Japanese Charms, Shining in the Dark

The Genius of Shibata Zeshin:
Japanese Masterworks from the Catherine and Thomas Edson Collection
10am-8pm Tue, 10am-5pm Wed-Sat, noon-6pm Sun
Through May 6
$8 adult; $7 senior; $5 student; $3 children over 3
San Antonio Museum of Art
200 West Jones Ave.

Duo Sokyo: An Afternoon of Traditional Japanese Music
2pm Sun, Mar 4
Cowden Gallery

Zeshin and the Art of Poetry: Haiku on Lacquerware and Surimono
6:30pm Tue, Mar 27

The Last Samurai (2003)
7pm Tue, Apr 10
$3 members, $5 nonmembers

Zeshin: The Catherine and Thomas Edson Collection
3pm Sat, May 6

For a complete
schedule of events, see Samuseum.org
You walk past the square wooden boxes filled with smooth dark stones. They support bamboo poles with hanging vertical banners in dark tones of moss green and earth brown. And as you stand in the San Antonio Museum of Art’s William L. Cowden gallery, it takes time to adjust to the dark.

“You need a miner’s lamp to see anything,” an elderly visitor complains. “They didn’t tell me I was going to have to bring a flashlight.”

It’s not like you have to grope the faces of strangers to locate the security guard with night-vision goggles who can lead you the hell out of there. But this show is dimly lit, and if you want to see the way light reflects off Shibata Zeshin’s lacquered wooden boxes and scrolls, you’ll have to do some bending, stooping, and squinting.

But this exercise in patience seems trivial compared with the arduous process Zeshin (1807-1891) mastered to produce these astonishing pieces of art, collected by San Antonians Catherine and Thomas Edson.

A lacquered wooden bowl or cup starts out as a smooth piece of wood, aged and cured for years, then milled and sanded until it’s so thin it’s practically translucent.

Craftsmen apply coat after coat of progressively refined urushi resin to the wood, carefully polishing the layers with increasingly refined abrasives and drying each layer, until the resin hardens into a shiny, impermeable shell. (Urushi-e, dubbed “japanning” among European craftsmen, led to the island nation’s Western name.)

Zeshin, who started as an apprentice at age 11, mastered the toxic urushi sap and used it to create shimmering images with smooth and textured glossy finishes on wood, paper, and silk surfaces. An accomplished painter, Zeshin also invented ways of making the brittle lacquer pliable enough to decorate paper and silk scrolls that could still be rolled and unfurled.

His artistry is immediately evident in works like “Cricket and Flowering Vine” (circa 1880), a hanging scroll with colored lacquers and gold wash on prepared paper near the show’s entrance. It’s a study in autumnal stillness and fragility, where a minutely detailed cricket clings to the edge of a gossamer blossom and bends the flower petal with its slight weight.

What’s astonishing about this show, besides the sheer virtuosity that Zeshin achieves using a very difficult medium, is his thoroughly modern visual vocabulary, evident in his “Album of Twenty Lacquer Paintings.” One of the features uniting this eclectic assortment of miniature images is the ponderous weight of the forms comprising the clouds and the sky, and the ethereal nature of the mountains and rooftops.

Positive and negative space, curving and angular lines and forms, flattened trompe l’oeil compositions, and mock wood-grain veneers — these were all part of the Modern Art conceits that trickled through Paris in the late 1880s and swept Europe and the US with tsunami-like force in the early to mid 20th century.

If his style is surprisingly modern, however, this Japanese court painter’s subject matter is hardly controversial. Zeshin’s wryly depicted insects, birds, animals, and fish are mostly playful — a lot closer in spirit to a tongue-in-cheek New Yorker cartoon than to Picasso’s “Guernica.”

The people in Zeshin’s artwork are caricatures as well. There’s a jolly fisherman, half laughing Buddha, half Everyman. There’s a blind man, swinging his stick and losing a sandal as he kicks his bare foot at a barking dog. And there are creatures like a hawk, comically glaring at its reflection in a waterfall in an adjacent hanging scroll, that appear to be more of a commentary on human foibles than on the natural world.

Born when his native Tokyo was still called Edo, Zeshin lived in a time when merchants were accumulating wealth that would rival and soon exceed that of the military ruling classes. Deprived of the social status of the samurais, and ranked below even farmers, Japan’s lowly but affluent city-dwelling traders and merchants were not allowed ostentatious displays of their growing wealth.

The exhibition’s wall notes detail the rise of the Iki culture of urban chic as the insular and feudal Edo period (1615-1868) gave way to the more enlightened and progressive Meiji period (1868-1912). Iki culture was all about the artfully disguised pursuit of pleasure. Denied bright hues, artists like Zeshin delighted his wealthy patrons with precious goods daubed in shades of slate gray and olive green, with accents of burnt orange and yellowish brown.

Fully capable of flawless Urushi, Zeshin chose instead to produce inro, netsuke, and sword scabbards that appeared to be cracked, rotting, worn, or freshly repaired. One of Zeshin’s kogos, or incense boxes, looks like it has been cracked and repaired by a butterfly-shaped wooden cleat and metal staple. But the wood beneath the illusory surface layers of painstakingly applied lacquer and pigments has never been broken.

A few of the items in this collection have the power to shock. Zeshin’s “Still Life of Doll Festival Figures in Preparation” is creepily amusing, and his “Inro with Ghost Appearing Over Mosquito Net” is just plain creepy. Both display the dexterity of the master’s imagination.

SAMA restores the balance at the end of its show with the symmetric perfection of “Zeshin’s Writing Box (Suzuribako) with Mount Tsukuba,” the lyric simplicity of his “Tray (Bon) with Bats in Flight Above a Stream,” and the dazzling virtuosity of his “Set of Dining Vessels in Kasuga Shrine Style.”

If you’re going to absorb even a fraction of this tour de force, you’ll need to set aside at least two hours to take everything in before the exhibition leaves for venues in Minneapolis and New York. But that should give your eyes plenty of time to adjust from the bright Texas sun to the Cowden gallery’s darkly lit treasures. 


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