Marie Ebersolt

24th June, 2023

The function of the lacquer is to apply shiny coating some objects or to adhere elements together. In addition to its shiny, coloured appearance, which adds aesthetic value, its waterproof and rot-proof properties, as well as its resistance to use and longevity, make it a quality material that has left a strong mark on Asian, and later European, craftsmanship. Even today, industrial lacquers fail to fulfil all these properties simultaneously. As for lacquer, it refers to all objects coated with its feminine namesake. It covers a wide range of craft products, from crockery to furniture, but also prints, basketry and sculpture.

The use of lacquer appeared in Japan during the long Jômon period, which lasted from 13,000 to 10 BC. Several archaeological sites bear witness to the quality of this varnish, as numerous extremely fine wooden vases, bowls and ewers have been found in humid areas. The oldest piece in the world was discovered on the island of Hokkaido and dates back 9,000 years; it was funerary furniture. Apart from weapons, few objects have survived from the following period (Yayoï -10 to 300 years), but the Kofun era (350-700 years) that followed it was particularly prolific, with relics in lacquered leather or metal as well as coffins. The democratisation of lacquerware began during the Nara period in the 8th century. Lacquerware, until then reserved for the nobility, became more widespread thanks to the dilution of the raw material. Numerous prints, the dry lacquer technique and the art of maki-e, specific to Japan, also appeared. However, it is generally accepted that lacquer was first used as an adhesive. Numerous ancient arrows have been found whose shafts were sealed with lacquer. Much later, in the Edo period, kintsugi was a restoration technique based on lacquer mixed with gold powder.

Many print artists have used lacquer to add relief and sophistication to their paintings. Over the years, techniques have evolved sufficiently to vary the colours. In addition to the traditional black and red, different shades of brown, vermilion, red ochre, yellow and green complete the palette, thanks to the natural products incorporated, such as iron or sulphur.
Lacquer has a repellent effect and resists mould. This is why the privileged families of the aristocracy and military nobility owned lacquered furniture. It is also waterproof and withstands contact with salt, alcohol, fats and alkaline foods. The variety of lacquered tableware is immense, but the most famous are those from Kyoto and Wajima.

Kyoto lacquerware
In constant contact with nobles and merchants, the craftsmen of Kyoto never ceased to refine their style and perfect their skills. Starting with a base of fine wood, a textile membrane made from a mixture of lacquer, starch and linen is applied layer by layer to solidify the container. A mixture of ochre powder and lacquer then forms the silhouette. Finally, layers of lacquer complete the work. These creations were considered to be works of art, and were seen as ostentatious signs of wealth, presented as gifts at business meetings or as a courtesy. In 1976, it was classified as a traditional craft product by the Japanese Ministry of Economy and Industry.
Wajima lacquerware
Originally from the prefecture of Ishikawa, Wajima lacquer is now part of the Tokyo tradition. The process remains the same, but is distinguished by its ancient history dating back over 6,000 years and by the use of rice glue, which streamlines production. The fact remains, however, that it too is distinguished by the same label as Kyoto lacquer, provided it meets very precise specifications.
One of the things these two lacquers have in common is a specifically Japanese technique known as maki-e, which adds great aesthetic value. Simple crockery or small pieces of furniture become unique, artistic objects.

This art form dates back to the Heian period, between the 9th and 12th centuries, and became famous during the Edo era. It involves applying gold powder and dried lacquer to a layer of wet lacquer on a wooden core that has been lacquered several layers in advance. The motifs can be neat, shaded or gradated. The whole surface is covered with clear lacquer. Different techniques can be used to obtain a flat or raised surface, by sanding the designs or adding lacquer thickened with wood or charcoal powder. The designs are created with a brush of varying width, using lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, platinum, brass, copper, lead, aluminium, tin or their alloys. The variety of textures thus obtained contributes to the beauty and finesse of the work. In addition, mother-of-pearl, ivory or coral elements can be inlaid before the final coat of lacquer dries. The artist can also carve small lacquer elements in advance to complete the painting. This skill is used in conjunction with other techniques, particularly carved lacquer.

Carved lacquer
This technique originated in China in the 7th century and is called guri in Japanese. It consists of carving a wooden work coated with several layers of lacquer, up to twenty. The surface is adorned with arabesques and motifs in relief, and different colours, resulting from layers of lacquer of varying colours, appear on objects made in this way. 
Lacquered wood sculptures and dry lacquering
These two techniques are emblematic of Buddhist art and have enabled sculptures to endure through the centuries. Some are made of wood and covered with several layers of lacquer. Others are made using a more sophisticated technique, such as dry lacquer. First, modelled clay covers a wooden frame. The whole thing is then covered with superimposed layers of hemp soaked in lacquer, the process being punctuated by a systematic drying period. The clay is then removed and the remaining shell of lacquered hemp and wooden frame is sewn back together and covered with a final layer of lacquer and clay. The sculpture is finished off with wires wrapped in hemp cord and modelled using a mixture of sawdust and lacquer to add detail.

The aesthetic quality of lacquer has given rise to works of art and craft products, and its durable properties have enabled them to survive the test of time. The fact that lacquer has been around for so long is testament to the variety of skills that have gone into it, as well as to its inexhaustible success. The combined value of beauty and preservation appealed to European dignitaries and merchants, who began importing works in the 16th century. Today, lacquer is passed on to the West, but we won't go into that in this diary...

Marie Ebersolt