Masao Matsumoto—Something Different

Masao Matsumoto—workshop owner and promoter
of true lacquerware.
Something Different
When explaining the method of making a piece of true lacquerware in England it nearly always raises a murmur of some disappointment.  “It’s a pity we can’t see the wood”.  This comment arises because in many cases the wooden core of a bowl or other item is completely hidden by the many layers of true lacquer, which actually makes the product so much more durable.  This fact, however, does little to assuage the feeling of disenchantment verging on frustration that many professionals and lay-people quite often share.

Twenty small dishes to show what happens as applications 
of true lacquer are over-laid, one on the other and 
the woodgrain is finally hidden.
Nevertheless, many people do grasp the importance and functional sense of the true lacquer coating and do in fact praise the wonderful finish, applauding its warmth to the touch and unrivalled sense of palpable quality.  There is, however, a much more universal appreciation of the decoration of true lacquerware, mainly focused on what is called maki-e.  This often involves the use of gold and silver powders mixed with true lacquer to render a design that may be flat or raised to a shallow relief as layers of lacquer and precious metal powder are painstakingly built up.  The hard surface of true lacquer can also be chased and then filled with fine gold powder to express a design.  Or, mother-of-pearl can be added to a design to produce a sparkle of a different kind.  There are many decorative techniques, which, along with the plain colour finishes—commonly deep red, vermilion or glossy black—make up what are regular or standard ways of finishing true lacquerware products.  There are, however, alternatives, several hundred alternative application techniques in fact, many of which were originally used to finish the scabbards of the samurai swords and sometimes simply involved mimicking other materials such as tree bark.

At Masao Matsumoto’s workshop the conversation turned to some of these techniques.  Masao has a fine display of all kinds of products that have at one time or another been produced in the workshop.  He also has a display of small dishes to explain the process of true lacquer applications peculiar to Wajima.

We might mimic marble with paint but here woodgrain is simulated with true lacquer for a lunchbox.
I found one piece with what looked like a wood grain finish.  It seems that some years ago this was a popular finish and certainly fell under the heading of an “alternative” finish or kawari-nuri.  It was then that another unusual piece caught my eye.  It was a small tray with a rough finish to its outside edge, loosely resembling the bark of a tree, although not following the appearance of any particular species.

A small serving tray with glossy interior and rough rustic outside edge…..
…..the edge up close.
The contrast between the smooth and plainly finished interior of the tray was set off by the rustic, hard and rugged exterior.  How was it made?  A puttylike mixture of true lacquer, finely ground whetstone and some water was probably applied, not with a brush but with a spatular, to create the almost stone-like impasto effect that was finished off with a top-coat of true lacquer.

This square platter has a fine cracked or crazed finish….
….to which some delicate leaf motifs have been added.
Realising how interested I was in these alternative finishes, Masao showed me two more examples.  What they both had in common was the use of some protein.  It could be the white of an egg or even some tofu—soya bean curd.  If egg white is mixed with a little water and the mixture is then applied to a drying top coat of true lacquer, it causes the surface to shrink unevenly and produces a fine pattern of random cracks—that is if the mixture is only brushed on up and down and from side to side.

This unusual tray has a crazed finish, which in detail….
….seems to resemble an aerial photograph of a river delta or some other natural feature.
Alternatively, if an egg white and water mixture is sprayed on the surface of drying lacquer and then brushed randomly over the surface, it results in a totally different crazed effect.  This slightly rough surface is ideal for trays as it is a slightly more robust finish, meaning that cups or dishes do not slip so easily.  It is also, of course, pleasing to the eye.

Both of these alternative effects are called hibi-nuri—crazed or cracked finishes, and serve to once again highlight the interesting makeup of true lacquer.  It is a natural material with strange properties and something of a mysterious chemistry.  I left Masao’s workshop very satisfied.  I had learnt something new and intriguing.  I wonder what other mysteries true lacquer is keeping secret?

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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