24 May 5th Urushi Art Exhibit
Message from Taiwa Matsuoka
– An article printed in the January 1962 issue of Japan Urushi Craft
With the fifth year of the Urushi Art Exhibit at Mitsukoshi, the focus of the exhibit has been shifted slightly. The planning took its course to add broader aspects of Urushi by including interior decorations, being a change from previous years’ focus on creativity featuring fine arts. In a way, there is no need for fastidious distinctions, since paintings are also used as interior decorations. However, it should be noted that the concept of decorative craft has roots that are different from those of fine-art expression. Craft-oriented decoration is derived from an aesthetic sensibility nurtured by the environment, while fine art is the exclamatory expression of life.
When fine art transcends the boundary of representation and step into abstract form, it may fall into one or more forms of art that are solely dependent on decorative esthetics. Of course, there are many art forms that exist somewhere in between, such as paintings that cater to individual tastes in the opposite extremes and religious tapestries. Association activities after WWII have concentrated on escaping from craft techniques in an effort to establish Urushi-e as a sector of fine art, since it felt somewhat awkward to return to a place within the bounds of decoration.
During the past two years, members of the association have been motivated to paint on fabrics, and have studied the different possibilities. It has thus been concluded that a wall-ornament format that can be hang on the wall may be suitable for Urushi-e to be developed on fabric. Advantages such as readily available large surfaces to be painted and portability when rolled up like a scroll can be gained when Urushi-e is painted on fabric. Further, the matte finish of the surface is suitable for viewing regardless of how large the art piece is. Difficulties include the tendency for the fabric to become hardened when a large amount of Urushi is absorbed and dried, and the surface easily cracks when it is rolled up, so the fabric must be rolled in a large arc. Moreover, the matte finish may be considered a disadvantage due to its inability to show wet-look tones. The attainment of a subtle luster and deep black is an important characteristic of Urushi-e. The effect of depth in Urushi-e can be enjoyed on a small painting surface, but a large surface will reflect surrounding objects and distract from the appreciation of the painting of its size.
The membranous coating of Urushi has considerable elasticity, so that the Urushi-coated fabric can be rolled up easily. However, preventive measures such as the use of specific Urushi with more elasticity for convenience and effects, and processing the back of the fabric to control penetration, may be required. Stable mineral colorants are used as in conventional Urushi-e, and pure-white fabrics bring out good color development. The colors of dyed fabric may fade, so it might not be suitable to use as a base material for Urushi-e, with the possible exception of robust colorants such as vat dyes.
Chemical paints manufactured by Chukyo Urushi as alternatives to Urushi have been gaining remarkable popularity. There have been claims that Urushi-like effects can be obtained with chemical paints. In fact, the general public has been using lacquer ware coated with alternative Urushi in the belief that it is natural Urushi ware, and the same phenomenon exists in regard to Urushi-e. Needless to say, lacquer ware that is not coated with Urushi is not Urushi ware, and artwork painted with chemical paints is not Urushi-e. It is evident that the value of a work of art is not solely decided by its materials, but it is possible that the types of materials used have significance in valuating the work. Setting aside the recent trend in avant-garde arts that resemble children playing in the sand, in observing works of avant-garde sculptors who explore new uses for materials such as iron, ceramic, glass and cement, the artists’ devoted passion for such materials is quite evident.
If a particular color is not available for Urushi, then one can make a new colorant. If the fading of lake colorants (a type of colorants) is not desired, other stable colorants can be made. If color development is the problem, it can be adjusted to make better color development. All these problems have already been solved. The beauty of synthetic resin, a product of recent developments in high-polymer chemistry, can also be included. I have been using alkyd, acryl, epoxy and urethane paints since the pre-WWII days, but these are mere materials to enhance Urushi. From the Asuka period of around 6 to 7 centuries, or even before those days when Urushi crafting was practiced in my hometown Uda in Yamato, Urushi found its way into my bloodstream. I love Urushi.
This year’s exhibit features thirty-eight artworks entered by thirty members of the association. Fourteen of them have a wall-hanging style, of which many are large pieces, and seven of them are framed pieces drawn on fabrics, and the rest of them have followed a conventional Urushi panel format. The members pursue their own artistic styles. Our group was not founded for a particular belief or style of fine art. Instead the members have been nominated for their diligent efforts and passion in regard to Urushi. Consequently, there are many members who have achieved beyond the level of merely handling Urushi. There is a wide range of age and experience among the members, and their artworks encompass a variety of styles. It may appear to be disorganized when compared to an established leading fine-arts activity. The Urushi-e field is still in an enlightenment period, so the association intends to encourage young Urushi artists in Japan in the hope of developing a fruitful Urushi art field. It is our intention to proceed as a free-spirited group in an Independent* fashion regardless of positions and chronological ages and without belonging to any particular art sector, but we shall in principle maintain the use of Urushi with a certain level of fine-art technique.
* Independent: Fine art exhibits held annually since 1884 in Paris that do not judge artworks entered, in contrast to the Academy, the latter of which is the authoritative figure in French arts. The term is used to indicate “non-sectarian, independent.”