24 May Thoughts from Urushi Artworks One-Man Exhibit at Mitsukoshi, Osaka
Message from Taiwa Matsuoka
Article from the September 1963 issue of Japan Urushi Craft
Mr. H, a pharmacist from Ouda town in Yamatouda County was one of the visitors at the opening day of my exhibit, and it was the first time I met him. He worked at an old Chinese herbal medicine store where I used to go to get my parents’ medicines. I remember seeing an old woman wearing glasses at the store whenever I went there. As I recall from those days, Mr. H was a grandson of the old woman, and must have taken over the store. When he mentioned the store’s name I recognized it instantly, so the store must have made a vivid impression in my childhood. I was filled with nostalgic joy, and talked about Urushi and my Urushi-e with him. The region with Ouda town as its central location has been called Akino since the old days, and anyone who has studied the history of Urushi craft will recognize it as a legendary place in Irohajiruisho (the oldest Japanese dictionary written in the late Heian period or the 11th – 12th centuries). Mt. Aki is the area where Urushi was first discovered while Prince Yamatotakeru was on a hunting excursion, giving birth to Urushi and the first chapter of Japan’s Urushi history.
There are approximately ten years between the time Prince Yamatotakeru went on the Kumaso Expedition for several months (the expedition to rule in the western region of Japan) toward the end of the first century and the Toi Expedition (the expedition to rule in the eastern region of Japan). It is reasonably assumed that Prince Yamatotakeru’s hunting excursion through Uda’s Mt. Aki took place during this ten-year period. It is assumed that hunting trips took place regularly in the Yoshino and Uda regions during the period of the Yamato court. There had been an abundance of wild animals and birds in the mountains and fields, so there was no need to regulate a hunting season. Consequently, the hunting must have taken place during the early summer when the weather was nice and herbivorous animals were well nourished. Kusurigari (herbal hunting) during the Suiko period (593 – 628 AD) reportedly took place in the early summer as well. Akino is a plane with small hills along the Uda River where the Aki shrine is located, but it is not certain which mountain in the region was called Mt. Aki in the old days.
When the prince was trekking through the wilderness where Urushi trees were growing in early summer, in climbing up a cliff he grabbed onto the branch of an Urushi tree. When he pulled the branch toward himself, the branch broke off and sap from the tree got onto his hands. The sap changed its color from brown to black as he watched. He washed his hands with water but the color did not come off and became even darker black. He noticed that the part of the tree where the branch was broken off also had tree sap dripping out. The prince called his follower Tokobanosukune to discuss the tree sap, and instructed that the sap be collected and painted onto a bowl as an experiment. Later, Tokobanosukune succeeded in coating dish wares for the prince, and accordingly he was named as an official for Nuribe (Urushi craftsmen).
If this legendary tale actually took place, there must have been a considerable time gap from the time of the black tree sap on the prince’s hand to the eventual development of Urushi lacquer craft. Clay ware from the Jomon period (approximately 10,000 B.C. to 2,500 B.C.) excavated in the suburb of Hachinohe, in Aomori Prefecture, shows Urushi coating. In the year 57 A.D., Kuang-wu-ti of the Han dynasty awarded a gold seal called “Kanno-wano-nano-kokuo” (meaning the king of the subordinate country of Han, it is the oldest golden seal preserved in Japan) when the ambassador of Japan visited China for the first time. At that visit the wealthy Kumaso—being the local ruling family in Kyushu, where frequent trips between China and Japan took place–could easily have taken Urushi ware as a gift for the ruler of Han. Because the Urushi craft in China had already been established during the latter part of the Zhou through Han dynasties, in approximately the third century B.C. through the third century A.D., it is reasonable to assume that gifts from Kumaso to Han included Urushi crafts. It is not reasonable to think that Urushi lacquer was developed for coating in a short period of time after Tokobano-sukune (310 AD) assigned as an Urushi official by the Prince Yamatotakeru, so it should be assumed that the groundwork of Urushi coating had been in progress among the general public. Prince Yamatotakeru must have instructed the official of Nuribe to take such groundwork to the production level. In Ouda town there is a village called Ureshigawara, and it is speculated that the area is where Urushi-gahara (Urushi field) used to be, due to the density of wild Urushi trees. However, there is no trace of Urushigahara in the present day.
As I will continue my friendly relationship with Mr. H, the pharmacist in Ouda town, I also want to explore, in some way, the relationship between Urushi and this area, where Japanese Urushi ware is deeply rooted.
We have been doing group exhibits for Urushi-e since the pre-WWII days, and it has been 20 some years. Triggering events were three pieces of my experimental Urushi-e, which I had entered in the Shundai Art Exhibit in the spring of 1932, followed by a one-man exhibit in 1934 at the Industry Club of Japan. Group exhibits by the Urushi-e Association started in or around 1936. In those days it was an outrageous concept to paint fine artworks with Urushi, and to that point the only Urushi-e artist known to have specialized in the field was Zeshin Shibata. Since WWII there have been six group exhibits at exhibit halls such as Tokyo Mitsukoshi Main Department Store. One-man exhibits will give me more freedom of expression, but group exhibits act as necessary publicity tools by providing a larger scale of exposure, and it is better to have more artists involved. Thus the exhibits have continued to the present day.
I was motivated to have a one-man exhibit in Osaka at this time, because I felt confident in presenting approximately twenty pieces of work that I had previously exhibited in a few of the group exhibits. Also, I had been feeling somewhat guilty about not involving the Kansai region in my Urushi-e. I felt it was long overdue that I should bring my Urushi-e home with forty years of milestones for public review.
Because there had been no colorful paintings or patterns in the world of Urushi, my colorful artworks—being a summation of my diligent efforts—must have appeared foreign to anyone who had the typical Urushi-e in mind. In Tokyo, for example, art lovers have a general idea of the recent development of multicolor Urushi due to the publicity gained from group shows at the exhibition halls of department stores. In Osaka, on the other hand, even established fine-art specialists and architects wondrously viewed my Urushi-e, and I spent considerable amounts of time keeping them updated in the trend of Urushi-e. Artworks with plastic materials such as polygoni radix, polyester and vinyl should also be explored and refined while taking advantage of the specific characteristics of particular resin so as to capitalize on the unique atmospheric flavor brought out by the material. Other new fields include urethane, epoxy, Delrin (polyacetanol, by DuPont), and carbonatite, but these materials are rather new and, unlike Urushi, do not have much history. The advantages and disadvantages of Urushi have been well explored, so it is a reputable material with a long history of usage. It should be noted that a recent high-polymer chemistry study has demonstrated the advantages of Urushi, and it is time for Urushi artists (with the help of scientists) to tackle the disadvantageous characteristics of Urushi so that the Urushi art can be further refined.