Negoro refers to simple and elegant red lacquer objects that were produced during Japan’s medieval period, between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries. Embodying the ancient sense of Japanese beauty, the minimalistic forms of Negoro lacquer ware were primarily made to be functional objects and are void of elaborate decoration. The supple shapes and naturally worn patina of red and black lacquered layers give Negoro an ambience of antiquity and elegance which has made them treasured objects throughout the ages. Since the early twentieth century Negoro wares have become highly appreciated by connoisseurs as objects of outstanding design that pursue a certain utilitarian beauty.
Since ancient times the Neolithic people of Japan have used the sap of the lacquer tree (Japanese sumac, or Toxicodendron vernicifluum) mixed with cinnabar pigment to produce red lacquered objects for daily use. Red is considered a sacred and auspicious colour in Japan. It is used widely as the colour of shrines and temples, as well as of sacred offering vessels and in some instances, such as red sea brim, the colour of the ritual offering itself. The first illustrated evidence of the use of red lacquer ware is found in handscrolls, including the twelfth-century Tale of Genji ‘Kashiwagi’ scroll in which circular trays similar to the one in the NGV collection are shown being used by members of the imperial aristocracy. In the fourteenth-century handscroll Miraculous stories of the gods of Kasuga (Kasuga Gongen Genki-e), we see shrine priests eating from stem tables identical in appearance and age to examples in the NGV collection, and in the sixteenth-century The illustrated scroll of the sake and rice debate (Shuhanron ekotoba), we see monks using red lacquered trays, bowls and large dishes.
In these depictions of monastery life and aristocratic villas Negoro utensils are clearly shown as favoured and cherished objects, alluding to demand for their production in large numbers. Square and circular trays, bowls of various sizes and large spouted ewers were used at daily meals. Lobed cup stands, offering trays and sake bottles with foliate lids featured in temple rituals and clearly display lotus flower–inspired motifs common to Buddhist art. Stem tables were frequently used as offering stands and placed in altars of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Circular wash basins with legs were used in monastery ceremonies to catch water poured over the hands of monks in an act of purification. Large hot water pots or spouted ewers were often used as practical kitchen and serving utensils, and are still used to this day in Zen monastery dining halls to serve hot water that monks swill their bowls with, consuming every last grain of rice in adherence to Zen eating etiquette. The makers of the hot water pot and two wash basins in the NGV collection have used a technique that takes advantage of the objects’ natural wood grain. The decorative band of warm, wood texture left visible in each object complements its smooth, sensual lacquered surface and subtly enhances its overall appearance.
Negoro lacquer derived its name from the Buddhist temple of Negoro-ji, located in the mountains of present-day Wakayama Prefecture, just south of Osaka. Established in 1243 as a temple of esoteric Buddhist practice, Negoro-ji thrived during the Kamakura, Muromachi and Azuchi-Momoyama periods and at its height of influence during the sixteenth century had a population of approximately 6000 monks, who lived in an estimated eighty monasteries and attended up to 2700 sub-temples and shrines. Buddhist philosophies demanded that temple life and rituals were conducted in a simple and restrained manner, and from these early times of esoteric Buddhist practice red objects were regarded as auspicious and suitable to accompany a monk’s everyday existence. It is believed that this combination of a simple, unadorned lifestyle and the auspicious associations with the colour red led to the production of high quality and durable lacquer utensils in and around the environs of Negoro-ji and at other workshops in the cultural centres of Japan.
By the late sixteenth century Negoro-ji temple had attained great social influence, economic strength and had even embarked on the production of firearms modelled on matchlock muskets recently introduced to Japan by the Portuguese. The always strategic and ever suspicious ruling lord of the time, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, felt threatened by the Buddhist enclave and in 1585 embarked on a campaign to subdue its power, burning all but three of its worship halls to the ground. This defining moment in Japanese history and accepted end date for the production of historical Negoro lacquer is embodied in the centrepiece to the NGV’s display: the recently donated Nobleman’s meal table, which bears an inscription dating it to the exact year of this devastating event. Scholars speculate that the elegant contours of the table’s side openings and legs, as well as its compressed overall form that differs from other meal tables of the sixteenth century, indicate that this rare piece was produced at a much earlier date during the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and given the inscription ‘Thirteenth year of Tenshō (1585), Murō-ji temple, Yamato no kuni’ (present-day Nara Prefecture) at the later date of 1585.
