Back in Japan again… In Praise of Shadows?

Back in Japan again… I stepped into the workshop of one of the country’s most respected lacquer artists, National Living Treasure, Shosai Kitamura. The walls were lined with shelves on which were placed examples of his workmanship. Draped across the length of one wall was a knotted straw garland sent by Ise Shrine – to bless the artist’s current inlaid mother-of-pearl lacquer work. He opened drawers slowly to reveal cut shells. Each drawer held fragments which were carefully graded into differing tones and colours – fragments ready to catch the light once they were further cut into exquisitely fine forms and inlaid into lacquered objects.

Mother of pearl ready to be cut for inlay work on lacquer, Japan, 2008
Mother of pearl ready to be cut for inlay work on lacquer, Japan, 2008

During the second phase of my residency, I have been exploring threads of Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay on aesthetics, “In Praise of Shadows”. The writer’s claim that lacquer was made to illuminate dark spaces, prompted my visit to Japan – I felt very fortunate to be able to meet Shosai Kitamura. He discussed at length a number of topics – traditional versus contemporary practice, shifts in aesthetic understanding, the authorship of the artist.

Mother of pearl for inlay work Mother of pearl for inlay work Mother of pearl for inlay work
Mother of pearl for inlay work – click on thumbnails for larger versions.

I was particularly interested to hear his thoughts on Tanizaki’s reference to lacquer and light – In response, he felt that the fact that the essay was written in the 1930’s and therefore before the war, was very relevant. The writer had not yet experienced the restrictions of the blackout. After these restrictions were lifted, people moved away from the shadow and darkness celebrated by Tanizaki and flooded their homes with as much light as possible.

For the younger generation who did not experience this era, things are perhaps being seen differently again – older interiors with light diffused softly through paper sliding paper screens and deep, dark alcoves are now being used for viewing both contemporary and traditional works of art. I was able to understand this approach more clearly when I visited the solo exhibition of contemporary lacquer artist, Natsuki Kurimoto, which was staged in a very old and elegant Kyoto former residence.

Exhibition of contemporary lacquer in Kyoto former residence, 2008
Exhibition of contemporary lacquer in Kyoto former residence, 2008

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