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Muromachi to Momoyama period Negoro ware ewer

Negoro ware ewer, Negoro workshop, Muromachi period (1392-1573) to Momoyama period (1573-1615) second half of 16th century, lacquered wood, Wakayama prefecture, Japan (Portland Art Museum). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] I'm standing here in the galleries, the Japanese galleries at the Portland Art Museum. And we're looking at a recent acquisition. It is a ewer which is a particular kind of pitcher that comes to us from late 16th century Japan. - [Voiceover] The first thing that comes to mind is its material because when I first walked up to this I imagined in some way, probably because of the sides that it was metal. And when I came close to it I realized that it wasn't. It's wood, is that right? - [Voiceover] Yes it's wood. And what's interesting is that the body, and we often talk about pots in this anthropomorphic way. The body has a very slight, I mean it's almost a cylinder. But it tapers a little bit at the foot. So the body is sort of in the shape of a bucket. This isn't carved from a single block of wood but it's rather a strip of wood that was steamed and wrapped. Then we see these things that these ridges on it. Those are actually strips of bamboo that are sort of like little reinforcing girders that help hold that steamed wood in that wrapped cylindrical shape. - [Voiceover] So it's really a process of construction that's made in a way that is not dissimilar to the way that we might treat metal. - [Voiceover] If you think of a sheet of metal hammered and then bent, that's like that. And what is so interesting, if we think okay what are the normal ways that you handle wood? Well we think of carving wood. - [Voiceover] Yes exactly. - [Voiceover] That idea of making a vessel by wrapping a slab of wood into a cylinder and then putting a bottom on it, that is a technique in which Japanese wood makers excel. - [Voiceover] There's a kind of delicacy and a kind of I think that I get the sense of the thinness of the wall that seems to me only possible in metal. And I think that's why I jumped there. But I think that really speaks to the extraordinary sort of tradition out of which this is coming. And I see it as incredibly impressive. Can we talk a little bit about the way the wood is treated and the color which I find beautiful. It's got this almost gorgeous almost patina. - [Voiceover] Yes it does have a patina. This ware is an example of Japanese lacquer ware. So the wood turning, the wood bending, the wood shaping happens, and then it goes through a number of stages of being coated with lacquer. And lacquer is found really in much of Southeast Asia and East Asia. But in Japan, Japanese lacquer was so treasured by the Europeans when trade began that, analogous to the way that we use the word China to associate ceramics with China, Europeans used to call works that were lacquered Japaned. - [Voiceover] Oh is that right? - [Voiceover] It was so associated with Japan. And lacquer is the sap of a lac tree. It's a naturally occurring sap. So think of maple syrup. And think of it as something that trees ooze out at a particular season of the year. You have to go and tap it. And it's thick and viscous like maple syrup. Interestingly, it's also toxic. - [Voiceover] Oh really? - [Voiceover] It has the same chemicals in it that poison ivy does. So lacquer workers have to spend a lifetime building up resistance to this. So you have this lacquer and then you can, there's sort of traditional colors to dye it and in Japan, those two traditional colors were black, which you did essentially by mixing lamp black, a kind of soot with it. And the other was what you see here. This fantastic cinnabar red by mixing in cinnabar which is powdered mercury. - [Voiceover] So this was toxic on two levels. - [Voiceover] This is toxic on two levels, yes. - [Voiceover] I suppose one would save drinking water out of this, but it does sort of bring that to mind. - [Voiceover] Well, but by the time it dries, all that toxicity is gone. So what happens is lacquer has to be painted on in many many coats. But what lacquer does, and lacquer is used in East Asia from the fourth century BC onward, lacquer can make a wooden object like a high fired porcelain. It can make it perfectly impervious to leaks. It can hold hot water. It can hold cold water. So it can handle a variety of temperatures. It's perfect for containers like this. - [Voiceover] It's also gorgeous. The surface has almost a kind of translucence that's this kind of milky kind of beautiful. Is that original or is that a result of its age? - [Voiceover] Well both. Because it's many layers of lacquer. And the lacquer layers are very very thin and then they have to dry. And then it's polished. And another layer is put on and it's polished. And the secret of this particular ware, this comes from a monastic workshop in Japan. And it's called Negoro. That's the name of the monestary so we call this Negoro ware. First several layers are black. And then the last layers are red. And if you look at the handle you can see where it is touched the most often. The lacquer has worn a little bit thin. And a little bit of the black is coming through. And that is the secret of Negoro ware. It's seeing that suggestion of black underneath the red. - [Voiceover] It gives incredible dimension. - [Voiceover] It's like looking into this pool of red and then seeing the black underneath. But I think it really gives this depth. - [Voiceover] This is an object that comes from the 16th century, and yet it is so pristine. It is in such incredible condition. I mean it looks as if it was made just a few years ago. And it speaks to I think the resilience as you were saying of the lacquer. But is it also that these were because they were in a monastic enviroment that these were kept sort of out of everyday use? Why would this be in such good condition? Do we have any idea? - [Voiceover] Although Negoro ware is very very highly treasured today, and this particular shape and in this condition is extremely rare. We know of two similar pieces in American collections but that's all that I know of right now. Of this particular shape. This shape belongs to a particular moment in history. But it's not-- It would not have to its original uses or its original makers been a particularly a precious object. So we wouldn't think of it the way that Chinese would think of something like jade. - [Voiceover] So this was not safeguarded as a particularly special-- - [Voiceover] So it wouldn't have been hidden away. And in fact, that's great because look at the wonderful black that we can see in the handle. So it's not something that was brought out at Christmas. You know? It was something that would have been used. But you're quite right that because it was in a monestary and monasteries are likely to have the resources to have a big huge store house with a foot thick or two foot thick clay walls, that it would not be subject to the kind of frequent flyers that would happen to let's say an urban merchant's collection. That's one. And the other thing that's very important. Tea objects were treated with a special reverence. Now that's different than being precious, if you know what I mean. I mean I'm not talking about the preciousness of the material, but they were revered and taken care of very well. So the Japanese would make Paulownia boxes and they would keep it in the Paulownia box which keeps it from expanding and contracting in different weather and that stuff. So they take exceptionally good care of things. - [Voiceover] It is absolutely gorgeous and I have a totally new appreciation for it. Thank you so much. - [Voiceover] I'm glad you like it.