By Takashi Maruyama, Executive Director of the Japan Urushi Craft Association
Urushi has been used in a wide variety of areas. In the old days, for instance, Western-style fine artists coated canvases with Urushi to fortify the canvas and prevent it from cracking. Urushi is also used in the sculpting world. It is a máché made by pasting layers of linen cloth soaked with a mixture of Urushi and glue to make a base called “kanshitsu-butsuzo,” known as dry Urushi Buddha statue. Urushi has been used since the Stone Age, and it has a rich tradition unique to the Asian region.
Urushi is a superior paint material, but technological developments have brought forth numerous new types of paints with better performance than Urushi. Nonetheless, Urushi has retained its popularity due to its colors. Of course, there are more colors available with other types of paints. The difference is in its beauty. The colorants of Urushi will sink to the lower layer of the coating after it is painted, and over time the surface layer will increase its transparency. Depth of beauty is the attraction in regard to Urushi. It also has a moist, soft texture that adds to its attractiveness. This is another reason the Urushi culture has been nurtured for thousands of years.
When viewing the Urushi Artworks (saishitsu-ga) of Mr. Matsuoka, it is evident that he made considerable efforts to develop different colors. He established the Japan Urushi-e Association in the pre-WWII era and the Japan Urushi Art Association in the post-WWII era. He was active as a core member in both organizations. I was a student when I went to one of the exhibits regularly held by the Japan Urushi Art Association at Mitsukoshi. Since I was still at an impudent age, I remember thinking to myself, “Why Urushi-e instead of oil painting?” Thinking back, the group must have been presenting some radical artworks in those days. Though it is important to look at the entire background of the era, the group might have been attempting to erase the boundary between fine arts and craft arts. Each member of the group was active in different fields, and all the members of the group had big dreams of their own. Their accomplishments may have contributed to the world of Urushi. Should there have been steady followers, the Urushi world might have changed slightly more. [Article based on an interview]