Facing Modern Times - The Revival of Japanese Lacquer Art 1890-1950

by Jan Dees

This thesis is a compilation of essays on topics concerning Japanese lacquer art of the period 1890-1950, each based on the study of objects and the literature. The essays are grouped into two clusters: the first one focussing on four leading artists of the period and the second one on the manufacturers of traditional utensils. For a better understanding, the clusters are preceded by an overview on the developments in lacquer art between 1850 and 1950. The closing chapter on storage boxes can be considered a by-product of the previous studies.

The period 1890-1950
Until 25 years ago, Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) was in the West often regarded as the last great lacquer master of Japan. In fact, it was believed that lacquer art had almost vanished with the downfall of the Tokugawa regime in 1868, but Zeshin’s talents could not be denied. A few artists, such as Shirayama Shosai and Tokoku Fuzui, might occasionally have produced praiseworthy objects afterwards, but these were considered exceptions. ‘Meiji’ was a derogatory term. As a solution, many traditional objects of merit from the beginning of the 20th century were, consciously or unconsciously, flatly attributed to the Tokugawa period. In the 1980s, Japan’s booming economy resulted in a huge interest in the country’s culture and history, a kind of repeat of the ‘Japan mania’ which had conquered Europe and the United States a century before. Numerous publications on Japanese art found an eager audience, exhibitions attracted large crowds, kabuki plays could be admired all over Europe and North America and Japanese cinem  was popular as never before. On the art market, Japanese works of art fetched record prices, lacquer not the least. Of course, people became inquisitive about the origins of Japan’s economic miracle, and this curiosity inevitably drew the attention to the astounding modernization of the country during the Meiji period. The increasing interest in the Meiji era concomitantly roused the interest in the arts of the late 19th and early 20th century. The 1980s saw the first extensive exhibitions of Meiji arts and crafts, whereas the first large Nihonga shows were launched in the 1990s. Gradually the idea struck home in the West, that Japanese art is developing as a continuum up to the present-day - like in most countries.

What counted for Japanese art in general also held true for lacquer art. This understanding  posed the challenge of describing the history of lacquer art after the Meiji Restoration. In the present study this has led to a focus on the century that followed after the opening of Japan in the 1850s.

The first half of the Meiji period was dominated by the production of lacquer objects for export as part of the Art Industry. Only around mid-Meiji the tide turned. The year 1890 was unmistakably a milestone in the history of lacquer art, because it marked the revitalization of the indigenous culture, whereas the Art Industry came to an end. The newly founded Tokyo Art School trained a whole generation of students to become individual artists instead of representatives of the traditional schools. The Japan Lacquer Society brought lacquer artists together to stimulate mutual inspiration and generate interest for lacquer among the public as well.

The period of revival was more or less naturally followed by a struggle for recognition of the crafts in the 1920s, which brought lacquer art into the field of Modernism by shaking off the restraints of sophisticated techniques and the dictates of tradition. Modernism remained the dominant art movement throughout the 1930s.

In the early 1950s Modernism in this form was dying out, and lacquer art entered a new stage again. Rokkaku Shisui, one of the leaders of Modernism, had passed away in 1950. The 1950 Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties resulted in a division of lacquer art in two opposing groups: the traditionalists led by Matsuda Gonruku and other ‘Living National Treasures’ on the one hand, and the lacquer artists who aimed at bringing their discipline into the field of fine art, led by Yamazaki Kakutaro, on the other hand. Although less clear cut than 1890, the year 1950 also marked a watershed, in this case between Modernism and the diversification of lacquer art into various movements.

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NOTE : Illustrated version of this thesis can be found in specialised books shops.

COPYRIGHT 2007 Jan Dees , All rights reserved.
No portion of this article nor the accompanying illustrations can or may be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.

  • 2-4-2009

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