Modern lacquer recalls past splendor

by

Special To The Japan Times

Celebrated domestically and internationally for tea ceremony caddies in lacquer and mother-of-pearl inlay, as well as rather more substantial fittings such as kimono display hangers, artisan Tatsuaki Kuroda (1904-82) has finally been honored with the first Kyoto retrospective exhibition of his work.

The exhibition focuses on his formative encounters with Kyoto craft and cultural elites when he was in his 20s, and the patronage of his Kyoto clients such as the Kagizen Yoshifusa confectioners. Later in life, Kuroda was commissioned to produce a large decorative cabinet and interior-door decorations for the Seiden-Take-no-Ma (Audience Room) of the Imperial Palace. On display, too, is the “King’s Throne,” part of a set of furniture made for the Gotemba mountain retreat of the legendary film director Akira Kurosawa. As if further credentials were called for, Kuroda was also the first woodworker to be designated a Living National Treasure, in 1970.

Kuroda was born into a samurai family and followed in his father’s later life steps to become a lacquerer. But from the end of the 1910s, he began questioning the craft’s division of labor. Japanning, the adding of the lacquer to wooden utensils and furnishings fashioned by others, was in Kuroda’s mind mostly thankless. The finishers and decorators were the artisans usually accorded the honors. So he began undertaking the entire lacquerware process alone — creating the wooden base, applying lacquer, adding decoration. Establishing himself as a comprehensive craftsperson, he was beginning to realize an early 20th-century desire to elevate Japanese crafts into fine arts.

In 1924, Kuroda met the potter Kanjiro Kawai and was introduced to the intellectual, Muneyoshi (Soetsu) Yanagi, and textile artist Goro Aota. The four became prominent figures in the mingei (folk craft) movement that developed an anti-Western bent and whose presence was established locally in Kyoto with the short-lived Kamigamo Folk Craft Association (1927-1929).

Japan’s crafts, Yanagi in particular felt, suffered under Western utilitarian rationalism, and were weakened by capitalism, mechanical advancements, egoism and intellectualism. Languishing Eastern spirit and aesthetic sensibility the group believed, could be salvaged by faith and a return to innocent creativity, such as that of the unknown craftspeople of old who had apparently sought nature’s instruction.

Artistic direction and inspiration were utopian and backward-looking, like the near-contemporaneous English craft movement spearheaded by William Morris. In Japan, the folk craft movement stood in contrast to contemporary alternatives such as the mukei (formless) group, established in 1926, which took inspiration from Western crafts, the Bauhaus and Russian constructivism, while also embracing the Westernized sensibilities of the emerging middle classes.

Kuroda, like his folk craft movement contemporaries, took impetus from pre-modern Korean crafts. He collected and studied them, then nurtured his inspiration in shapes, sizes and designs that included lacquered wooden shelves, and lidded boxes with fylfot designs with inlaid abalone shell (though the shells were imported from Mexico).

While Kuroda’s functional oak tables and benches (1930) made for the Shinshindo cafe near Kyoto University have withstood the test of time, it is perhaps the small-scale gorgeousness of his later 1960s and ’70s work that continues to excite contemporary sensibilities.

“Kyoto’s Treasure: Tatsuaki Kuroda” at Museum (Eki) Kyoto runs until Oct. 9; open daily 10 a.m.-8 p.m. ¥900. kyoto.wjr-isetan.co.jp/museum