Learning: Japanese Lacquerware with Michelle Fitzgerald

Writing box | Evergreen Library & Museum

Japanese lacquerware is a tradition dating back to 5,000 B.C. Lacquer itself derives from a toxic sap of the Japanese lacquer tree. This tree can grow more than 65 feet tall and is cultivated in China, Japan and Korea. Lacquer can be applied to picture frames, decorative pieces such as statues, bento boxes, ceramics, furniture, prints and more objects.

“Lacquerware is layering of urushi-treated sap onto forms such as wood. The layering is an intensive multistep process, and what gives lacquerware its true appeal is the amount of expertise and time that goes into true Japanese lacquerware,” explains Michelle Fitzgerald, collections curator for Johns Hopkins University Museums. “You put one layer of lacquer on and let it sit somewhere it won’t get dust on it, and then you put another layer of lacquer on. There’s a bunch of different experts involved, too, in the process. It’s not just one craftsman.”

The current Evergreen Museum & Library (part of the Sheridan Libraries & Museums of Johns Hopkins University) in Baltimore is the home of many extraordinary examples of Japanese lacquerware. Evergreen was the home of noted philanthropist John Work Garrett and his wife Alice. Their interest in collecting led the couple to amass a sizeable collection of Tiffany objects, fine art and Japanese decorative art such as Japanese lacquerware. Japanese decorative arts was on the rise during the late 19th century. Seizing on this interest, Japan committed large sums of money toward global exhibitions and encouraged the interest in Japanese lacquerware in the art world.

Garrett developed a relationship with Capt. Masayuki Kataoka, who introduced Garrett to other dealers in Kyoto, Japan, where Garrett begins to build his collection. Garrett received a significant amount of lacquerware and other pieces from this dealer to review in Baltimore. The Garretts soon recognized the value of the pieces and focused their efforts on preserving this collection.

Today, Fitzgerald shares with Baltimore Style some representative examples of Japanese lacquerware from the JUH Museums collection.

Incense box | Evergreen Museum & Library

Incense Box (Kogo), Japan, Muromachi period (1392-1573), 15th century, red and black lacquer on wood

This incense box features the indigenous kamakura-bori method of creating carved patterns in the wood first and applying lacquer over the top of the patterns. This piece was likely lacquered in black first and then red on top. Fitzgerald believes this technique was intentional. Over time, the red wears away and shows the black underneath. With this piece, Fitzgerald notes the influence Chinese lacquer had on Japanese lacquerware during this time period.

As one of the oldest objects in the collection at Evergreen Museum and Library, the artifact was purchased by John Work Garrett from S. Ikeda & Co. while Garrett was in Japan. The purchase occurred through an arrangement facilitated by Capt. Masayuki Kataoka. The circular box features a domed lid, with a red lacquer ground, and a brown lacquer interior.


Writing box | Evergreen Museum & Library

Writing box (Suzuri-bako), Japan, Early Edo period, 17th century, gold, silver, red and brown lacquer on wood

This object reflects the use of takamakie, a design created in relief on a lacquered surface using sprinkled powder, and hiramakie, a design that rises one layer above the lacquer ground using sprinkled powder. Imagery on the writing box takes its inspiration from Chinese landscape paintings. Garrett received this piece from Kataoka in 1899. During the Edo period, lacquerware flourished, fueled by an interest in dealers and collectors who coveted lacquerware pieces.

Fitzgerald observes that this object uses a lot of empty space and emphasizes the ground. “That hearkens to a composition derived from Chinese ink paintings. You see another evolution of this development of the indigenous style of lacquerware.”

The box bears an okihirame nashiji ground, decorated with a flowering plum tree beside a lake in gold takamakie with details of kirigane, inlaid coral and raden. The box’s interior features wave-grit rocks in a similar decorative style.


