Birth of Urushi Artwork (Saishitsu-ga)

Taiwa Matsuoka's Discussing My Urushi-e

Birth of Urushi Artwork (Saishitsu-ga)

Message from Taiwa Matsuoka
– Excerpts from the art collection book “Taiwa Matsuoka” (published in August 1973)

Call It Urushi Artwork to Distinguish It from Urushi-e and Urushi Painting

Powdered colorant is mixed into amber-colored transparent base Urushi to make colored Urushi. Colored Urushi is not commercially available like oil paints, so one must hand-mix the amount to be placed on a palette using a mixing spatula. Now the colored Urushi is ready for use. As in oil or Japanese brush painting, one does Urushi-e, Urushi painting or Urushi Artwork (saishitsu-ga) on a hand-made Urushi panel or canvas.

I decided to rather call it Urushi Artwork in order to establish a distinction from recent, so-called Urushi-e or Urushi paintings painted with Urushi alternatives made of synthetic resin. It should, however, not be forgotten that the value of an art piece is not determined solely on the basis of the materials used, even though it is painted with genuine Urushi.

To attain such simple the state of execution as described, it took me fifty years of my life.

Urushi Has Been Used for Four Thousand Years

Because Urushi-e is easier to apply on a craft piece than it is on Maki-e, it has since the Tokugawa period been used to beautify everyday dinnerware and tools as decorative patterns for cultural pieces. In China there was no Maki-e, and the recent discovery of dishware for everyday use featuring pictures and patterns drawn with Urushi-e, excavated from an ancient burial mound, stunned the world. Around 1916, various Urushi pieces a thousand years older than the Beetle Wing Shrine at Horyuji, in Japan, were discovered at Kimsun in Luoyang, and at the ancient burial mound of Mao in Changsha, in China’s Hunan province.

As is evident from these ancient Urushi pieces, the number of colors for colored Urushi is very limited. It has been reported that black and vermilion Urushi had been used during the Han dynasty four thousand years ago, and recently excavated Chinese Urushi wares have colors such as black, vermilion, yellow and green. The Beetle Wing Shrine has a similar number of colors, and even in the modern day colors had been limited to six or seven. Presently, to my knowledge I am the only artist who can freely handle colored Urushi as shown in my Urushi Artworks.

Unlike oil and hide glue, the majority of colorants will not develop colors when mixed with Urushi. That is, when a colorant is mixed with Urushi, it will turn black in the drying process and the color will not develop. Because of this characteristic, Urushi has been cherished and awarded the top rank among other coating paints for its amazing strength and durability in craft and industrial fields, but at the same time Urushi has not reached its popularity in the field of fine art.

Wishing to Introduce Urushi into the World of Fine Arts as in Japanese Inkbrush Paintings and Other Fine Arts

When I went to Tokyo in 1914 and started my study of oil painting at the Tokyo Fine Arts School (now called the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts & Music), while being consumed day and night with my study, amazing Urushi wares during the Han dynasty were being excavated at the ancient burial mound at Rakuro in Korea. Through the courtesy of an arrangement by Professor Harada, I was fortunate to view a portion of the excavated collection that had been sent to the archeology laboratory at University of Tokyo. The base wood has changed its color and the shape has warped, but I was completely taken by the mystical appearance of the Urushi coating. It was seemingly unimaginable that it had been buried in soil for an astonishing two thousand years. There was a simple but cleverly drawn drawing on the piece. This spiritual, Oriental liquid has taken over my soul since then, but soon I had started to criticize the current Urushi craft world in Japan. At that time, various lake colorants (a type of pigments) were already available for colored Urushi and were in use, but the durability of the colors was equivalent to dye compounds, and it was a known fact that the colors would change or fade within several years. This type of characteristic should not qualify as paint suitable for fine arts. I promised myself that my mission was to develop durable, colored Urushi with non-fading mineral colorants capable of color development with Urushi, that I would lead Urushi to the fine art world as in Japanese ink brush and oil paintings, and that I would awaken Urushi from its four-thousand-year hibernation in the Orient. After I graduated from the teachers’ education course at the art school, I re-entered the school via the Sculpting Department and continued my study in three-dimensional sculpting. Concurrently I audited Urushi crafting methodology, Urushi craft history and Urushi craft chemistry courses at the Urushi Craft Department for five years, until the year the Great Kanto Earthquake occurred. I studied practical techniques from an Urushi artist at the Urushi craft studio near my house, but I felt it was necessary to study the theories of craft techniques in order to acquire a solid craft technique.

My study of oil painting continued while I was enrolled in the Sculpting Department. Along with young artists who had some experience at the national exhibits for Western fine arts, I involved myself in establishing the Shinko Western Fine Art Group. This group organized annual exhibits with its twenty members beginning in the year 1920. Comparing Urushi-e and oil painting, the study reviewing materials for oil painting and the durability of old oil paintings in a mild but humid climate like that of Japan revealed that an oil-painted surface would be stripped and destroyed by mold within a relatively short span of thirty to forty years, if professional preservation techniques were not applied. It was also revealed that moisture and alkaloid gas created in a concrete building will diminish the preservation of oil paintings.

Declaration of Independence for Urushi-e in 1935
Urushi Artwork Study Will Continue

The Shinko Western Art Group was dissolved following the Kanto Great Earthquake. With an invitation from the glass craft artist Toshichi Iwata, I joined as a member of the craft-art division of the Shundai Fine Art Group headed by Saburo Okada. My efforts in developing colored Urushi for use in the fine arts were recognized along with the release of artworks in iron cloisonné enamel. It was difficult to pursue in an unprecedented field with no historical precedent, but in 1932 I was able to enter three Urushi-e artworks in an exhibit for the first time, followed by my first one-man Urushi-e exhibit with seventeen small pieces in sizes 8 through 10. This took place in November 1934 at the Japan Industrial Club in front of the Tokyo Train Station. I did not put exhibited artworks up for sale but instead decided to show them as new Urushi pieces among the works for public viewing. My artworks were reviewed by various newspapers and art magazines, while Urushi craft artists and Urushi art lovers visited the exhibit even from outside Tokyo, and the response they accorded my works was great.

I therefore took my first step for full-sacale of Urushi Artwork (Saishitsu-ga), and declared the independence of Urushi-e in the New Year issue of Atelier magazine in 1935.

As outlined in my background information, Urushi Artwork been more recognized by the general public since then, but the exploration will continue. My mission is to create good artworks that evoke their intrinsic depth through techniques that freely express saishitsu.

Japan’s surrender at the end of the war impacted my artworks for a period of time, but in a way the expressions of my artworks during that time have interesting views. I have not summated my fifty years of memories, and I am somewhat hesitant to show such a small number of artworks. Nonetheless, these are my artworks, and I am confident that there will be others in the future who can surpass my accomplishments. Art is not a scientific technology.