Contemporary Lacquer Artist
Steve here: Below, my friend, a London-based lacquer dealer, shares about his passion for the work of a very special artist.
The Art of Wakamiya Takashi, by Simon Pilling
The evocatively named ‘Thunderbird’ train pulls out of Kyoto’s futuristic station, and I am embarking on a journey to visit one of Japan’s rising stars of lacquer ware – Wakamiya Takashi.
Based in Wajima – a centre with a 1000-year history for the production of fine lacquer – his work is already held in the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Lacquer Museum, Munster, Germany, and is gathering a loyal following among European and American collectors. Wajima – a coastal town on the Noto Peninsular – is remote. In the late 12th century the famously defeated Taira Clan were banished to the area, where their descendants still live to this day. Even the formidable Japanese rail network does not serve it, and the last 2 hours of my 6-hour journey are made by road. Meeting Wakamiya-san, he speaks passionately about the importance of lacquer to Japanese society. He believes that “essential values have been passed down through the generations to contemporary Japanese society by learning about lacquer-wares.” It is clear that this has been a central driving force for him, seeing it as “my duty and privilege to hand down our ancestors’ heart and wisdom to future generations through my works, and hopefully to revive our ancestors’ spirit in modern times.”
The process of lacquer production is long and painstaking – taking months, and sometimes years, to produce a single exquisite piece. Traditionally one might have expected Wakamiya-san to have learned his craft being raised by a famous lacquer master, but while his family did grow the sap-producing trees used for lacquer, there was no precedent for his passion to work with the material. From the age of 20 he studied, practiced and mastered the wide range of skills necessary until, twenty years later, at the age of 40 in 2004, he finally felt confident to promote his work. Combining exacting technical skills with a playful artistic imagination can produce extraordinary work. A three-tiered box captures the fearsome energy of a dragon as it destroys a bronze temple bell.
The story it depicts is the focal point the famous Noh play, Dojoji, when the ghost of a woman spurned by her priest lover, returns to the temple. First trapping the man within the bell, the ghost transforms into a giant dragon, coiling around the bell, and consuming all by fire. Such dramatic three-dimensional lacquer work requires ultimate skill. Playfulness, so central to Japanese art, comes to the fore in Wakamiya-san’s fascination with the use of lacquer to imitate other materials. On first seeing a teabowl
you wonder if you have had the good fortune to discover a ceramic work by the 16th century artist Hon’Ami Koetsu. Take it in your hands and it has the texture of Raku, but no weight! You realise that your eye has deceived your head, and you are holding a piece of lacquer ware. Wakamiya-san strives to rediscover many ‘lost’ lacquer techniques, particularly in the imitation of diverse materials such as ceramic, wood and metal.
In this he is continuing a tradition that can be traced back to works by Ogawa Haritsu and Shibata Zeshin. There are many who consider his name will rank alongside those former masters. While the inspiration, artistic vision and technical mastery are Wakamiya-san’s, he is quick to credit the talented team of technical craftspeople that he has assembled – Hikoju Makie – to support his ambition.
Lacquer pieces have always been exclusive and desirable. Wakamiya-san’s creations are stunning in their technical brilliance, and truly superb in design concept, often rich in allusion and cultural reference. They combine ultimate craftsmanship, comparable in the West to, say, Fabergé, with a centuries’ old Japanese sensitivity to Nature and continuity.
They reflect on the human condition and are testament to an extraordinary artistic dedication. For Wakamiya-san, he says that he “will continue to pursue the fascination and technical possibilities of lacquer and the meaning of my own life through making lacquer-ware.”
Simon Pilling, MA, RIBA, FRSA is a graduate of Sotheby’s MA in East Asian Art and is based in London, UK. He is a member of the Asian Art in London group of dealers and specialises in 20th century and contemporary Japanese lacquer.
Simon’s website: < www.simonpilling.co.uk >
Simon Pilling East Asian Art & Interiors
PO Box 40062 London N6 6XB