Fairfield University Art Museum Presents Gifts of Gold: The Art of Japanese Lacquer Boxes

Fairfield University Art Museum Presents Gifts of Gold: The Art of Japanese Lacquer Boxes

The exhibition will feature the art of Japanese Lacquer Boxes from the 15th through 21st centuries. On view January 16 – May 15, 2020.

Media Contact: Nicole Funaro, nicole.funaro@fairfield.edu, 203-254-4000 x3498

FAIRFIELD, Conn. (December 5, 2019)— Gifts of Gold: The Art of Japanese Lacquer Boxes will introduce viewers to the medium, functions, decorative techniques, and symbolic associations of Japanese lacquer by presenting approximately twenty exquisite works ranging from the 15th through the 21st centuries, complemented by a few select paintings.

The exhibition will consist of four groupings with the following themes: Forms in black and red, seasonal and auspicious motifs, poetic and literary associations, and materials and techniques. Objects in the exhibition are drawn from institutional and private collections, and include a 19th century writing box recently acquired by the Fairfield University Art Museum, through the generosity of the museum’s Patron Circle.

In Japan, true lacquerware is created through a time-consuming process wherein the sap of the lacquer tree is harvested, refined, and pigmented before being applied in successive layers to a substrate, often of wood. Each layer of lacquer cures and hardens, rendering the vessel waterproof and durable. Although many wares are left plain to showcase the glossy black or red finish, the art reached heights of decorative potential with developments in the 16th and 17th centuries in techniques of “sprinkled picture” (maki-e) decoration. In these uniquely Japanese techniques, small particles of gold and other metals are sprinkled onto lacquer in abstract and pictorial designs, rich with seasonal, poetic, and literary allusions.

Although lacquer objects were ultimately functional – writing boxes, storage boxes, tea caddies, tables, and dining utensils – the expense and decorative richness ensured that some objects were rarely used. Lacquer boxes therefore also became markers of status, taste, and wealth. Tebako, or cosmetics boxes, were important elements of a bride’s trousseau, and writing boxes (suzuribako) stored the implements used for calligraphy; such boxes could also be presented as gifts on important and auspicious occasions, such as the New Year. Moreover, small seal and medicine cases (inrō) with exquisite designs were worn suspended from the belts of men’s traditional dress and displayed the height of fashion in the Edo period (1615-1868). Borrowing from – and in turn influencing – other arts in Japan, the lacquer tradition stands in conversation with arts such as textile design, ceramics, painting, calligraphy, and sculpture.

The first grouping presents a small selection of works with a focus on the form of the object itself, and on the black and red colors traditionally used in Japanese lacquer. Included are examples of Negoro-ware, named after the temple where the style developed in the 14th century reflecting the rustic aesthetic commonly associated with the tea ceremony and with Zen monastic culture, as well as other wares left undecorated aside from black or red lacquer surfaces.

The second grouping showcases seasonal and auspicious motifs commonly displayed on lacquer boxes, while demonstrating the various decorative techniques of maki-e or “sprinkled-picture” design. Older examples include a Kōdaiji-style box from the 16th to early 17th centuries, as well as works by contemporary artists continuing and innovating within these traditions.

Literary and poetic associations abound in lacquer boxes, and are featured in the third grouping. Writing boxes (suzuribako), literally “inkstone boxes,” were used to store tools for calligraphy and literary composition: inkstone, inkwell, water dropper, and brushes. Other types of boxes provided storage for documents, paintings, or poem slips. Beyond their functional relation to literary production, such boxes frequently display classical and literary themes: pictorial compositions illustrate scenes from the Tale of Genji; abstracted motifs – such as irises or a boat among reeds – evoke codified literary or poetic associations; and calligraphy itself can be rendered in lacquer.

The fourth section, in the rear gallery, will explain the process and techniques of lacquer production, as well as the storage context of lacquerwares.

The exhibition is curated by Dr. Ive Covaci adjunct professor of art history in the Visual and Performing Arts Department, and will be accompanied by a full program of lectures, gallery talks, and demonstrations.


Thursday, January 16, 6-7:30 p.m.

Opening Reception: Gifts of Gold: The Art of Japanese Lacquer Boxes

Bellarmine Hall Galleries

Refreshments will be provided, accompanied by live music. The reception is free and open to the public.

Posted On: January 10, 2020

Volume: 52 Number: 57

Fairfield University is a modern, Jesuit Catholic university rooted in one of the world’s oldest intellectual and spiritual traditions. More than 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students from the U.S. and across the globe are pursuing degrees in the University’s five schools. Fairfield embraces a liberal humanistic approach to education, encouraging critical thinking, cultivating free and open inquiry, and fostering ethical and religious values. The University is located on a stunning 200-acre campus on the scenic Connecticut coast just an hour from New York City.