Tanizaki Junichiro and His Praise of Lacquer

suzuki mutsumi 1.jpg
(Vermillon Lacquer Two-Part Bowl by Suzuki Mutsumi)

Tanizaki Junichiro (谷崎潤一郎1886-1965) is unquestionably one of the greatest Japanese novelists of all time. I first stumbled upon his twisted eroticism in the short story titled Shisei (刺青 The Tattoo 1910), in which a tattoo master’s domination over his “creation” (in this case, a young girl) is unexpectedly usurped, and ultimately, turned against him. I was 17 or so when I first read Shisei, and was floored. Hungry for more, I quickly picked up Chijin no Ai (痴人の愛 Naomi 1924), Manji (卍 1930), and soon after, Inei Raisan (陰影礼賛 In Praise of Shadows 1933).

In Praise of Shadows is not a novel; rather, it is the
author's musings on aesthetics, or in particular, the beauty within traditional Japanese sensibilities and ways of life. Perhaps it was Tanizaki's attempt to criticize and lament the diffusion of Western things into Japanese life. In any event, it is a tour de force, and for anyone interested in Japanese culture, it is essential reading.

I hadn't read In Praise of Shadows since college, and rather nostalgically, I happened to pick up a dusty copy on my bookshelf the other day. Flipping through the pages (in this case, the English version), I found an interesting excerpt in regards to Tanizaki’s love for lacquerware. Although many of my clients are aficionados of ceramics, I find that there are also a growing number of clients who are deeply enamoured by the subtle beauty of Japanese lacquer. It is an artform that is in many ways much more austere and sublime than ceramic ware, and I have had a difficult time (for example at Collect) to teach buyers on its aesthetics. In such a light, I find that Tanizaki's words will be more than sufficient to enlighten and enrich our understanding of lacquerware. And thus, I present these words to you.

Tanizaki Junichiro, Excerpt from “In Praise of Shadows”

...Ceramic ware is sufficient to use as dishware, but it lacks the shadows and depth possessed by lacquerware. Ceramic ware is heavy and cold to the touch. With high-thermal conductivity, it is inconvenient for serving hot food, and it also clatters and clinks. To the contrary, lacquerware is soft and light to the touch, and seldom emits any irritating sound. Nothing gives me more pleasure than holding a lacquered soup bowl in the palms of my hands and feeling the weight and warmth of the soup. It is like holding a newborn baby and feeling the softness of the skin. It is natural that lacquerware is still used for soup bowls, since the same effects and qualities cannot be achieved by ceramics. A ceramic bowl immediately reveals all of the content and colours of the soup once the lid is removed. The good thing about lacquerware is that there is an emotional encounter in the process of using it: From the moment the lid is open until the bowl is lifted to the lips, one gazes at the still liquid silently sitting in the depth of the bowl. The dark colour of the liquid is hardly distinguishable from the colour of the bowl. However, one senses that something lies within the darkness, and one can feel the warmth and gentle movement of the soup in the palm. The rim of the bowl slightly sweating, one senses that the vapour is rising from inside, which carries the delicate aroma of the soup. Even before
one's lips touch the soup, one can vaguely anticipate the flavour that awaits.

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(Akebono Lacquered Pentagonal Bowl by Suzuki Mutsumi)

