The lacquered layers of master Shibata Zeshin

by Rhiannon Paget

Special To The Japan Times

With a career spanning Japan’s transition from disintegrating feudal regime to modern nation, Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) was an exceptional artist, reaching the zenith of both painting and lacquer. Nezu Museum’s exhibition “Shibata Zeshin: From Lacquer Arts to Painting” presents 139 objects from arguably the most broadly gifted artist of 19th-century Japan.

Born in Edo (now Tokyo), Zeshin joined the studio of the lacquer artist Koma Kansai II (1766-1835) as an apprentice at the age of 11, there learning the painstaking methods of using tree sap to create resilient and beautiful surface decoration. He subsequently moved to Kyoto to study the Maruyama-Shijo school of painting, which combined Western naturalism with East Asian brushwork. This training provided the intellectual and aesthetic foundation for his sophisticated art.

Returning to Edo, Zeshin established his career during the last decades of the Edo Period (1603-1867), creating paintings and luxury goods such as lacquered writing boxes. From 1868, Japan sought to establish itself as global power and player in the international art market, and the elegant fusion of tradition and modernity in Zeshin’s work became popular with Western audiences. Consequently, many of the best examples of Zeshin’s work, particularly his urushi-e (lacquer paintings), are in collections abroad.

Despite substantial commissions from the Imperial household and the Meiji government, Zeshin was largely forgotten by his countrymen after his death. It is possible that Zeshin’s ability to move freely between the domains of art and craft meant that, until recent years, he was perceived as belonging to neither.

The exhibition opens with more than 100 lacquered objects, many of which feature techniques perfected by Zeshin to simulate the appearance of wood, ink-sticks, or bronze. “Tiered Sweets Box with Crows and Egrets” is representative of Zeshin’s sensitivity with regard to form and surface decoration. Flocks of crows and egrets rendered in black and silver lacquer explode from the gold background of a rectilinear box. The effect is at once sombre, lively, and devastatingly chic.

The following section explores Zeshin’s experiments in urushi-e executed on paper album leaves and hanging scrolls to evoke the luster of Western oil paints. Although urushi-e failed to thrive after Zeshin’s death, these unconventional paintings are evidence of a restless mind attempting to redefine a traditional medium.

Before achieving fame as a lacquer artist, Zeshin was a respected painter of hanging scrolls and folding screens. Comprising landscapes, literary and folkloric themes, and auspicious imagery such as cranes, the final section of the exhibition shows paintings characterized by a lightness of spirit. Many include kakihyōsō (painted mountings); the border of “Hina Dolls” depicts a space filled with miniature lacquered accoutrements for the Girls’ Day dolls depicted in the central image.

Ultimately, however, Zeshin is remembered as Japan’s lacquer artist par excellence, and this exhibition is timely reflection of his original vision and superb skills.

“Shibata Zeshin: From Lacquer Arts to Painting” at Nezu Museum runs till Dec. 16; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,200. Closed Mon. www.nezu-muse.or.jp/jp/exhibition/index.html.