Simplicity and Surprise: The Utilitarian Beauty of Japanese Lacquerware

Sep. 3 – Dec. 14, 2013

This exhibition was organized under the auspices of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Durable and elegantly beautiful, Japanese lacquerware was quite unlike anything that Western traders in the 16th century had ever encountered. Europeans who could afford the expensive ware collected it with a passion, and those who couldn’t copied the unique substance as best they could with varnish and paint, a method known as “japanning.” The allure of lacquerware remains undiminished today, as the forty pieces drawn from the collection of the Clark Center at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the hands of several private collectors demonstrate. Simplicity and Surprise: The Utilitarian Beauty of Japanese Lacquerware will demystify the decorative techniques used to achieve the glossy black and gold decoration synonymous with Japanese lacquerware, and introduce its other unique forms. The exhibit will also delve into the myriad usages of lacquerware, which ranged from use as food utensils to samurai armor, and will illustrate how the wares were incorporated into daily life in Japan through contemporaneous paintings.  

Writing Box with Chinese Lions Chasing Butterflies
Artist unknown: Writing Box with Chinese Lions Chasing Butterflies. Late 19th/early 20th century. Lacquer with mother-of-pearl and gold powder. Gift from The Clark Center for Japanese Arts & Culture to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; formerly given by Mr. F. Bailey Vanderhoef Jr.

On view will be a suzuribako (ink stone box) richly decorated in gold and silver powders with mother of pearl inlays. It shows a Chinese lion chasing butterflies, an allusion to a popular kabuki dance. Suzuribako were used in the practice of calligraphy, and would often be decorated with literary or seasonal motifs to contemplate while writing. More idiosyncratic works that demonstrate the versatility of lacquer will include a sake flask cleverly decorated to mimic a fishnet-wrapped package.

Tobacco tray with waves
Kamisaka Sekka (1866-1942): Tobacco trays with waves.
1920-1940. Lacquer on wood, glazed ceramic and bamboo.
Gift from The Clark Center for Japanese Arts & Culture to
the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Package shaped sake container
Artist unknown: Package shaped sake container.
Meiji period(1868-1912). Lacquer, gold powder, and
simulated metal on wood. Collection of Wilson Grabill.

The most common and recognizable form of decoration is maki-e where gold and silver powders are sprinkled onto a design drawn in wet lacquer, but there was actually a much greater variety of techniques that were employed to achieve different visual effects. Objects in the exhibition will illustrate the results of these decorative procedures.

Processed from the sap of the urushi tree, which grows throughout Asia, lacquer produces a hard varnish that seals the wood from moisture. Urushi sap has been in use in Japan since at least the seventh century, though early on it was primarily employed as an adherent in the papier-mâché-like technique known as ‘dry lacquering,’ which was used to sculpt a number of Buddhist effigies. During the Heian period (794–1185), personal items that are often associated with the term ‘lacquerware’ started to be commissioned by members of the aristocratic and samurai classes, and remained the purview of these social classes until the Edo period (1615–1868), when a rise in wealth among the merchant class allowed them to buy lacquered items as well. The objects in Simplicity and Surprise range from the 16th century to the present day, with the majority of pieces deriving from the 19th century, when the demand for lacquer was at its height.

Curated by Clo Pazera, Curatorial Assistant



Gallery hours: Tuesday through Saturday 1 – 5 pm. Closed on national holidays and during the month of August.
Admission: $5 for adults, $3 for students and active military service with valid ID. Children 12 and under free.
Weekly docent tours are held Saturdays at 1 pm and guided group tours can be arranged by calling the Center in advance at (559) 582-4915.