Writing box | Evergreen Museum & Library

Writing box (Suzuri-bako), manner of Ogata Korin, Japan, Middle Edo period, likely 18th century

This writing box adopts the manner of Ogata Korin (1658-1714). Korin’s lacquerwork was popular during the 19th century. According to Fitzgerald, Korin used a style of lead and mother of pearl inlay, emphasizing simplicity in design. Korin was heavily inspired by Japanese literature as the source for his depictions. In his catalog of objects presented to Garrett, Kataoka describes the object as having a “view of Kasuga temple at Nara.”

A similar object to this writing box has also been attributed to Korin and depicts a view of Mount Miwa of Yimato at the Universal Exhibition of 1900 in Paris, France. The domed rectangular box is decorated in the manner of Korin and features a hillside image with a fir tree in pewter and raden on ishime gold lacquer ground. The interior contains similar scenes and is fitted with a suzuri carved with a gateway temple and simple rectangular mizuire.


Cosmetic box | Evergreen Museum & Library

Cosmetic box (Tebako), Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), 19th century, black lacquer ground with gold, silver and colored powders

Based on Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji,” this cosmetic box features interior boxes decorated like various chapters of the work, including the minogame, or mythological giant turtle. Garrett purchased the piece crafted by S. Ikeda & Co. on April 19, 1899, while he was in Japan.

The circular form of this box is supported on three butterfly-shaped feet, decorated on a sparse nashiji ground with several fans bearing various designs in gold and silver takamakie with details in kirigane, an interior of nashiji and featuring six small circular boxes decorated with various designs of animals inspired by Japanese literature in gold and colored takamakie.


Tea caddy | Evergreen Museum & Library

Tea caddy (Natsume), signed by Shibata Zeshin, inlayer (1807-1891) and seal of Sho-gen, lacquerer, Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), 19th century, deep red lacquer with mother-of-pearl inlay on bamboo

Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) opened during the Edo and Meiji periods. Zeshin was well-recognized for his experimentation with lacquer and his traditional designs in the Edo and Meiji periods. This tea caddy represents the only piece of lacquerware signed by Zeshin that Garrett bought from Kataoka in 1899-1900. Fitzgerald says she’s always struck by the clean lines and almost contemporary design style of this piece.

The material for the mother-of-pearl inlay is agoai (a thin, blue-green shell) inlaid on a curve using warigai, in which the mother of pearl is purposefully cracked on a curve. Adornments include cherry blossoms and an inlaid mother of pearl on red lacquer using the warigari technique.

Inro | Evergreen Museum & Library

Inro, signed “Heishuasai” (Ishibashi Sojiro, 1847-1918), Japan, Meiji period, late 19th century, ultramarine blue lacquer ground with gold and colored powders

This piece is one example of several inro pieces in the museums’ collection. Inro refers to a traditional Japanese case for holding small objects. Kataoka received the piece from Garrett in 1899. It’s one of five known inro pieces featuring blue lacquer that have ever been recorded. The metal ojime depicts Ryuju, a dragon palace in folklore. Irises in the exterior case’s design are embellished in gold and colored hiramakie.

The oval form of the four-case inro with Netsuke bears an ultramarine blue ground, sprinkled with nashiji and decorated in a gold and colored hiramakie and e-nashiji with butterflies and irises. The interior features nashiji, with a Tenjitsu copper alloy and gold Ojime that depicts Ryugu, the dragon palace, an ivory Manju Netsuke and a reverse formal kiku pattern.

Curatorial Favorites: A Discussion of Asian Exports (Virtual Program)

Johns Hopkins Museums curators discuss the significance of Asian export objects from the collections of Homewood Museum and Evergreen Museum & Library at Johns Hopkins University.

Join the museums’ director Lori Finkelstein and Michelle Fitzgerald, curator of collections, for a discussion about favorite Asian export objects at the museums. You’ll discover how these items were produced, how they came into the collection and how they relate to global trends in art and collecting.

When: Wednesday, April 14

Time: Noon to 1 p.m.

Register online at Eventbrite.

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