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Namikawa Cloisonné Museum – Delicately Detailed Masterpieces

May Highlight

Old sign of the Namikawa Cloisonne Shop.

After the Meiji Restoration, there was a lively exchange of arts between the West and Japan. One of Kyoto's most renowned artists of that period, Yasuyuki Namikawa, was not working in Japanese arts, but in cloisonné, using a technique that was recently developed.

About Yasuyuki Namikawa

Yasuyuki Namikawa was born in 1845 in Kyoto as the third son of a samurai family. At age 10, he was adopted into the Namikawa family, who were lower rank samurai who were in the service of an imperial court noble family. In 1873, after the Meiji Restoration, Yasuyuki Namikawa began working on cloisonné, and thanks to his exquisite craftsmanship, he quickly became known as the foremost cloisonné artist of Japan. He worked exclusively in the so-called wired cloisonné technique, and his pieces of art are characterised by a hitherto unknown brilliance of color and an exquisite level of detail.

A contemporary photo of Yasuyuki Namikawa.

Yasuyuki Namikawa

His colorful works struck a chord in the West, a majority of his works was sold to foreigners and many pieces can be found in museums today. Already in 1875, he received a Bronze Award at the Kyoto Expo, afterwards he was awarded Gold Medals at the Paris Exposition of 1889 and at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. In 1896 he became one an Imperial Household Artist. Unfortunately, international demand declined during the Taisho period, and since national demand was not enough to sustain the workshop, the shop was closed for good in 1923. Yasuyuki Namikawa died four years later, in 1927.

Find out more about the interesting life of Yasuyuki Namikawa on the website of the Namikawa Cloisonné Museum (in Japanese).

Blue cloisonne vase with wisteria by Yasuyuki Namikawa.

Blue Vase with Wisteria, Namikawa Cloisonné Museum Collection

About the Namikawa Cloisonné Museum

The front of the Namikawa Cloisonne Museum, the old Namikawa family residence.

The Namikawa Cloisonné Museum was opened in 2003 and exhibits the works of Yasuyuki Namikawa, including vases, plates, incense burners etc. Besides the finished works, there are also design drawings as well as family photos. The museum's collection as a whole has been designated as Registered Tangible Cultural Property by the Japanese government.

The museum is located in the former Namikawa family home and workshop, in a building from 1894. After Namikawa's success at the 1889 Paris Exhibition, the building was greatly enlarged. Around that time, the beautiful garden was designed by Jihei Ogawa VII, one of the leading garden architects of the time. Although purely Japanese in style, Namikawa referred to it as the “Paris Garden“, in gratitude for his success there. Part of the living quarters and the workshop with the kiln have been preserved and are accessible to the public.

The museum is open for two exhibition periods in spring and autumn.

About the Current Exhibition

A Visit to Namikawa Cloisonné

People Crossing His Path

(April 5, 2019 - July 21, 2019)

The current exhibition showcases exquisite pieces from the Namikawa Collection, including rare vases with delicate landscape motifs.

For a more detailed description about this exhibition, visit the Namikawa Cloisonné Museum website.

Note: The museum will be open daily throughout the entire holiday period from April 27, 2019 - May 6, 2019.

Flyer for the current exhibition at the Namikawa Cloisonne Museum.

Interview with the Curator of the Namikawa Cloisonné Museum, K. Hirata

Let's talk about Yasuyuki Namikawa, who was not born a Namikawa, but was adoped into the family when he was 10. Why?

At that time, the Namikawa family had no children who could carry on the family name, so they adopted a son to ensure the family would not become extinct. This was traditionally a common practice in Japan and even nowadays it does happen on occasion. You must not think that the Namikawa family adopted a complete stranger though. Yasuyuki was the third son in another branch of the family who also lived in Kyoto.

In Japan it is common that there are families who devote themselves to a particular art form for generations. But Yasuyuki was the first (and only) artist in the Namikawa family, and he took up cloisonné relatively late. Why did he do that?

