Long before Japan opened to the Western world in 1850s and Japonism became the latest trend, Europe already knew about Japanese lacquerware. The first items were imported to Europe by the Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602. Exotic, of previously unknown materials, they quickly became fashionable, and thus, desirable and sought after. As Chinese porcelain was known by a common word “china”, Japanese lacquerware was called “japan”.
While many Japanese know about Marie Antoinette (thanks to the anime series “The Rose of Versailles” or “Berusaiyu no Bara”), Marie Antoinette also knew something about Japan, at least she was familiar with the wonderful Japanese lacquer art.
You may or may not know, but the Queen Marie Antoinette had one of the finest and rarest collections of Japanese lacquerware in the 18th century Europe. Big part of it was inherited from her mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, who was a big fan of Japanese lacquerware. Some say she even claimed to prefer Japanese lacquerware to diamonds.
Marie Antoinette expanded her collection, especially focusing on Japanese lacquer boxes. While most of furniture and art collections from the Royal Court were sold and dispersed by French revolutionaries, a part of the Japanese lacquerware one remains and has been split between Louvre, Guimet Museum and Versailles.
It took me to move to Japan and then go back for a random visit to Paris to first learn about Japanese lacquer. While in France, it is only a museum or high jewelry maison where you can hear about Japanese lacquer technique, in Japan you may have your daily miso soup in a bowl decorated using the very same techniques. Of course, I am oversimplifying and not all lacquerware can be compared to the previously mentioned pieces of art, yet, the point is, it is very easy to underestimate the time and work that goes into every object, even into a simple black and red coloured bowl for miso soup.
Lacquer items were first recorded in Japan over 7000 years ago and originally lacquer was used on containers and dishware to preserve food. With time, it also became a form of art, known as “urushi” (same name as a lacquer tree), often coming together with “maki-e” (a technique where gold or silver power is sprinkled on the lacquered surface to create ornaments). It is a very difficult and demanding art that takes decades if not a lifetime to master, and a creation of a single piece of urushi art may take months and require up to 25 layers of lacquer with drying time in between, not to mention the filing, polishing, ornamentation and other steps in between.
You may recall, we once talked about kintsugi, or the art of repairing broken objects using the same urushi and maki-e techniques (read more here). Funny enough, my very first encounter with both urushi and maki-e happened to be in central Paris, trying to decorate a butterfly.
It was interesting to discover that even French high jewelry houses at occasions turned to Japanese lacquer masters for collaboration. You may type “Van Cleef and Arpels lacquered butterflies” into a search engine to see some examples.
It is a pity, but the original Japanese lacquer technique is slowly disappearing in the world where often things are no longer made to last (think of fast fashion, fast consumption and search for experiences that give a quick and nice looking social media content). Less students interested to invest years into learning the traditional techniques, less masters to teach them, less original tools and materials to create the urushi art, finally, less and less lacquer trees, leading to more expensive lacquer, and so the cycle goes.
To keep and promote such unique and long-lived art traditions, some Japanese masters started giving short classes to give interested people at least a glimpse into that world. This trend is not limited to Japanese art, talented craftsmen-masters in France are also sharing the know-how or savoir-faire via courses and other educational initiatives so people can witness and appreciate the work that goes into it.
This may be one of the longer posts, but I hope I could share at least a glimpse into a fascinating world of art and yet another evidence how everything is connected, even among the countries that are literally across half a globe like Japan and France, and how art can be observed everywhere, from a piece of high jewelry to a simple bowl for your daily miso soup.