With a bowl of soup before me, I feel as if I am being drawn into the blissful state of nothingness. I hear the faint sound like a soft insect’s buzz from afar and contemplate the flavour of the ensuing food. The feeling is similar to what a tea master must experience when preparing tea beside a boiling kettle. Thinking of the famous pine trees of Onoe, he enters into the state of nothingness, that blissful absence from feeling either pleasure or pain through the pure extinction of personal existence. It is often said that Japanese cuisine delights the eyes, not the palate, but I would go further to say that it is an object to be meditated upon. It is a silent music, a duet of lacquerware and the flickering candlelight in the darkness. Natsume Soseki praises the colour of yokan (sweet bean jelly) in his Pillow of Grass. It is indeed a colour to induce meditation. The opaquely translucent, silky skin of the yokan, which is similar to jade, absorbs the light of the sun, allowing it to penetrate deep within before emitting it as a faint, dreamlike glow. Its profound complexity of colour cannot be found in any Western confections. When yokan is served on a lacquered tray, whose darkness envelops the original colour of the yokan, making it barely distinguishable, the mind is coaxed into gentle reflection. Taking this cool, silky morsel into your mouth, you feel as if all the darkness of the room has been condensed into this sweet, luscious delicacy, which melts on your tongue. Generally speaking, in any country, the colour of the food is arranged so as to harmonize with the colour of the tableware or surrounding walls. Japanese food, in particular, emphasizes this aspect, and if it is served in white or pale dishware in a brightly lit room, the appetite will be reduced by half. Cooked rice looks more beautiful and appetizing when served in a black-lacquer lidded rice container in a dark room. When the lid is deftly opened, the freshly cooked rice, heaped in the black lacquered container, appears before our eyes, emitting warm steam, with each grain glittering like a pearl. This is a moment when all Japanese people cannot help but be moved. Thus, Japanese cuisine is always based upon shadows, and is inextricable from darkness.

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(Akebono Lacquer Dish by Suzuki Mutsumi)

Of course, we probably all hold different opinions in regards to Tanizaki's musings. For example, lacquer is indeed beautiful for soups and warm dishes, but does it work as well with cold dishes? I must say, however, that I’ve been to several fine sushi restaurants where the sushi was served on black lacquered trays or counters, and this was excellent indeed. At the same time, lacquerware cannot match the majestic qualities of ceramic ware in regards to tea: lacquerware is not used for drinking tea, but for serving kaiseki (Japanese cuisine). In this regard, perhaps ceramic ware will always hold a special status in traditional Japanese culture. But moreover, perhaps it is an empty exercise to compare ceramics with lacquerware in the first place: both have their place in Japanese life, and it is up to us to determine when one ware is more appropriate than the other.

On such a note, I end this blog.

From eastern skies,

Wahei Aoyama 青山和平
Toku Art Limited

suzuki mutsumi 4.jpg

I was at a loss of words the other day when I was at an extremely expensive and legendary Japanese restaurant (world-famous, actually) to find that the lacquerware they were using were made out of plastic. Has it come to this?
posted by Toku Art Limited at 13:28| Comment(0) | Suzuki Mutsumi (Lacquer) | このブログの読者になる | 更新情報をチェックする


Fit for Kings and Emperors


Without question, the colloborative tour de force that is artists Suzuki Mutsumi (鈴木睦美 b. 1942 -) and wife Misako have pushed the boundaries of the ancient art of lacquer to new heights.

Lacquered Plate with Gold Makie Motif of Rice Fields

Mutsumi is undoubtedly the master producer who has challenged the conventions that have shackled lacquerware, especially in regards to form. With razor-thin wood cores, Mutsumi imaginatively transformed lacquer pieces into sleek silhoulettes, attracting a legion of fans the world over. His wife, at the same time, has coloured her husband's works with dazzling displays of makie gold and silver paintings that add further layers of harmony to the otherwise subtle yet sublime beauty of Mutsumi's vessel work.

Lacquered Sake Cup Silver Lacquer Bowl

Many might remember that the Suzuki's exhibition was our first for Toku Art in April. If you didn't have a chance to check out the exhibition then, please try and visit Yufuku Gallery's latest exhibition featuring their work, to be held from Sept. 1st to Sept. 7th (every day).

Black Lacquer Bowl Various Works]

Easily, one can catch the beauty of their work in these photos. Yet the works should be seen first-hand in order to truly appreciate their worth. Holding a work may change your life. Such is the depth in Suzuki's art. We hope to see you at Yufuku from tomorrow.

With best regards,

Wahei Aoyama 青山和平
Toku Art Limited

Various Works Silver and Gold Lacquer Plate with Roaring Wave Motif

posted by Toku Art Limited at 01:03| Comment(1) | Suzuki Mutsumi (Lacquer) | このブログの読者になる | 更新情報をチェックする


Mutsumi Suzuki -The Warmth of Kyoto

Lacquered Plate with Gold Makie Motif of Rice Fields

Mutsumi Suzuki -In the Palm of One's Hand, the Warmth of Kyoto

Perhaps it was four summers ago.

