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How It’s Made: Japanese Cloisonné

June 26, 2012

Have you ever wondered how Japanese artists created such beautiful cloisonné pieces?  Well, I have, and after a lot of research, I’d like to share what I discovered.

What is Cloisonné?

The technique of cloisonné actually dates back to the Mycenaean and early Greek cultures.  In antiquity, it was common for artists to solder the wires to a metal body and then fill the recessed areas with enamel, a compound made of sand, flint, soda, and lead.  After it is fired in a charcoal-fueled kiln at very high temperatures, the enamel compound fuses and assumes a very glossy, glass-like texture.  The Japanese process varied slightly from this, as I will describe in the next section.

“Cloisons” or wire cells used to create cloisonné.
“Box”, Japan, 19th century, Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, The John R. Young Collection, gift of M. Frances and John R. Young

The nomenclature of cloisonné stems from France.  The term cloisonné comes from the French word “cloisons,” or wire cells, which are used to create this technique.  Most of the enameling terms you hear will be of French origin, and that’s likely because the French dominated the enameling practice for about ten centuries.  However, the Japanese use a different term to describe cloisonné: shippōShippō references the seven treasures of the sūtra, a direct correlation to ancient Buddhist texts.  The seven treasures include gold, silver, pearl, crystal, agate, lapis lazuli, and coral.  This definition of cloisonné emphasizes the Japanese affinity with nature and religion, while the French term focuses on the technical aspect of the technique.

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What’s the Process of Cloisonné?

Namikawa Yasuyuki loading an object into the kiln. Image from Coben and Ferster’s “Japanese Cloisonné: History, Technique, and Appreciation.”

As mentioned earlier, in ancient times it was common to solder your copper or silver wires down to a metal base.  The Japanese process differs by adhering the wires to a metal base using a rice-paste or glue made from an orchid root, called biyaku-gu.  After the wires are secure on the base, the artist takes the enamel paste, a mixture of water and enamel, and gently place the paste in the wire cells using a bamboo pen.  After this step, the object must sit to allow all the moisture to evaporate from the enamel.  Once completely dried, the artist delicately places the object into a muffle kiln, or a nishiki-gama, a clay kiln that is fueled by charcoal.  After the enamel has fused, the piece can be taken out to cool.  Once cooled, the artist can go back in and add more enamel paste and fire it until the enamel is flush with the metal wires.  The final step includes sanding and polishing the enamel and wires until an even surface is acquired.  Once sanded and polished, the enameled object goes into the nishiki-gama one last time to bring the enamel to a high gloss.

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How Did Cloisonné Come to Japan?

Prior to the 16th century, very little enamelware was found in Japan.  Even with neighboring China, a society already exemplary in producing cloisonné, did the artform hit Japan until artist Hirata Hikoshiro, better known as Dōnin, was commissioned by a lord to create a cloisonné object.  Dōnin learned the ways of Chinese cloisonné and brought back the secrets of the trade to Japan.  He became well-known in the samurai community for making decorative sword furniture, but kept his cloisonné process to himself, and only let his family know the tricks of the trade.  A century later another Japanese artist, Kaji Tsunekichi, sought the mysteries of cloisonné.  In the mid-1830’s, Tsunekichi purchased a piece of Chinese cloisonné and purposely broke it apart to discover the manufacturer’s secrets.  After a lot of trial and error, he found success and became known as the “Father of Modern Japanese Cloisonné.”  Tsunekichi trained many artists, creating a cloisonné community within Japan.

The Golden Age

Because of the Western desire for Japanese cloisonné, more and more workshops opened up in small communities like Toshima.  Toshima became known as the shippō-mura, or cloisonné village.  The mass production of cloisonné wares in workshops like Toshima were part of the Japanese industrial revolution that occurred during the second half of the 19th century.  Rather than the large, boisterous factories we envision of the American and European industrial revolutions, the cloisonné workshops of Japan remained very traditional and true to the lead artist’s designs.  Alice M. Hart, an American journalist, visited one of these workshops and this is what she found:

“What an ideal, no smoke, no noise, and no hurry.  Engaged in the pursuit of delightful art, the workmen had only to lift their eyes from their work to see cherry blossoms tossed up against a blue sky…”

Japanese cloisonné workshop. Image from Coben and Ferster’s “Japanese Cloisonné: History, Technique, and Appreciation.”

All this production during the late 19th century has been coined as the “Golden Age for Japanese cloisonné.”  The Golden Age was brought on by a whirlwind of technological advances that Japanese artists were initiating.  Three instrumental leaders in the Golden Age are Namikawa Yasuyuki, Namikawa Sōsuke, and Andō Jūbei.

Namikawa Yasuyuki was known for his invention of the first transparent black glaze and his ‘traditional’ style.  This new transparent black enamel led to a whole production of transparent enamels, which provided artists more freedom with the material.  With this new application, Namikawa Sōsuke was able to rise to fame with his “painting-like” enamels.  Sōsuke also became known as the inventor of shōsen-jippō, where he would etch away the cloisonné wires with sulfuric acid to create a more natural transition, rather than the heavy outlines of wires.  Finally, Andō Jūbei brought the ‘new fashion’ to Japanese cloisonné by combining various styles and techniques such as plique-a-jour; a technique where the wires are fused together and there is no metal backing, allowing sunlight to shine through the enamel.  His company, the Andō Company, was very prolific and received several international awards.

Ando Jubei, Koro and Cover, c. 1900, Japan, Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, The John R. Young Collection, gift of M. Frances and John R. Young

In the Japanese galleries on the third floor of the Museum, you can find exquisite examples from all three artists.  Many of these works instill both awe and beauty.  Even though I know how these objects were created, I’m still amazed by the amount of detail and craftsmanship involved.  Next time you are at the Museum, come explore these small treasures of Japan—I know you will be impressed by their splendor.

Loryn Leonard
Coordinator of Museum Visits

References:

  • Coben, Lawrence, and Dorothy Ferster, Japanese Cloisonné: History, Technique, and Appreciation, New York: Weatherhill, 1982.
  • Darty, Linda, The Art of Enameling: Techniques, Projects, Inspiration, New York: Lark Books, 2004.
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