The unique charm of Japanese lacquers: the Kaga Maki-e techniqueSergio Dioguardi
Maki-e, (蒔 絵, literally sparkling painting) is the art of decorating lacquered wood objects with colored powders (mainly in gold or silver). Although the use of lacquer tree resin to create a paint to be applied to objects is already known in China and Japan as far back as 7000 BC, the technique in question developed about 400 years ago in the Yamanaka hot spring region (present day city of Kaga), giving rise to the tradition known as Yamanaka Maki-e. During the 17th century, a community of wood artisans settled in the area; they were probably attracted not only by the benefits of the healing waters, but also by the presence of dense forests from which they could draw the timber to be worked. These artisans refined a technique that involved cutting the wood transversely, in the opposite direction to the grain, as, with this type of cut, the material was more elastic and malleable and made the final product robust and durable. The wood was then shaped and generally transformed into bowls or trays. Then followed a very complex lacquering process, divided into various steps. Gold or silver dust was blown onto the first lacquer to create an artistic design. The object was then lacquered again and then burnished, alternating these two steps countless times, to give the decoration a particular semi-transparent finish. The art of lacquering requires particular skill, as the resin obtained from the lacquer tree contains urushiol, a very poisonous element on contact, whose harmful characteristics cease only when it is completely dry. What makes these lacquered objects so special and coveted? Firstly, this wood, thanks to the various layers of lacquer, becomes incredibly hard and robust. It is resistant to water, heat, salt, alkaline and acid substances, even nitric acid, a substance capable of dissolving metal. What’s more, the lacquered finish guarantees protection from germs. It is said that a 2,000-year-old lacquered object was found inside a pool of muddy water that retained the brilliance of the past. Lacquered wood objects are also ecological: the bark of the lacquer tree is engraved and its sap is collected drop by drop. Using these traditional methods, a maximum of 200 grams of sap can be obtained from a plant grown for 15 years! A raw material that is able to last for over 1000 years can only be regenerated in 15! It is not uncommon for those who are faced with a lacquered wooden object for the first time to be struck by the lightness of the material and the extremely smooth finish. This combination leaves less experienced observers so stunned that they mistake this high quality wood for plastic. To date, there are about 60 wood artisans who still operate in this area, carrying on the tradition and maintaining the superb skills of their predecessors. Their creativity, combined with that of the lacquer artists, promises to write many more chapters in the formidable history of wood craftsmanship in this city.