A Makie Master Named Nagata Yuji
Have you ever heard of the profession of "maki'e master?" I bet you have not. These days, even in Japan, the number of maki'e masters has dwindled down to only a handful.
In the Edo Period (1600-1867), however, there were many maki'e masters in Japan. Like "painting masters" (artists), "Buddha masters" (sculptors), and others, maki'e masters were a type of professional artisan. These craftspeople made their living by decorating the implements used in daily life with beautiful maki'e designs.
By now, you are probably wondering, "What on earth is maki'e?!" Well, in order to understand maki'e, you first must understand what lacquerware is! You may know already that lacquer comes from the sap of a tree. When this sap is painted onto wooden dishes or other things, it hardens into a shiny, smooth, and very strong surface. This is lacquerware. Lacquerware was made in Japan as far back as the Jomon Period (30,000 B.C. - 200 A.D.). The durable, glossy surface of lacquerware has been loved by the Japanese since ancient times!
Over time, however, our Japanese ancestors began to decorate the lacquerware with gold and silver powder. This kind of decoration took advantage of another good quality of lacquerware, its stickiness! If artisans carved or inlaid designs into a piece of lacquerware and then sprinkled gold or silver powder onto the wet surface, these designs would become permanently affixed to the piece when it dried. This is the art of maki'e!
Maki'e began in the Heian Period, when it was used to create important Buddhist and Shinto implements and articles used in the daily life of aristocrats and samurai families. By the Edo Period, the art of maki'e became well-known across Japanese society, and maki'e articles were used widely by the wealthy merchant and artisan classes. With this, new maki'e masters began appearing in great numbers, especially in the capital of Edo (Tokyo).
One of these maki'e masters was named Nagata Yuji. Old books from the time, such as The History of Maki'e Masters (Maki'e-shi Den) and The History of Lacquerware Masters(Nu-shi Den) tell that Yuji was a native of Kyoto who was renown as a master of his craft. He especially admired the Rinpa School style of Ogata Korin (1658-1716), one of the most prominent and popular maki'e masters of the Edo Period. However, Korin had already died by the time Yuji came on the scene, so he was not able to study with Korin personally. Instead, say the old books, Yuji studied Korin's masterpieces and adapted their best traits into his own works. In fact Yuji admired Korin so much that for his artists name, he chose the name Seiseishi, which means "Child (or Disciple) of Seisei." As "Seisei" was another name for Korin, the name Seiseishi makes Yuji sound like Korin's direct disciple!
This paper box with a design of a deer bears the seal of Seiseishi, as does the matching inkstone box. But Nagata Yuji did not confine his works to writing boxes like these--he also made layered food boxes, sake cups and other kinds of dishes, all decorated with charming maki'e designs. He always stamped his creations with a seal of "Seiseishi, Nagata Yuji." He must have had a lot of confidence in his work!
This Rinpa style of maki'e that Yuji was so fond of was popular not only in Japan. When such maki'e pieces were entered in World Expositions, held in Europe from the Late Edo to the Meiji Periods, they became extremely popular among Europeans as well! Luxurious Rinpa maki'e, inlayed with polished mother-of-pearl and lead was an art form that crossed not only national barriers, but also the cultural gulf between East and West!
I asked in the beginning whether you know of the profession of maki'e master, but in reality very little is actually know about the maki'e masters of the Edo Period. We know little about this master, except that he made maki'e from around 1711-1736. After that, however, when he had grown older, Nagata Yuji moved from his hometown of Kyoto to the capital, in Edo (Tokyo). There he took up a new profession: instead of being a maki'e master, he became a master of the Japanese tea ceremony! A book from the day, called The History of Lacquerware of the East (Toyo Shikko-shi), states that Yuji lived to be over eighty years of age
We are still in the dark about the lives of most Edo Period maki'e masters. I hope future generations of scholars will discover new information about these artisans and their works! Maybe someday you can help to shed light on the maki'e masters of the Edo Period!
Text by Akio Haino, Department of Applied Arts
English Translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives