During the 16th-century age of exploration, Portuguese traders landed in Japan looking for exotic goods to sell in markets back in Europe and their newly founded colonies. Lacquerware was high on their list, not only for its decorative beauty but also for its more prosaic quality of being the only waterproof agent known at the time that could be applied by brush in a liquid state.

Just as “China” became the common-use word for both porcelain and the country that produced it, so “Japan” entered the English language not only as the name of the country. Originally the word also referred to the lacquerware with which the country was associated, and the verb “japanning” meant “to varnish.”

The most prized style of lacquer was maki-e (“sprinkled pictures”), the application of gold dust or flakes to make decorative designs, a skill in which Japanese craftsmen especially excelled. The fascinating history of maki-e in trade between Japan and Europe from this time until the modern period is the subject of “Export Lacquer: Reflections of the West in Black and Gold,” a comprehensive exhibition being shown at the Kyoto National Museum till Dec. 7 before traveling to the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo Dec. 23-Jan. 26. At the exhibition, examples assembled from both domestic and foreign collections can be seen together for the first time.

During the early years of European contact, Japanese craftsmen began to produce new items to order, now known as “Nanban” lacquerware from the term “Nanban-jin” used for the “southern barbarians.” These objects were richly decorated with gold, silver and inlaid mother-of-pearl, and included large drop-front or dome-lidded chests as well as objects for church use such as lecterns and retables for housing religious paintings. Some were used in the newly established Japanese churches and religious institutions, but many were exported to Portugal, Spain and their far-flung empires, where they can still be found.

Under a policy of isolation, foreign traders and Christians were banned from Japan during the 1630s, leaving only a small branch of the Dutch East Indies Company at Dejima in Nagasaki harbor to handle trade with the West. Dutch taste dictated a new style of export lacquer known as “komo shikki” (“red hair” — a common term for Northern Europeans), in which elaborate gold-lacquer decoration replaced the complex inlays of Nanban ware.

One example from the Victoria and Albert Museum is the celebrated Mazarin chest (named after the French ducal family that formerly owned it), dating from c. 1640. The chest shows Japanese decorative components — scenes from “The Tale of Genji,” a hunting party near Mount Fuji, dragons, a tiger in a bamboo grove — all highly exotic images in 17th-century Europe and a potent status symbol for its owner at the time.

The volume of the lacquer trade was vast. Shipping space was used as economically as possible by packing large items with smaller objects, and today there cannot be any grand residence in Europe that does not have an example or two of the “red hair” lacquerware exported from Japan. Classical Japanese or Chinese subjects were favored for their exotic quality, painted in gold lacquer on a black background with a recognition of the Japanese taste of leaving open space rather than covering every last square centimeter with decoration.

A notable exception can be seen in plaques painted with portraits or scenes in imitation of the oil paintings fashionable in Europe. One example in the exhibition depicts the Battle of Cadiz, which must have been copied from a copperplate engraving, while others show portraits of European worthies, painted with fine gold lines to imitate form and chiaroscuro.

The cachet of Japanese maki-e was such that during the 18th century, craftsmen in France and Germany began making furniture decorated with lacquer that, if not in imitation, was at least inspired by Japanese motifs. But no one could match the quality of the imported lacquer, and cabinetmakers catering to the upper classes, particularly in France, took to breaking up items of Japanese lacquerware and incorporating the thin, decorative sheets as panels in furniture of their own design. In the exhibition are examples of an escritoire and a commode with fashionable curved legs and such lacquer panels framed with elaborate gilt-bronze decoration, perhaps vulgar to our more minimalist tastes today, but appropriate in the palaces for which they were made.

By the 19th century, Japan was becoming an anomaly in its self-enforced isolation as Western powers expanded their empires and international trade to fuel economies evolving as a result of scientific discovery. Westerners gradually changed their tastes and instead of demanding Japanese lacquerwares be made specifically for their own use, showed an interest in purely Japanese goods made for the domestic market. This was the era of the cabinet of curiosities, a forerunner of the first museums, when unusual objects from around the world were accumulated for their own exotic interest.

It was also a century of the Great Fairs and Expositions, where different countries —including Japan — displayed their products in Western markets. In a reversal of making goods to foreign order, Japanese lacquer craftsmen made wares that they thought foreigners would like. Unusual forms and overdecoration typified such late 19th-century and early 20th-century production. Strangely, the modern period has seen taste come full circle, and today Westerners are avid collectors of austere, red-on-black negoro lacquer from Zen monasteries or the subdued but inventive works of Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891).

Whereas other premodern Japanese exports such as ceramics and ukiyo-e (genre painting) prints have been explored at depth in previous exhibitions, this is the first time to my knowledge that one has been devoted to Japanese trade lacquer, bringing examples from Japanese collections together with many from Europe. The catalog provides not only an excellent history of the subject in English by Meiko Nagashima, but also (other museums take note please) detailed explanations in English of each object in the exhibition and box essays to explain important sources of lacquer treasures, such as the Friedenstein Castle Collection in Germany, and Burghley House, England. There is a mine of information here and this catalog will no doubt become the major reference work on the subject for years to come.

“Export Lacquer: Reflections of the West in Black and Gold” is at the Kyoto National Museum till Dec. 7 and then at the Suntory Museum of Art, Tokyo Dec. 23-Jan. 26. For more information visit www.japan-makie.jp

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