You’ve probably heard of Japan’s quaint custom of designating some people as Living National Treasures. Usually it’s applied to exponents of a traditional art, craft or performing art in their twilight years. Luckily, nobody has ever come up with the idea of “stealing” these national treasures. While this is reassuring, it also raises doubts about the authenticity of their “treasure” status. Maybe the designation is just a nice way of saying, “Thanks, granddad for all the nice (fill in blank) you’ve made over the years.”
As with most bearers of the title, the “treasure” status of Mitsuo Masuda, the metal chaser who is the subject of paired exhibitions at the Crafts Gallery of the National Museum of Modern Art and Waseda University’s Aizu Museum, came of the culmination of many years of selfless devotion to his craft rather than a drive for recognition.
This is immediately apparent when you enter the Crafts Gallery exhibition space. Masuda’s works seem to emit a quiet, unshowy charisma, as if patiently waiting for you to come and discover them, rather than shout out their merits. When you first see the silver tea caddy “Yamase” (“North Wind”) (1990) with its gilded deer motif, you notice that it is rather small and pretty, but what draws you closer is a sense of the object’s density. It is then that you notice how exquisitely the background has been worked with keribori, so-called kicking engraving in which a chisel is employed to “kick” the surface, creating a grainy texture that adds a sense of depth and reality to the stylized scene.
This quality of self-contained refinement in his works seems to echo the reported character of Masuda himself, who passed away two years ago at the grand old age of 100 — yes, “living treasure” status seems to be correlated in some way with longevity.
Ironically, Masuda’s chosen path of artistic expression seems to have been heavily influenced by a childhood encounter with metal in a very different form. When he was 9, he was walking with other children behind a man carrying a shotgun that was loaded with pellets. The gun accidentally went off and Masuda was blasted in the face and scarred for life. Possibly worse for a future artist, he also lost an index finger and the tip of his thumb when he raised a hand to protect his face.
In the aftermath of this incident, Masuda developed a somewhat reclusive personality, concentrating his energies increasingly on developing and honing his artistic skills. Although initially interested in painting, he chose to specialize in metal chasing when he entered the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. The reason he later gave for this choice was that learning a craft would better enable him to earn a living, but it could have also have been that the long hours of diligent application needed to beat, engrave and slowly shape metal into something beautiful would be more therapeutically pleasing than the bohemianism of being a painter.
Through his craft he was also able to win the respect of his peers and overcome his social deficiencies, playing a prominent role in several crafts societies. However, for much of his career he supported himself by teaching woodwork at his old alma mater, Urawa Middle School in Saitama Prefecture.
A major focus of the exhibition is his relationship with his fellow Living National Treasure, the potter and occasional printmaker Kenkichi Tomimoto, who was also a leading intellectual of the Japanese crafts movement. Although living in different parts of Japan, the pair corresponded frequently in the period after World War II about the various arts and crafts associations that were then jockeying for influence, and they collaborated on a series of incense burners, with Tomimoto making the ceramic parts and Masuda the metal lids.
Masuda was also deeply influenced by Tomimoto’s idea that patterns should never be made from other patterns, but should instead be directly taken from our experience of nature. It was this philosophy that helped Masuda create some of his greatest masterpieces, such as “Moonlit Night in the Woods” (1993), a gilt black copper box on which the moon occupies the lid and dark trunks of the trees stand out on the sides against the moonlit ground. Although highly stylized, this work nevertheless has a feeling of reality, as if a cold night breeze has just blown in.
The intricate pattern of “Dayflowers and Butterflies” (1971), another outstanding box decorated with openwork and gilding on copper, was created using ura uchidashi, an embossing technique in which patterns are created by hitting the metal on the underside to create low reliefs. This 3-D effect gives the design a subtly organic feel, as if the butterflies and leaves have somehow swollen with life — suggesting that the term “living national treasure” may in fact be a reference to the life of the artist that continues to palpitate eternally in the works he or she created.
“Masuda Mitsuo’s Bracing Metal Chasing, and Tomimoto Kenkichi” at the Crafts Gallery of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, runs till June 26; admission ¥200; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.momat.go.jp. The concurrent show at the Aizu Museum runs till June 18; free admission; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Sun. For more information, visit www.waseda.jp/aizu (exhibition information in Japanese only).