Negoro was not produced solely for visual appreciation. One pre-eminent exception, however, is the NGV’s Daikōgō (large incense container) with a visually mesmerising geometric motif covering its entire surface. Daikōgō were used in Buddhist temples to contain aromatic wood shavings that would be sprinkled into incense burners during ceremonies and at times of worship. This immaculately preserved piece displays a symmetrical motif uncharacteristic to the Japanese aesthetic, and can be attributed to the central Asian migration routes along which Buddhism travelled to Japan between the second and six centuries. Due to this elaborate decoration the Daikogō is not strictly Negoro but Kamakura-bori, a style of decoratively carved lacquer ware produced in the Kamakura region just south of Tokyo. However, the object’s powerful cinnabar colour and patina of underlying coats of black lacquer, revealed due to centuries of ongoing use, has imbued the Daikōgō with an ambience and antiquity analogous to the ideals of Negoro.
A similar fusion of lacquering philosophies displayed in the sixteenth-century Daikogō and the profound ambience of Negoro continues to influence Japanese lacquer artists to this day. The Four edged Kamakura tea caddie produced by acclaimed living national treasure Kuroda Tatsuaki during the 1960s challenges our understanding of a four-edged object and engages in a creative dialogue between the artist’s contemporary practice and the ancient techniques of both Kamakura-bori and Negoro lacquer. Contemporary artist Michiko Suganuma operates from the lacquer-producing area of Kamakura and works exclusively in the traditional radiant palate of Negoro. Her streamlined Kappa style tea caddie in hues of black and deep red is produced with layers of lacquer on a bamboo base. The indentation of the bamboo joint on its lid playfully references the Japanese mythological river creature known as the Kappa that has a dish-like indentation on its head and can only leave a river when the indentation is filled with water.
To produce Negoro lacquer ware, the wooden shapes are lathed or assembled from flat or carved pieces of strong Keyaki (Japanese Zelkova). Once the structure is created its edges are strengthened with cloth, then the surface is coated and smoothed with numerous coats of base lacquer. Three coats of black lacquer follow, and finally one coat of red cinnabar pigmented lacquer is applied with a spatula to leave distinctive lines that trace movements of the maker’s hand. The finished object radiates with a luminous red surface that we can clearly see in the contemporary Negoro-influenced pieces on display.
The true essence of Negoro, however, is found in its antiquity and the generations of affectionate use that imbues these objects with the esoteric Japanese spirit wabi (the aesthetic of beauty found in imperfection), and sabi (an affection for the old and faded). With regular use the wearing and reduction of the outer red coating gradually reveals the black lacquer beneath, creating an ever changing beauty that can only result from continual use and the passage of time. Cracks, wear, damage, splits, texturing and irregularities all enhance the harmonious sophistication of a Negoro object’s surface. This natural evolution of beauty, similar to the maturing of the human spirit with age, epitomises the Japanese spirit and stems from the belief that the respectful use of an object for its proper function enhances its appearance and status.
This special display of Negoro lacquer ware celebrates the shared passion of Mr S. Baillieu Myer AC and Sir Roderick Carnegie AC for the ancient and refined aesthetics of Japanese culture. Since the 1970s both collectors have been acquiring and donating important examples of these rare and highly prized artefacts to the NGV. This dedicated philanthropy has resulted in the formation of the largest collection of Negoro lacquer ware in Australia, and one of the most significant collections of its kind outside of Japan.
Wayne Crothers is Curator, Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria