Japanese Lacquer's Art and Utility

Many know and admire the lustrous surface of lacquer and the exquisite designs of Asian themes. Few know about the skill and artistry of lacquer, the 25 to 100-plus steps required in its manufacture, or even what lacquer is.

The Elaine Ehrenkranz collection of Japanese lacquer boxes, now at Harvard's Sackler Museum, is a quietly stunning exhibition that introduces viewers to the technique, uses, and imagery of lacquer. Highlighted is the work of masters like Haritsu, who introduced ceramic pieces into lacquer in 18th-century Japan.

Japanese lacquer, called urushi, is derived from the sap of a deciduous tree. A wooden object receives many coatings and curings before the design application - often sprinkled with gold and silver or inlaid with pearl or metal emblems. Lacquer, brought from China, probably was developed for its waterproof durability.

Lacquer is ideal for such utilitarian items as food containers. Elaborate lacquer "lunch boxes" accompanied Japan's upper classes on excursions to view cherry blossoms or fall foliage.

During Japan's Edo period (1615-1858), lacquer items were divided into two types: the official and the personal. Exhibition curator Anne Rose Kitagawa selected several examples of each. Official objects include scroll and document boxes. Personal lacquerware includes inkstone containers and poetry-slip boxes.

The designs often use stylized flowers and leaves, family crests, or imagery from literature. While Western art traditionally features the human figure, Asian artists often depict landscapes and other natural themes. Cherry blossoms and seasonal flowers are features of this Japanese art form.

* 'Symbol and Substance: Japanese Lacquer Boxes' is at Harvard University's Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Cambridge, Mass., through Jan. 3.

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