The deluge of Western culture entering Japan from the Meiji Era (1868-1912) brought new concepts distinguishing art and craft. The word “bijutsu” (art), was first coined in 1872, making distinctions that were not inherent in earlier periods. In the European canon, “art” meant painting, sculpture, architecture, music and poetry, and “craft” included lacquer, dyeing, weaving, embroidery and ceramics. Lacquer, in particular, became culturally devalued, and in the early Meiji Era, it looked as though it would die out.

When the Emperor made his first “visit” from Kyoto (then the imperial capital) to Tokyo, nobles and merchants moved with him creating a patronage vacuum in which many were forced to give up their livelihoods. Daily items were no longer ordered by the Imperial Court, and the collapse of the samurai class, the largest consumers of daily lacquerware, such as tableware, furnishings and stationery, left the lacquer industry in disarray. Disinherited lords became impoverished and patronage constrained.

With domestic collapse, production turned toward export, a tradition that dates back to the 16th century, as evidenced by the collection of Marie Antoinette, and the later 20th-century Swiss collector Ugo Alfons Casal, who amassed a collection of over 4,000 pieces. In 19th-century Britain, lacquer was referred to as “japan,” in the way porcelain is still referred to as “china.”

Rejuvenating the traditional lacquer industry was done by emulating international exposition models, and they sold well. At the 1873 Vienna International Exhibition, lacquer by Zeshin Shibata and Taishin Ikeda received progress medals. The fourth domestic National Industrial Exposition was held in Kyoto in 1895, coincident with the 1,100-year celebration of the city as the national capital, and it attracted a staggering attendance of 1,130,000 people over four months. Domestic exhibitions had been established earlier to promote industry, and the Kyoto exposition — the first of which was in 1871 — continued to showcase various arts and crafts into the 1920s.

Initially, late 19th-century art schools did not offer lacquer courses, but from 1890, the Tokyo School of Fine Arts inaugurated one. That was also the year during which the Imperial Court Artist system was established, honoring distinguished lacquer artists such as Shosai Shirayama.

It was not until 1927, however, that lacquer was included in Japan’s most important national art exhibition, the Imperial Art Academy Exhibition (formerly the Bunten), though of the nine judges who oversaw the section, only one, Jitoku Akatsuka, was a lacquer artist. While selected works were few, lacquer had finally attained the status of being considered art, exhibited alongside other fine arts.

As the first large-scale exhibition of such modern Kyoto lacquerware, featuring museum pieces from across the globe and treasured luxury items, this exhibition traces the path of lacquer’s modernization through artists such as Hyosai Kimura, Chu Asai and Kamisaka Sekka — and it should not be missed.

“Kyoto, Re-creation of Reminiscence: Lacquerware in Modern Japan” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, runs till Aug. 24; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥900. Closed Mon. www.momak.go.jp/English

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