Masks are strongly recommended.
Return to Asian Lacquer
The two gentlemen on horseback and their attendants are presumably traveling to join the four figures drinking beneath a pine tree at the top of the tray. The crane standing near the attendants, serving wine, and the deer resting at the right are symbols of immortality. They add an otherworldly element to the scene, which represents either a paradisiacal realm or the retirement villa of a senior official equipped with the trappings of such a magical environment.
The theme of children at play is expressive of the wish for offspring and the joy of having them, and the pomegranate tree (its seeds are symbolic of progeny) behind the large rock where the children are playing hide-and-seek reinforces this idea. The garments worn by the women and children follow styles prominent in the earlier Song (960–1227) period, as does the hat worn by the child dressed up as a gentleman at the lower right. This type of tall hat was made fashionable by the poet-official Su Shi (1036–1101).
The wonderful image of a flowering plum tree with two plump sparrows that fills the center of this tray exemplifies the spectacular pictorial scenes that were created by manipulating pieces of mother-of-pearl of different shapes and colors. Long narrow pieces of iridescent pearl shell form the clumps of rocks set before the trunk of the flowering plum. The shapes of the leaves identify the bamboo growing behind the rocks, while additional fragments of pearl shell create the craggy trunk of the ancient tree, which bears buds in several stages of flowering.
These covers were made to store texts from the 108-volume Tibetan Buddhist canon produced in Beijing in 1410. A triple flaming jewel—symbolic of the Buddha, his teachings, and the monastic community—is the central motif of each cover's top. Four additional treasures, part of a group of eight, flank the jewels. Inscriptions in Tibetan and Chinese on the back of the covers identify the texts contained within—in this case, a volume listing the names of the thousand Buddhas born in the current era.
Delicate openwork used in the rendering of the trunk of the willow tree is typical of the sixteenth century, as is the sparse rendering of the leaves. The sketchy treatment of the fauna and other landscape elements reflects the influence of woodblock prints, which, in the sixteenth century, served as both illustrations to literary works and as a means for the dissemination of visual themes.
Eight auspicious emblems, including flaming pearls, a pair of horns, and a pair of books, encircle the character for longevity (shou) in the center of the dish; the same designs are found on the exterior. The dragons in the outer edges of the plate are all missing one claw. Five claws were understood as imperial symbols, and it is likely that the missing claws were removed in order to downgrade the dish for presentation to a member of the nobility or a senior official at the court.
Lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl became widespread in Korea in the twelfth century and continued as the primary type of lacquer there into the nineteenth century. The lively and linked floral scrolls that cover the surface of this box are ubiquitous in the decoration of Korean lacquer.
The patterns on this tiered food box derive from Indian and Southeast Asian textiles that were part of the trade linking Japan to other regions of Asia as well as to centers farther west. The clothing and setting identify the three figures on the top of the box as Chinese, a reflection of the interest in contemporaneous Chinese traditions by Japanese artists of the early seventeenth century.
The bamboo ladle shown resting on a rock on the cover of this box identifies the imagery as a reference to a No play about the "Chrysanthemum Youth," or Kikujid. Loosely based on a Chinese legend, the tale speaks of a youth who discovers that he has lived unchanged for centuries after drinking from a stream into which the dew from a chrysanthemum had fallen.
Kakinomoto Hitomaro remains one of the most revered poets in Japanese history. The landscape scene on the interior of the box alludes to one of his more renowned pieces: "Dimly through morning / mists over Akashi Bay my / longing traces the ships / as they vanish beyond the island."
These wonderful caskets were suspended by cords from the two rings at the top and then taken on outings or carried in processions. Their shape and narrow spouts suggest that they were not used for pouring or serving sake, but rather as a means of transporting large amounts.
Boxes shaped like this one were used as early as the twelfth century to hold personal accessories such as combs. From the seventeenth century on, groups of such boxes were part of the extensive assemblages of lacquered furnishings found in the trousseaux of the elite and the expanding merchant class.
This box, which contains both a tray for ink and space for holding paper, became popular during the Edo period as the use of lacquered boxes spread beyond the aristocracy and into the expanding and wealthy urban class. Autumn grasses wafting in the moonlight allude to the ephemeral nature of existence and are a ubiquitous theme in Japanese literature and poetry. Bits of silver foil and powder placed on the edges of the flowers and grasses help to produce the effect of bright moonlight in an autumn field.
In the nineteenth century, Shibata Zeshin, who exhibited at several world's fairs, was one of the few Japanese artists known in the west. He is noted both for his use of lacquer as a painting medium and for his innovative melding of techniques and unusual material in lacquers. The boats here are made of pewter that was roughly finished with lacquer, while the traditional "sprinkled gold" (maki-e) technique defines the sheaves of rice. The combed pattern on the waves illustrates Zeshin's revival of the "blue wave" technique, in which lacquer thickened with egg white or clay is placed on a surface and then combed into a pattern with a bamboo brush. Small pieces of pearl shell form the flying plovers in this scene, which has autumnal overtones.
Butterflies and flowers are often found in the eighteenth-century visual arts of China and the Ryukyu Islands. The butterflies decorating this cabinet are painted with black and gold lacquer and inlaid with pearl shell. The shape of the cabinet and the four small feet shows parallels to pieces made in Japan. An opening in the shape of a swastika is found on the back wall, suggesting that the cabinet was once used to house Buddhist texts or religious paraphernalia.