CHERRY BLOSSOMS are like bubbles of delicate pink glass billowing from the pipe of the master blower. When the rains and the winds come, the pink bubbles burst into a million crystal petals sprinkled on the grass.
Cherry blossoms are one of life's most transitory delights, lasting hardly enough time for a sigh of pleasure. But there are places where cherry blossoms bloom, if not forever, at least for hundreds of years.
In Japanese lacquer work, cherry blossoms are transformed into gold leaf and powder caught in the sticky sap of the lacquer tree. Other flowers-and especially the chrysanthemum-alsong with human figures and occasionally even animals are held in the transparent cage of lacquer.
A splendid introduction to lacquer work will open tomorrow at the Freer Gallery. Fifty-seven pieces from the Freer's collection of some 80 lacquered objects will be displayed through Oct. 15. The exhibit, curated by Ann Yonemura, of the Freer, is part of the three-month Japan Today celebration of that country's culture, opening in Washington and six other cities today.
The wood to be lacquered is carefully carved and then left to dry for two or three years. Then the slow process begins: Layer after layer of lacquer, each very thin, are applied and then left to air for months until they produce an insoluble solid, as Yonemura puts it. Paint powders and metallic powders are suspended in the sticky sap. The lacquer also glues gold leaf and bits of metal. When the lacquered surface is cured, the coating is impervious to hot liquids, alcohol and even some acids and alkalis. Japanese lacquer work has been appreciated for years in the West, though only the 18th- and 19th- century objects are ever on the market, according to Lorna Kelly, Sotheby Parke Bernet's lacquer expert.
She said that recently "lacquer has suddenly taken a turn up. A Japanese lacquer writing box two weeks ago sold in London for about $10,400. In Hawaii in January, a gold lacquer cabinet just 8 1/4 inches high went for $10,000, and another, a 4-by-4 square, went for $500 more. Last year, Christie's in London sold a gold-lacquered piece for $7,644.
"It seems to me part of a trend. If it's portable and expensive, it sells," Kelly said. "Coins, stamps, paperweights, jewelry-all these small things are bringing huge prices. It's as though people were buying things to take across the border. People are afraid of being robbed; they want things that will go into the bank vault. Money has little value any more."
Price of lacquer work varies greatly, she said, depending on the condition. "We see so much that people haven't taken care of. They leave it in too cold air conditioning or too hot heating. Some will even leave it in the window where the sun bleaches it.
Lacquer work's beautifully stylized decoration-the delicate miniature world of whiplash waves and perfect petals (sometimes cut from gold leaf)-are so exquisite that they set off a whole new artistic style in Europe. At the turn of the 20th century, Japanese lacquer work and prints washed over European artists like a tidal wave. The result was the Art Nouveau period, heavily influenced by the Orient. Some art dealers such as S. Bing in Paris began as sellers of oriental objects and then commissioned art nouveau works from European artists. Some artists, such as James McNeil Whistler, had their won collections of Japanese prints.
At the Freer, you can go to a nearby gallery and admire the Whistler's Peacock Room with its painting of the "Princess From the Land of Cherry Blossoms."
The entire room, covered with gold momtifs and prancing proud peacocks, was strongly influenced by Japanese lacquer work.
Today, we may well be in the midst of another period of intense admiration of oriental decoration. The reopening of China, decoration's return to favor, a taste for sumptuousness and a new appreciation of craftsmanship so exact it can be best appreciated under a magnifying glass, all predict a new love of lacquer.
In Washington, both antique and contempory lacquer work can be bought today. Woodward/Lothrop will show and sell lacquer work at their Trade Winds East home furnishings event, opening May 5. and C.G. Sloan & Co. auction house has several pieces of lacquer work, including a an antique lacquer box, (as we as a notable selection of Chinese export porcelain collected by a former museum official) in its catalog sale scheduled for Saturday through April 22.
Charles Freer, the patron saint of the collection, bought much of the lacquer work now in the Freer in the first decade of the 20th century in Japan and in Paris from the sale of the Gillot collection, according to Yonemura. In 1944, more pieces were brought from Alexander Mosle, a Washington collector. The late Philip Stern, a former director of the Freer, bought other pieces from the 1950s to the 1970s.