Lacquer artist Suzuki Mutsumi (born 1942 - ) and I were beneath a sea of stars in the silent hills surrounding the ancient city of Kyoto, an elegiac moon reigning brightly in the night sky. Two large torches fired the cypress stage, as the Noh actor slowly descended upon us, the asymmetry of the drums and the flutes cascading through the midsummer air.

The Noh was beautiful, and so was the night.

“It's her land and her history, it's her natural surroundings coloured with the four seasons, which have given birth to a distinct way of life. Being born and bred in the traditions of Kyoto have nurtured the foundations for my art.”

Various Works

The air of Kyoto dries the lacquer of Suzuki, and in his works seep a soul richly nurtured in its elegant traditions. “Every work of mine is filled with soul,” says the artist, smiling meekly as he sips on cold sake from a cup he had made several years ago. “I strive to make works that satisfy the five senses. Ultimately, the works that remain are filled with spirit, or in a sense, the soul.”

I nod my head in agreement, but tell him this. “Sensei, five senses are not enough.”

Lacquered Sake Cup

A major aspect of contemporary craft today is its pursuit of extremity, both poetically and physically. We are at an age where traditional techniques have been mastered, both through practice and through technology, to levels that could not be realized before. Thus we can observe, in various categories of craft, artists testing the limits of their art. Previous conceptions, or perhaps previous limitations of craft art, have passed, giving way to a new blossoming of creativity and artistry.

Black Lacquer Bowl

In that sense, the Suzuki Lacquers are a sublime amalgamation of both tradition and innovation. The meticulous application of coats of lacquer, one brushstroke at a time, is a storied tradition that can be found in Japan since the Heian era. To complete a single work can take months, and a single brushstroke can destroy its beauty.

Silver Lacquer Bowl

Yet it is in Suzuki's imaginative forms, and in his technique of applying lacquer to such forms, which are both distinctive and highly innovative trademarks of the artist.

In a sense, Suzuki Mutsumi has revolutionized the way lacquer is made and, ultimately, perceived. The wood bases that are used in his pieces are barely 0.3 millimetres thick. By painstakingly brushing layer after layer of lacquer onto an absurdly thin piece of wood (more akin to paper) which is both wobbly, unstable and curved, Suzuki creates a highly original lacquered vessel that is both extremely light, unbelievably strong, distinctly sleek, and a pleasure to touch and feel.

Silver and Gold Lacquer Plate with Roaring Wave Motif

It can be said that Suzuki has pushed the material that is lacquer to the forefront, while reducing the material of wood and its fundamental importance to the tiniest of fractions. In his sake cups, for example, the percentage of lacquer applied to the piece comprises 80 to 90 percent of the total mass of the piece. While pushing the limits of his craft’s materials to new heights, Suzuki gives us works that are incredibly aerodynamic and smooth, yet with the distinct warmth and soft richness of lacquer.

“A truly good work is one that pleases the soul, and such works are those that are filled with a unique sense of warmth. My works are made with its purpose in mind, to stimulate the senses, to make one want to sip cold sake from its smooth rim, to make a person hunger to eat tasty seasonal dishes while softly holding the vessel in one's palms. The weight of each work is calculated to weigh a perfect balance with the food it will ultimately hold. With such aspects in mind, the works are filled with the warmth of Kyoto.”

Lacquered Bowls

Suzuki Mutsumi is a special artist, once eschewed by the traditional lacquer community for his unorthodox style, and once infamously burning all of his award-winning works at Nitten as he felt the works “lacked warmth.”

“Lacquer burns incredibly well. You should have seen the fire. Some people may think me mad for destroying such prized works. But I thought nothing of it. From that day, I vowed never to make works that were cerebral, intentional, or made with the critic’s prize in mind. I vowed, from that very day, to make works that touch the senses, to bring happiness and serenity to those who may come across my art.”

Various Works

Wahei Aoyama 青山和平
Toku Art Limited

- The Suzuki Lacquers -
Exhibition of Works by World-Renowned
Kyoto Artist Mutsumi Suzuki

April 25 (Wed) - 27 (Fri)
Open 11:00AM to 7:00PM (6:00PM Fri)
-Artist available during show period-
Tokyo American Club Plymouth Room (3F)

- See exhibition page for more details and preview -
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