Edo craftsmanship in full flower

by Yoko Haruhara

Located in Kitanomaru Park, a famous cherry blossom viewing spot in Kudanshita, central Tokyo, is the National Museum of Modern Art’s Crafts Gallery. It seems appropriate that during the flowering seasons of ume (plum) and cherry the gallery should be hosting a show titled “Flower Design.” The exhibition, which runs till April 11, displays more than 100 works with floral ornamentation, including examples of furniture, lacquerware, ceramics, kimono and accessories.

The cherry blossom, the most popular Japanese symbol of spring, is exquisitely represented in a set of lacquered bowls made by Gonroku Matsuda (1896-1986), designated a living national treasure in 1955. The delicate bowls are crimson red and inlaid with five-petal yakogai (mother-of-pearl) cherry flowers. “Yakogai” literally means “shell that shines in the night” and its iridescence perfectly captures the light pink of the cherry blossom.

Matsuda’s craftsmanship is evident in the skillful bending of the delicate and brittle pearlized shell pieces to fit the curve of the bowl. Though known as an innovator, however, the artist was raised in Kanazawa, a city renowned for its traditional lacquerware.

Matsuda’s study of lacquerware began at age 7; as he grew older, he was entrusted with restoring antique lacquer items that had been unearthed in excavations. After graduating in 1919 from Tokyo Art School (now Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music), Matsuda continued to hone his skills, creating works of industrial design that applied lacquer techniques to such objects as fountain pens and tobacco pipes manufactured for export. Recognized for his technological mastery, including the development of weather-resistant lacquer, he received contracts from major manufacturers in Europe and the United States, including Dunhill and Mont Blanc.

The lacquer artist is not the only living national treasure represented in the exhibition. Another is textile artist Heiro Kitagawa (1898-1988), creator of a wedding kimono displayed at the entrance to the exhibition. This garment is gorgeously woven with a pattern of peonies, which are known as “the queen of flowers,” in orange, yellow, lavender and white on a light green background.

Kitagawa’s kimono uses karaori weaving, a technique imported from China in the eighth century. The artist was born into a Kyoto family that had practiced karaori weaving for 400 years, and he used it to create sumptuous garments for the Imperial Family, Shinto priests and Noh actors.

At the heart of the exhibition rooms of the Crafts Gallery is — what else? — a tatami-mat Japanese tearoom. A wooden cabinet displayed there is the work of Maeda Nansai (1880-1958), a genius of sashimono — an Edo Period method of furniture making using only mortise-and-tenon joinery. When the Tokugawa government relocated the political capital of Japan from Kyoto to Edo (present-day Tokyo), craftsmen came from the across the country to settle in the city. Sashimono is just one testimony to Edo’s elegance.

The split-level three-tier cabinet is made of paulownia wood and features an openwork design in a diamond-shape flower pattern known as hishihana-mon. The smooth, shiny surface of the cabinet is proof of Maeda’s consummate craftsmanship — the wood was never buffed or burnished, merely cut with a sharp knife to reveal its luster. Not only did his technique enhance the natural appearance of the wood, his attention to form produced objects of sculptural beauty. On close inspection, the rich grain of this cabinet resembles rippling waves.

Today, Japanese lifestyles and consumption habits reflect an increasing desire for Western products and technologies. Sadly, this corresponds to a dwindling appreciation of Japan’s traditional crafts. This is a great loss, for whether decorative or unadorned, these intricate skills have been handed down by generations of masters who have devoted their lives to their art. With each generation of these craftsmen perhaps the last, the “Flower Design” exhibition gives us a precious glimpse of a vanishing world.