The Namikawas were samurai in the service of the aristocratic Kuninomiya family. That means that essentially, they lived off a stipend from the government, which did not make them rich, but allowed them a comfortable life. This all changed with the Meiji Restoration when the samurai lost their privileges. So, the Namikawa family needed to find another source of income, and they tried various things – chicken farming for example – but unsuccessfully. At the same time, the production of cloisonné was popular in Nagoya, and Shikisaburo Kirimura, a colleague of Yasuyuki, suggested to Yasuyuki to give it a try. That's the reason why he picked it up in the first place.

But even though it was strictly business, he rose to fame quickly, getting prizes for his work as early as 1875, and becoming an Imperial Household Artist in 1896. It also seemed that he was friends with the Imperial family. Can you tell me more about that?

I mentioned the Kuninomiya family before who were a branch of the Imperial family, so there was the connection already from the beginning. Of course, connections are not enough, he was indeed the foremost cloisonné artist of the time. He put a lot of time and effort into experimenting with colors and he even invented a new type of black glaze that can be found as a background in some of his works. The development of a good black glaze was very difficult, but he was able to invent black glaze that looked like lacquer.

Cloisonne vase with black background by Yasuyuki Namikawa.

Black Vase with Momiji, Namikawa Cloisonné Museum Collection

Cloisonné is a very old art form from the Middle East that came to Japan through the Silk Road. Still, it seems that cloisonné was not used much – compared to, say, lacquerware – but at the beginning of the Meiji Period, it became very popular all of a sudden. What happened?

Actually, cloisonné work was found in Kofun tombs (N.B. Tumuli constructed between 300 and 700 CE) but the origin of these pieces is not known. During the Edo period, cloisonné was used to make small items like tsuba swordguards or nail covers to hide the nails used in carpentry in elegant rooms. After the Meiji Restoration, Western art was very popular in Japan, and at the end of the Edo Period an artist from Nagoya studied old cloisonné and started to make them. From there, the art spread throughout Japan, including to Kyoto and the Namikawa family.

Could you briefly explain the steps involved in making a piece of cloisonné?

The basis of cloisonné is a copper object, so that has to be made first. Then, the design is painted onto the metal and onto the lines of the design, thin strips of silver or gold are glued and then fixed with a first layer of glaze. Then, colored glass glaze is filled in to the spaces formed by the silver and gold and the piece is then fired. These two steps of glazing and firing are repeated three to five times. At the end, the glaze is higher than the metal wires, and it is polished down carefully using more and more fine pumice. Making a single vase can take several months, depending on the size and the level of detail of the design.

Yasuyuki Namikawa employed craftsmen to work for him. Which of the steps above was he involved in personally?

His role was that of a supervisor and producer, meaning that he took care that everything went smoothly and met his expectations and standards. Only the best works would leave the workshop to be sold. Personally, he fired the pieces. Because time it takes the glass glaze to develop color is only about 10 minutes, it is very important to remove the piece from the kiln at the right time. This takes a lot of experience, and Yasuyuki Namikawa did not let anyone else do it.

How large is the collection of the museum?

The museum holds about 130 pieces of Namikawa cloisonné. This does not sound much; the reason is that his work was very popular and most of it was sold, often abroad. These 130 pieces were left when the workshop was closed in 1923. Note that the collection as a whole is a Registered Tangible Cultural Property.

Looking at the current exhibition, what is your favourite piece and why?

Oh, that's difficult... If I have to choose, I think I'll go for the white vase with the motif of Heian Jingu. This is one of the rare examples of a work with a landscape, and I find it very beautiful.

Cloisonne vase depicting Heian Shrine by Yasuyuki Namikawa.

White Vase with Heian Jingu Motif, Namikawa Cloisonné Museum Collection

Photos # 3, 5, 6, 7 courtesy of the Namikawa Cloisonné Museum.