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Gold and silver have long been used in Japanese painting for their decorative value, on works ranging from intimate handscrolls to large-scale screens. But as the current exhibition at the Yamatane Museum of Art makes amply clear, in the last century or so tradition has been improved upon as modern and contemporary painters developed innovative and creative new ways to use these precious metals.

“Gold and Silver: All That Glitters in Japanese Art, From the Rimpa School to Kayama Matazo” opens with a selection of 20 stellar works that beautifully illustrate the ways in which gold and silver were traditionally used in Japanese painting. The three basic methods, believed to have been transmitted to Japan from China, are sprinkling gold or silver dust (sunago); applying gold or silver leaf (haku) and mixing finely ground gold or silver leaf with glue to make a kind of paint (dei).

The oldest works in this exhibition are portions of 12th-century poems written on paper that was decorated with sprinklings of gold and silver dust and tiny pieces of gold and silver foil. A number of works from the 17th century, including paintings by Iwasa Matabei (1578-1650), show how gold and silver paint were used to express clouds and haze. In addition to their decorative value, glittery clouds and haze were often used to divide scenes in a narrative.

The second half of the exhibition is given over to the real scene-stealers — a dramatic display of innovative works dating from the Meiji Era (1868-1912) to the postwar period. What makes this exhibition a standout, in addition to the high quality of the works on display, is the emphasis on methods. This is a rare opportunity to learn about the painstaking and often ingenious techniques artists have used in working with gold and silver to achieve effects — both bold and subtle — that are not possible with less exalted materials.

Taikan Yokoyama (1868-1958), for example, experimented with gold and silver as a means to add light. In “Mt. Kisen” (1919), he applied gold leaf to the back of Japanese paper so that a faint glimmer of the gold would show through the weave, imparting a soft and gentle light to the mountain scene on the front. In “Bamboo,” painted the same year, he applied gold leaf to the entire underside of silk and painted a scene of bamboo in ink on the front. What would have been a monochrome work in shades of gray, black and white is transformed into a luminous, highly atmospheric scene that might be a bamboo forest in early morning light or after a rain.

Gyoshu Hayami (1894-1935), too, sought new forms of expression through the use of gold and silver. In “Camellia Petals Scattering” (1929), a large two-part screen that was the first work from the Showa Era (1926-1989) to be designated an Important Cultural Property, he used gold powder to create a dazzling, intensely flattened backdrop for a camellia tree in full bloom. The technique he used, which is called makitsubushi, involves grinding gold leaf into an extremely fine powder. The process requires five times as much gold as covering the same space with gold leaf, but produces a smooth, even surface that reflects light in complex ways and allows for subtle shading in color.

Matazo Kayama (1927-2004) explored the potential of gold and silver as he sought to blend classical forms with contemporary sensibilities. In “Screen with Floral Fans” (1966), he incorporated traditional motifs, such as fans, waves and patchworks of torn paper, with bold color and very large designs.

Taking inspiration from ancient Buddhist sutras written in gold and silver on paper dyed with indigo, Ryushi Kawabata (1885-1966) created a massive pair of six-fold screens in dazzling hues of gold and silver against a dark blue background. Titled “Seeds of Grasses” (1931) and on loan from the Ryushi Memorial Museum in Tokyo, the screens portray humble autumn grasses rendered larger than life with bold brush strokes of custom-blended paints. In this work, the artist pioneered the use of platinum to achieve silvery-gray hues that don’t change color over time as silver does.

There’s very little English in this exhibition, so those who can’t read Japanese will miss out on the fascinating explanations on method and techniques. There is, however, a deep vein to be mined through careful observation. Don’t miss the case in the center of the first room that contains the materials and tools —from sieves and brushes to pinchers and glues —used in applying gold and silver to paintings. It’s also worth paying attention to the small painted panels placed next to some works. These comparative samples were prepared by Hidetoshi Namiki, lecturer at the Art Innovation Center at Tokyo University of the Arts, to show how the work might have looked had the artist chosen to use a different technique.

A reproduction is never as good as the real thing, and this is particularly true with paintings that use gold and silver. To appreciate the full luster and complexity that gold and silver can lend, you need to see the works in person. This is a golden opportunity to do so.

“Gold and Silver: All That Glitters in Japanese Art, From the Rimpa School to Kayama Matazo” at the Yamatane Museum of Art runs till Nov. 16 (some exhibits change on Oct. 20); open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,200. Closed Mon. www.yamatane-museum.jp

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