Urushi is one of Japan’s oldest and most prestigious art forms.
The word “Urushi“ is used to indicate the sap extracted from the tree which grows only in Japan and in parts of Southeast Asia.
Traditionally, it is thought that the Japanese word derived from uruwashi (nice, pleasant) and uruosu (wet and luxurious). The Urushi, in fact, is a commonly appreciated lacquer for its brilliance, elegance and luster that gives objects covering.
What makes the Urushi different than the other lacquers is its particular way of drying: this, in fact, does not follow a standard process, but instead requires exposure to temperature and humidity specifications (that is, between 10-20 degrees centigrade and between 70 and 90 percent humidity).
The collection process requires that the natural resin is extracted in the period from June to November, via the parallel incisions on the Urushi tree trunk to make it come out the sap. The rarity and the high commercial value of the sap extracted are due to the fact that every single tree, in a period of about 15 years, produces only 200 grams of Urushi.
Once collected, the sap is filtered several times through a hemp cloth and the water content is evaporated from the raw lacquer, thereby obtaining the first urushi said clear.
Subsequently, to obtain the color pigments are added; the red lacquer can be “colored“ with addition of small amounts of iron oxides, obtaining red or black depending on the chosen oxide.
The lacquer is then applied on the object desired waiting to dry completely before moving on to the next layer, repeating this process several times before moving on to the final polishing.
When decorating, the lacquer is often sprinkled with gold or silver dust and gold leaf or pearl inlays are applied, as well as to be more shiny and bright.
To obtain a finished object several months of work are required: greater is the number of layers of lacquer used, drying time become longer and higher value assumes the object in question.
Appreciated since ancient times for its adhesive and preservative properties, Urushi was initially used for war and hunting weapons. The first lacquer objects, such as combs and trays, were found 5,500 years ago in Japan, in Shimahama Tomb, in Fukui Prefecture. Later, he began to appreciate this type of lacquer for other characteristics. The treated objects, in fact, could be used for aesthetic reasons, used, also, as a strenghtening and water-proofing agent. For example, from the VI century A.D. buddhist monks reached Japan from Korea and gave new stimulus to local craft which began to use lacquer to decorate buddhist statues.
Although wood is the most used material as a base for the objects to be lacquered, also the metal, ceramics, and fabric are suitable for this purpose.
In the Japanese process called Kanshitsu – formerly used especially for the realization of the samurai armor – the lacquer is mixed with cooked wand raw clays and then applied to a mold with canvas layers. Through this technique it was possible to produce objects without the need to use a wood core.
The Kanshitsu is now also popular with contemporary artists like Natsuki Kurimoto which uses it to produce his works and large installations. This technique, however, keeps intact over time the lacquer surface of the product, leaving freedom to the artists deciding shapes and sizes of their works. In fact, although Japan, given the high humidity, represents an ideal environment for applying the Urushi and allow the conservation of the works in lacquer, when a work is made with a wooden base and is exported in a drier environment, the changing climate conditions can cause warps and shrinks,causing cracks on the lacquer surface.
Natsuki Kurimoto was one of the first Japanese artists engaged in the modernization process of the Urushi technique, followed by young people like Fumie Sasai – probably the most famous female lacquer artist – and Takeshi Igawa.
Both play a key role in the movement of contemporary lacquer, encouraging young artists to develop this traditional technique.
In Japan training to become a Urushi master requires several years of training. The aesthetics, the quality and the production times are, in fact, closely defined.
The strict compliance with the procedures that characterize this ancient technique has allowed to preserve the original values of traditional craftsmanship. Today, artists continue to carry on the age-old lacquer culture, conceived through the values of harmony, elegance, nature and balanced beauty.