One of the most marvelous of Stern's purchases, exhibited in the show. is a suzuribako or inkstone case of the Edo period (18th-19th century).The outer lid shows mountains and a river with a bridge under a red sun. In the river is a round glass window showing a water wheel, When you picked up the lid, mercury turned the wheel. Sadly, the wheel no longer rolls, but the object is still a wonder. On the inside of the lid is a scene of pines, buildings and flying plovers, who also fly on the inkstone and water dropper.
Lacquer goes back much further than that, relates Yonemura in hte catalogue. Some combs and woven vessels, coated with red and black lacquer, were discovered in excavations of the late Jomon period of the first millenium B.C.
Chinese and Korean technology of the Tumulus period, mid-4th century-552 A.D., brought advances in technique. In the mid-6th century, the Buddhist religion was imported along with the need for shrines, sculpture and containers for incense and other ceremonial materials. Guilds of lacqueres were organized. And in 701, lacquer was collected as a tax.
Molded hemp cloth was dipped in lacquer and applied to a clay core to make sculptures like the bodhisattva in the exhibit. (A bodhisattva is a deity who postpones being a buddha to help humans.)
Other decorative techniques, probably imported from China and Korea, include the use of mother-of-pearl inlay, silver and gold leaf and lacquer suspending powdered silver and gold. A technique called later maki-e (sprinkled design) uses metallic powders sprinkled over a damp lacquer.
A kodansu or incense cabinet of the Edo or Meiji period (19th centurey) in the show is a fine example of maki-e. The tiny cabinet, Yonemura believes, was probably used to store incense and tools used to mix different scents for guessing games much like our wine tastings.
The box is covered with gold. A silver river flows on all sides of the box through a land where wisteria droops and twines from a pine tree. On the inside, a cherry tree's blossoms are faintly pink (because of underpainting of red lacquer) under flakes of gold. The workmanship is so exquisite even the sides of the drawers are decorated.
The cabinet is quite different from the much earlier Kogo or incense container of the Muromachi period (1392-1573). This box, probably used by the Zen Buddhists, is deeply carved with a peony design, much like Chinese prototypes. Originally it was heavily lacquered with black with and then coated with several layers of red. Now the red has worn away here and there to show the black, an effect much admired.
Another early piece in the exhibit, a ewer of the 16th century, is named after the Negoro-ji Buddhist temple where this sort of lacquer ware was made until 1585 when the temple was burned. Much more of the red lacquer survives in the ewer than the box. The inside is lacquered black. The Chinese influence can be seen in the elegant curving shapes and scrolls of the handle and base, the ribbing of the body and the swan-like spout.
On inkstone case comes complete with a poem. The lid shows a courtier seated on a tatami mat, above a poem:
Like my cupped hands
Spilling drops back into the mountain pool
And clouding its pure waters
Before the satisfaction of my thirst
So have I had to part from you too soon.
Inside, the water dropper looks like a courtier's hat.
The wisteria maiden on one 19th-century inkstone case shelters from the rain under an umbrella wielded by a demon, who also has to strike a gong. The umbrella, as though it came with a $6.50 cosmetic purchase, has a legend. In this case, a powerful name, "Nembutsu," the name of Amida, recited by certain sects. Nearby is a man bearing the full force of the rain. And riding the clouds like a bucking bronco is the Thunder God, beating his drums.
The inros , or small (2- or 3-inch) containers, worn on the obi shash, were used as portable containers for medicines. Often they have several compartments, each marvels of exact fit. Today, inros are widely collected. In the show as well are netsukes or toggles, which were counter balances to keep the inros in place. One is another example of the Japanese fascination with China. It's made a look like a miniature Chinese stand, ornameted with carved Chinese children at play.
The show also includes several screens with decorations analogous to the lacquer ware and a painting.
Lacquer is a rare and dangerous substance. Handling the sap can cause skin reactions much like poison ivy. Sometimes fever and serious illnesses can develop from working with lacquer. Younemura said that the trees can be harvested six months of the year, but only a few ounces a season.
No wonder that the artist chose lacquer to capture the ephemeral pleasures of the cherry blossoms of April. CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 4, From the Freer Gallery, cloockwise from top: A 19th-century incense cabinet, an 18th-century medicine container with coral netsuke, a 19th-century inkstone case, and an 18th-century box; the border is from a lacquer painting by Shibata Zeshin.