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Genius of Japanese Lacquer: Masterworks by Shibata Zeshin
Shibata Zeshin (1807­1891) Paper box and writing box with auspicious motifs, (about 1860­70), lacquered wood. Paper box: 11 7/8 x 15 1/2 x 4 in.; writing
box: 8 7/8 x 10 5/8 x 2 in. The Khalili Collection of Japanese Art. Exhibition # 15.

NEW YORK.- As part of the centennial program, Japan100: Celebrating a Century, Japan Society Gallery is pleased to present The Genius of Japanese Lacquer: Masterworks by Shibata Zeshin, the finest display of the artist’s works ever exhibited outside Japan. On view from March 21 through June 15, 2008, the exhibition examines the entire career of history’s greatest lacquer artist, presenting both exquisite examples of his traditional lacquer-ware along with his most innovative pieces, among them rare examples of his lacqueron-paper technique that has now been lost to history. A design revolutionary, Zeshin was one of the leaders in positioning Japan as a wonderland of master art and craft works during the later 19th century.

Organized by the San Antonio Museum of Art and Japan Society, The Genius of Japanese Lacquer was previously on view in both San Antonio and Minneapolis. The core of this exhibition comprised 54 works on loan from San Antonio-based collectors Catherine and Thomas Edson. To further enhance the exhibition, Japan Society’s recently appointed Gallery Director Joe Earle adds nearly 20 additional works drawn primarily from the collections of Professor Nasser D. Khalili in London, the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation in New York, and other private collections in the U.S. and Japan. It is with these additions that Japan Society mounts the most comprehensive exhibition of Zeshin’s work since a commemorative show held in Tokyo in December 1907.

Best known for his exquisitely detailed lacquered boxes, panels, sword mounts, and other objects, it is perhaps Zeshin’s technique of lacquer painting on paper that was his greatest contribution to the history of Japanese art. In addition to mastering traditional lacquer techniques, Zeshin also created new finishes and textures to imitate enameled porcelain, patinated bronze, and the appearance of rough seas, among other surface effects. Celebrating the broad range of the artist’s master work, Japan Society presents a number of works that have never before been on view in the same exhibition—in particular, an installation of four stacked food containers, the most spectacular of Zeshin’s lacquerware for domestic use, brought together from four different collections and featured in the opening display.

About Shibata Zeshin - Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891) was the greatest of all lacquer artists. His unique talent was hewn from a childhood spent in traditional artisan workshops, a strong respect and devotion to tradition, and a constant thirst for innovation and self-education. His career saw the transition of Japan from the Edo (samurai) period to the Meiji era, when the nation, united under a semi-constitutional monarchy, set about an ambitious modernization process that would rapidly develop the country into a world power.

Zeshin took full advantage of these abrupt changes. A shogunal decree restricting artists’ use of precious metals, materials considered essential to lacquer work, led Zeshin to instead employ bronze dust, charcoal, and iron filings to create novel, eye-teasing effects. One of very few lacquerers granted the title of Artist to the Imperial Household, he later embraced the emergence of Japan on the world stage, exhibiting his work at international expositions and developing new ways to push the boundaries of lacquer to rival Western oil paintings. It was during this period that Zeshin created a series of masterpieces in lacquered wood, lacquer painting, and conventional ink painting on paper or silk that attracted numerous prominent clients and made him one of the first living Japanese artists to achieve name recognition in Europe and the United States. Yet he remained at heart a proud member of Japan’s urban artisan class, and his art is emblematic of his extraordinary ability to combine two conflicting roles in a time of national upheaval.

About the Exhibition - The works featured in The Genius of Japanese Lacquer have been divided into four groups to more clearly delineate the many facets of Zeshin’s storied career. As a prologue to the show, the first exhibit is a recently-discovered detailed sketch for the painting of the Ibaraki Demon snatching back her arm, which catapulted Zeshin to fame in 1840. Part One examines Zeshin’s larger-scale domestic works, including a grouping of four exquisite stacked food containers taken from four separate collections. These masterpieces are virtuoso combinations of new lacquering methods invented by Zeshin during the 1840s and are unlikely to be seen together again for some time. Not only are they technically without equal, they are also outstanding examples of Zeshin’s genius as a decorator and his imaginative adaptation of motifs and schemes conceived by earlier lacquer artists.

Also of note in the first section of the exhibition is an orange-red document box from the Khalili Collection of Japanese Art that features stylized merchant’s weights, symbolizing trade and prosperity, along with an image of the wealth-granting mallet of Daikoku, a Japanese god of wealth. Both the references to the traditional merchant class and the decoration’s tendency to overlap multiple sides of the object are signature elements of Zeshin’s style. This portion of the exhibition also includes a panel on loan from Chikuryūdō Gallery, Tokyo that depicts the death of the Buddha, with the Enlightened One represented by a Japanese radish (daikon) and his disciples by a variety of smaller vegetables. This very large work (2 x 3 feet), like three other panels in the show, was intended to emulate, in both scale and visual impact, a Western framed oil painting. Another panel from the Khalili Collection of Japanese Art, depicting rice-sheaves, a boat, and a tree, was shown in 1881 at a government-organized trade exhibition.

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