coloured lacquer to the back of paper-thin pieces of shellfish in order to heighten their appearance. Yamamura employs both techniques, often using maki-e on the inside of his boxes.

Letter Pattern Incense Container (2014)
Lacquer, silver powder, mother-of-pearl, gold powder
H5.5×W5×L5 cm (© Ippodo Gallery)

In contrast with the traditional production of lacquerware that involves separate groups of specialist craftsmen including wood-turners, lacquerers in charge of the foundation layers, and further lacquerers in charge of the decoration, Yamamura undertakes every aspect of the design and execution of his work. He begins by planning the shape, often a lidded container that will be made of cypress wood. Characteristic of his work is the use of lacquer in combination with other materials.

Japanese lacquer and egg-shell on wood (2000)
H7.5×W4.9×D4.2 cm
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa
(Photo by Suemasa Mareo)

Yamamura strives to highlight their natural features and colours, and focuses his attention on contrasts. Shiny and slick or powdery and matte, the decoration is always inventive and the workmanship outstanding. In his neat and spacious workshop divided into two zones, one for the shape-carving and the other for the lacquer work, he makes test pieces and devises various decorative methods that he tries to push to their limits. Cutting mother-of-pearl or thin pieces of shell with knives affixed with a diamond point, he achieves an arresting precision.

Circular Pattern Box (2015)
Lacquer, mother-of-pearl, gold powder
 H7×W7×L7 cm (© Ippodo Gallery)

When the motifs are particularly complex and cover the whole piece, he must apply the decoration uniformly on the entire box, which becomes sealed as a result. In order to release the lid from the body of the box, he devised his own machine that includes a diamond dusted wire allowing him to incise the lacquered surface with the greatest precision. The thin wire will help him cut through layers of lacquer, metal, eggshell or mother-of-pearl without harming them. Having done so, he can then detach the lid from the rest of the box. It will slide back into position smoothly, the motifs seamlessly and perfectly matching once again.

Thanks to this remarkable workmanship, Yamamura has created unique designs of striking geometrical precision, such as narrow concentric circles of different colours that run uninterrupted. Between thirty and forty layers of lacquer, each carefully polished after drying, are necessary to create a box. This time-consuming process lasts for about three months and means that he only creates a small number of pieces each year, examples of which are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa.

Sophie RICHARD

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Art Historian

Sophie RICHARD

Born in Provence and educated at the Ecole du Louvre and at the Sorbonne in Paris, Sophie worked in the art world in New York before moving to London where she now resides. She has been a regular visitor to Japan for the last 15 years. Passionate about Japanese arts and culture, she set out to explore the country’s many museums. In the course of her research she has visited close to 200 venues across the country. Her articles on Japanese museums have appeared in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan. Her first book on the subject was published in 2014 and then translated into Japanese. Her new book “The art lover’s guide to Japanese museums” was published in July 2019. In 2015, Sophie received the Commissioner’s Award from the Agency of Cultural Affairs in Tokyo, in recognition for her work in bringing Japanese culture to a wider audience. (Photo©Frederic Aranda)

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