japonisme: fishing the second wave

10 September 2009

fishing the second wave

after the first world war, a whole new wave of japanese goods flooded the west, producing a whole new wave of japonisme, though this time it looked much more modern. this was art deco, the next step for the line. 1

but along with japanese goods came japanese people, craftspeople, and therein lies our story, though we'll start much earlier than that.

According to a legend about urushi in the "Iroha-jiruisho" (compiled between AD 1177 and 1181), Emperor Yamato Takeru no Mikoto, a fictional figure and at the same time a symbol of the god of war, one day touches the urushi liquid dripping from a tree. He finds the black blaze of it of such rare beauty that he demands to have it painted on an object. He even appointed a ministry of urushi within his government. While this is just a legend, weapons and armours were indeed made by not only materials such as iron, stone or wood but also with urushi, and it was used as a rust preventing agent on weapons as well, this until the end of the Second World War.

The word 'urushi' has three possible etymological origins: the verb uruosu meaning to moisten as in slaking the thirst; the adjective uruwashii meaning graceful; and the noun nuru-shiru which refers to the 'liquid for paint'. What YamatoTakeru no Miko discovers is this very paint, richly glistening and full of grace.

In the Muromachi period (1333-1568) Rokuonji, the so called 'golden temple' was built, of which the whole first and second floors were painted with urushi and gilded with gold leaves that are five times thicker than the average. Urushi liquid was produced at full capacity, and urushiware became more popular to the common people and urushiware shops appeared in the big cities. Urushi artists paid tax with their skills and had special passports which gave them free way to anywhere in the country at a time when travelling was still very limited and restrained by the law. 2

At the close of Japan’s early modern era, Shibata Zeshin brought the art of lacquering to unmatched levels of technical skill and creative invention. In the 1840s, Zeshin invented daring new lacquer textures and finishes that mimicked rusty iron, rough seas, enameled porcelain, patinated bronze, or the delicate grain of Chinese rosewood. 3

In 1895 Samuel Bing, a German art dealer opened a fine arts shop called 'L' Art Nouveau Bing' in Paris where he sold Asian crafts and new style fine arts. The name of this shop was the origin of the art nouveau style in France and Great-Britain. In Belgium it was called the 'style moderne', 'Jugendstil' in Germany and 'Sezession' in Austria and it distinguished itself by a new two-dimensioned point of view in combination with an extraordinary decorative impression. Bing maintained a close respectful friendship with Zeshin Shibata, a great master in urushi and nihon-ga of that time, and therefore a great part of his art nouveau was remarkably influenced by not merely ukiyoe but also by the distinctive design of Japanese urushi works. 2

while zeshin continued to expand both his craft and his influence, another artist was teaching innovative lacquerwork in japan: shiramaya shosai. though i've tried, i have not been able to establish any relationship between the two men, but there's a generational difference between them; i believe the second could not have helped but be influenced by the first.

as zeshin was involved with bing, two other of his countrymen moved to paris. shoka tujimura, a student of shosai who would go on to win medals at the panama-pacific exposition in san francisco in 1916, and seizo sugawara. described as everything from a penniless immigrant to a japanese lacquer master, it was this second man who would have a major impact on 20th century craft and design.

In 1898 Seizo Sugawara, a Japanese artisan, immigrated to Paris to help restore lacquer at the Japanese pavilion on the international exhibition of 1900 in Paris.

In 1907 he met Eileen Gray, an Irish architect who started learning urushi after being influenced by him. Following her in 1912, the Swiss designer Jean Dunand too started learning urushi by Gray’s introduction to Sugawara.

Thanks to the Viet- nam- ese urushi, which was abundantly available since the colonization by France together with the traditional urushiurushi technique these two European artists were able to produce numerous urushi arts ware. Sugawara did not return to Japan and died in 1940 in France. It can be said that Sugawara had an influence on the fundament for the European artists to create urushi work by means of the traditional technique, instead of japanning. 2

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Blogger Folded letters said...

Just had to tell you how much I love this blog. It's one of my favorites...you've ed-u-mi-cated a complete ignorant of Japonisme. Now, I notice the elements of Japanese design in less obvious places. I was already aware of the influence during the Arts & Crafts period, but it's been a wonder to see how far Japanese design has influenced.

10 September, 2009 16:41  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

thank you so much, FL -- to tell the truth, it is wonderful to hear that now and then so i don't shrivel up and crawl away.

for me it's been, like, some things i felt intuitively and so now i'm learning actual information; other things i had read about, or seen, but now it's deeper.

i don't get your 'ed-u-mi-cated,' though i'm sure i should. but along those lines, maybe 'edo-cated' would work too?! ;^)

10 September, 2009 17:05  
Anonymous evan said...

wow. I don't normally have furniture envy, but there are a few screens in this episode of your blog (the Zeshin & the red/orange abstract) that I might be willing to sell internal organs for. Beautiful.
This blog is one of my daily i-surf stops & never disappoints. I don't know if I've ever said thank you, so, thank you. :)

11 September, 2009 11:25  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

evan-- thanks for saying it! (and for reminding me that people actually are reading it even if they don't comment that day)

there is an antique company in paris -- i think they're tajan, with many full color catalogues you can download. you will die. you will consider selling your external organs as well. :^)

do a site search for dunand, then go from there. please let me know if you can't find it.

11 September, 2009 11:46  

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