Opening Lecture & Reception: Gifts of Gold: The Art of Japanese Lacquer Boxes, January 16

Date: 01-16-2020

Time: 05:00 PM

Location: Diffley Board Room, Bellarmine Hall Galleries and Great Hall

Gifts of Gold: The Art of Japanese Lacquer Boxes will introduce viewers to the medium, functions, decorative techniques, and symbolic associations of Japanese lacquer by presenting approximately twenty exquisite works ranging from the 15ththrough the 21st centuries, complemented by a few select paintings. 

The exhibition will consist of four groupings with the following themes: Forms in black and red, seasonal and auspicious motifs, poetic and literary associations, and materials and techniques. Objects in the exhibition are drawn from institutional and private collections, and include a 19th century writing box recently acquired by the Fairfield University Art Museum, through the generosity of the museum’s Patron Circle.

In Japan, true lacquerware is created through a time-consuming process wherein the sap of the lacquer tree is harvested, refined, and pigmented before being applied in successive layers to a substrate, often of wood. Each layer of lacquer cures and hardens, rendering the vessel waterproof and durable. Although many wares are left plain to showcase the glossy black or red finish, the art reached heights of decorative potential with developments in the 16th and 17th centuries in techniques of “sprinkled picture” (maki-e) decoration. In these uniquely Japanese techniques, small particles of gold and other metals are sprinkled onto lacquer in abstract and pictorial designs, rich with seasonal, poetic, and literary allusions. 

Although lacquer objects were ultimately functional – writing boxes, storage boxes, tea caddies, tables, and dining utensils – the expense and decorative richness ensured that some objects were rarely used. Lacquer boxes therefore also became markers of status, taste, and wealth. Tebako, or cosmetics boxes, were important elements of a bride’s trousseau, and writing boxes (suzuribako) stored the implements used for calligraphy; such boxes could also be presented as gifts on important and auspicious occasions, such as the New Year. Moreover, small seal and medicine cases (inrō) with exquisite designs were worn suspended from the belts of men’s traditional dress and displayed the height of fashion in the Edo period (1615-1868). Borrowing from – and in turn influencing – other arts in Japan, the lacquer tradition stands in conversation with arts such as textile design, ceramics, painting, calligraphy, and sculpture.

The first grouping presents a small selection of works with a focus on the form of the object itself, and on the black and red colors traditionally used in Japanese lacquer. Included are examples of Negoro-ware, named after the temple where the style developed in the 14th century reflecting the rustic aesthetic commonly associated with the tea ceremony and with Zen monastic culture, as well as other wares left undecorated aside from black or red lacquer surfaces. 

The second grouping showcases seasonal and auspicious motifs commonly displayed on lacquer boxes, while demonstrating the various decorative techniques of maki-e or “sprinkled-picture” design. Older examples include a Kōdaiji-style box from the 16th to early 17th centuries, as well as works by contemporary artists continuing and innovating within these traditions. 

Literary and poetic associations abound in lacquer boxes, and are featured in the third grouping. Writing boxes (suzuribako), literally “inkstone boxes,” were used to store tools for calligraphy and literary composition: inkstone, inkwell, water dropper, and brushes. Other types of boxes provided storage for documents, paintings, or poem slips. Beyond their functional relation to literary production, such boxes frequently display classical and literary themes: pictorial compositions illustrate scenes from the Tale of Genji; abstracted motifs – such as irises or a boat among reeds – evoke codified literary or poetic associations; and calligraphy itself can be rendered in lacquer. 

The fourth section, in the rear gallery, will explain the process and techniques of lacquer production, as well as the storage context of lacquerwares.

The exhibition is curated by Dr. Ive Covaci adjunct professor of art history in the Visual and Performing Arts Department, and will be accompanied by a full program of lectures, gallery talks, and demonstrations.

Thursday, January 16, 5 p.m.

Opening Lecture: Gifts of Gold: The Art of Japanese Lacquer Boxes

Ive Covaci, PhD, Curator of the Exhibition

Bellarmine Hall, Diffley Board Room 


Thursday, January 16, 6-7:30 p.m.

Opening Reception: Gifts of Gold: The Art of Japanese Lacquer Boxes

Bellarmine Hall, Bellarmine Hall Galleries and Great Hall


Monday, February 10, 3:30-5 p.m.

Special Event: Japanese Tea Ceremony

Bellarmine Hall, Diffley Board Room


Saturday, March 21, 1-4 p.m. (2 sessions)

Family Day: Art of Japan

Bellarmine Hall, SmART Classroom


Tuesday, March 24, 5 p.m.

Gallery Talk: Lacquerware and Textiles: Materials and Motifs in Japanese Art

Ive Covaci, PhD

Bellarmine Hall, Bellarmine Hall Galleries 

Wednesday, April 8, 5 p.m.
Lecture: Sprinkled Gold and Inlaid Mother-of-Pearl: The Splendor of Japanese Lacquer
Monika Bincsik, Diane and Arthur Abbey Assistant Curator of Japanese Decorative Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bellarmine Hall, Diffley Board Room


All programs are free and open to all, but registration is required at:

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For more information, contact Carey Mack Weber / 203-254-4000 ext. 2499 /