January 28, 2003

Beauty is skin-deep: Japanese lacquer boxes at Smart

The title of the Smart Museum's latest exhibit showcasing Japanese lacquer boxes is aptly called "Symbol and Substance." The boxes in this sumptuous collection are varied and many in number (56 to be exact), encompassing several centuries of Japanese life from the Muromachi (1392-1568) to the Momoyama (1568-1615) and the Edo (1615-1868) periods, implying and reflecting the tastes of a Byzantine culture perhaps best approached through the aid of history books. Grand allusions aside, however, the collection is comprised of such ordinary household items as ink boxes, lunchboxes, medicine containers, and a pillow. And they are one of the most motif-riddled and handsomely decorated household objects you might see. Assembled by painter Elaine Ehrenkranz, who donated the collection to the Harvard University art museums, the boxes have been immaculately preserved and carefully organized for their exhibition at the Smart Museum with an educational touch that steers clear of the pedantic. There is a strong emphasis from the start on lacquer, a term in its Western sensibility that has historically been used in the most liberal sense to invoke a variety of materials and traditions from diverse cultures. "True lacquer," however, derives from the sap of a deciduous tree, Rhus verniciflua, originally native to China and taxonomically related to the poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac--clearly the reason why the lacquer-making process is notorious for causing extreme allergic reactions.

Japanese artisans are credited for developing this unique material for use in a highly aestheticized art form with a store of techniques harnessed over hundreds of years and responsible for making many of the elegant and splendid designs on these boxes possible. The lacquer, referred to as urushi in Japanese, is collected, refined, and then applied to various surfaces, including wood, stone, and ceramic, where it is allowed to harden under strictly controlled temperatures and humidity. The most significant lacquer technique, according to the exhibit, is the maki-e (or "sprinkled picture") technique, which produced the painstakingly elaborate designs by scattering and sprinkling colored particles of metal powder onto wet lacquer. This signature Japanese style evolved into various procedures, including hira ("low") maki-e, which employs only one level of powder, and taka ("high") maki-e, which builds height by layering many levels.

These techniques account for some of the collection's remarkable pieces that markedly contrast high-relief motifs against low-relief backgrounds, establishing a subtle but key element that may be one of the highlights of the exhibition: the inhibited tactual sensorium of the viewer. One piece entitled "Wakasa-Nuri Inkstone Box (Suzuribako) with Double Inro-Ensemble Design," distinctive in its reflection of nouveau-riche aspirations--displaying a gold foil over a basecoat, inlaid with candy-colored shapes and mother-of-pearl flakes--tantalizes the viewer with its protruding inro and pine needles in a trompe l'oeil effect. The "Incense-Game Set" is another item in the collection bathed in extravagance; the gleaming blackboard patterned with ruby-red checkers and delicately crafted square game pieces resembling mahjong pieces all provoke the feeling of repressed tactility in the sensual realm. These pieces may gratify the eyes but plays naughty with every other part of your body. They are a few of the products from the Edo period, a time of peace after years of political turmoil that organized the Japanese warrior class into a sternly controlled vassal system guaranteeing stability if not prosperity. The long-term effect of such tightened political policies was positive for lacquer production as a much wider clientele of patrons began clamoring over these exotic treasures. The newly rich merchants were able to afford ornate and costly wares, and lacquer artists broadened their repertoire and developed new methods and combinations of techniques.

Other pieces from this period de luxe seen in the exhibit consist of the works of artist Ogawa Haritsu, who is well represented in the collection. Haritsu is famous for his craftsmanship in many media--lacing together ceramic, lead, and tortoiseshell material in his lacquerware--and pioneering the method of inlaying custom-made pieces of glazed ceramic into complex lacquer compositions. His inkstone boxes with their hyper-real colors spread over images of natural flora pronounced from their monochrome backdrops reveal a sensitivity perhaps shared with the works from the Muromachi and Momoyama periods that precede the Edo; scenes of nature's quietude dominate the imagery on the boxes from these earlier times with plum trees, cherry blossoms, and autumn foliage galore. They also signify in their hard angular structures an austerity not as apparent in the Edo pieces, which is a direct correlation to the established Imperial Bureau of Works that oversaw lacquer processing and artisans during these times when a system of patronage was implemented by noble families and imperial houses. This patronage system reflected individual tastes, particularly that of the warrior samurai patrons who had brought a more masculine attitude to form and subject matter, as the softer lines of earlier periods were replaced by a squarer, boxier profile.

Those who may question whether the lacquer boxes go beyond mere artistry or ad hoc functionality can look towards the deeply rooted folklore that emanate through some of the fine details embedded within geometric patterns and designs. These "literary images" make references to specific tales such as the "Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari)" and the "Tales of Ise (Ise monogatari)," to which the moon and the wavy grass gently dancing in the wind attribute. Sometimes the poets and storytellers themselves looked to these resonant images on their inkboxes for a spark of inspiration while at the same time putting them in the appropriate frame of mind for their creative impulses to kick in. As for those in no immediate hurry to author lyrical tales for lasting generations, there is "auspicious imagery," which makes up the iconic motifs like pine, bamboo, cranes, and even tortoises that are meant to symbolize longevity, health, prosperity, and happiness.

Anne Rose Kitagawa, one of the exhibit's organizers and the Assistant Curator of Japanese Art at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, explains that it was Ehrenkranz's wish that this collection serve the purposes of exhibition and education of the general public. Kitagawa herself, having grown up here with her parents as professors, couldn't be happier that the exhibit arrived at the University of Chicago and hopes that it will attract students interested in East Asian culture and art.

"Symbol and Substance" runs through April 6 at the Smart Museum of Art.