There is an urushi craft artist named Masaru Hamanaka, who moved to Paris when he was young and carried out his artistic activities there. In 1937 his artwork on a two-meter by four-meter screen exhibited at the French Fine and Craft Art Hall of the World Expo, in Paris, earned a grand Prix award, the highest honor. His works were highly regarded and were featured in a special edition of the international art magazine Illustration. Considering the political atmosphere at the time, the fact that the edition was devoted to a Japanese artist from the enemy country of Japan indicates how well the artworks of Masaru Hamanaka were regarded at the time. He is a renowned urushi artist from that era, along with Tsuguharu Fujita.
European artists seemed to be inspired by the unique atmosphere of “urushi.” Many engaged in urushi arts, while replicas of urushi crafts and furniture simulated with urushi wares were produced, and reportedly accessories with eggshell applications were popular in those days. The French urushi artist Jean Dunant (1887–1942) was close to Masaru Hamanaka, and had an active artistic life. His wide range of artworks included portraits that had not been seen in Japanese urushi artworks.
Since the time when Matsuoka was challenging “Urushi Artwork” during the Taisho and Showa periods (1912–1988), the time has changed and quality colorant products for saishitsu have been readily available. There have been artistic activities to establish urushi-e as an art field in various regions, such as China and Vietnam.
In the book titled “Urushi – Uruwashi no Asia (Urushi – Delightful Asia, in Japanese)” (by Nagatoshi Onishi, published by NEC Creative), it is stated that urushi paintings have become very popular in China. In Japan it is called “urushi-e,” but in China it is called “lacquer painting (drawing media).” The Fujian Craft and Fine Art School in Xiamen has a lacquering art department (appropriately called the Lacquering Department), and a large mural lacquer artwork done by the school is reportedly displayed at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Lacquer painting is expressed more in a fine-art format, using urushi techniques to bring out texture and color of materials. Instead of drawing a picture using urushi techniques alone, urushi art techniques are employed as part of the quest for artistic expression.
Urushi trees also grow in Vietnam, and various urushi wares have been produced in that country. Surprisingly, there is no oil painting (Western-style fine arts) department at Hanoi Art College, and contemporary fine arts in Vietnam are definitely defined in “lacquer paintings.” In the Urushi book cited earlier it is stated, “Lacquer paintings is the fine art of Asia, and a culture of Vietnam.” This statement may surprise many. Vietnam came under the rule of France in 1884, and that period of rule lasted until about 1940. The influence of French taste is evident in Vietnamese lacquer paintings. Unique techniques for contemporary expression have emerged, and brand-new fine arts have been developed.
Urushi has versatile uses not only for urushi ware or urushi-e but also for other forms of art such as sculpting and molding, where it functions without much complication. In Japan the performance of urushi has been reviewed from progressive points of view, and urushi artists have developed creative individual expressions. As Matsuoka predicted, “I have done it, and for the future I believe there will be new artists with their own creativities that surpass my works.” Branches of urushi arts have been expanding with free expressions not bound by the convention of fine arts.
Not limited to urushi-e, urushi crafts have thrived in various areas such as Spain, Portugal, France, the U.S. and Brazil. Urushi is moving forward toward a new age in a quest to explore and cultivate the beauty of urushi as a leading traditional culture in Japan. Should the saishitsu fine artworks of Taiwa Matsuoka be the catalyst for interest cultivated among many people, it would be his greatest honor as an artist who devoted his life to pioneering in saishitsu fine art.
-“Urushi – Uruwashi no Asia (Urushi – Delightful Asia, in Japanese),” by Nagatoshi Onishi, NEC Creative, Ltd., Tokyo, Japan
– “Urushi ni Kansuru Chosahokokusho (Research Report on Urushi, in Japanese), Japan Urushi Craft Association, Japan Special Forest Products Promotion Association