Sunday, December 8, 2013

Japanese Lacquer Ware Tells An Ancient Love Story

There is a fascinating story to be discovered through a piece in Jacqueline Avant's fine art works collection. This has involved a vintage collection of mostly pre-modern Japanese lacquer wares on display in southern California not very long ago. The images which have been engraved on several beautiful pieces in the Avant Collection include references to the literature of the courts. Interpretations of poems appear on lacquer regularly from the 13th century to the present time. The Six Immortals (872-945 AD) in the preface to the "Kokinshu" anthology form the basis for early literary quotes in lacquer. By the 18th century, images from poetry about the seasons of romance, themes from court fiction, or images from noh drama held an important presence among lacquer designs. When the Avant Ono no Komachi "suzuribako" was produced, layers of reference had accumulated around a theme like Komachi's. Therefore, the sad story of Ono no Komachi is indeed an interesting one to reflect upon.

Komachi lived a life that became a legend in her own time and has grown since in popular fascination. She was a stunning beauty of a young woman. A number of interested young men attempted to gain her favor. However, Komachi was not interested in any of the men who tried to pursue her. According to the mythology which surrounded her, she informed one suitor that if he came to visit her one hundred times only then would she allow him his earnest wish. This man was madly in love with Komachi, so he agreed to the arrangement. After many visits, he began to feel confident about his chance of success in the end. Then there came a night when one of his parents died. He was summoned away for a time of mourning, so he could not visit Komachi on that occasion. When he returned to her, she promptly rejected him. Later, this man also died in a great soul-wrenching depression which was caused by the cruel way his lover had treated him. Consequently, Komachi spent the rest of her life alone. She lived beyond the age of one hundred as a destitute, old hag. Despite the enormous legend, there is very little in Ono no Komachi's original poetry to give details about her biography. There are poetic subjects of the spurning of a lover and the lifelong regrets about her fading beauty. In the end, her beauty was lost forever.

The design on one suzuribako- a container of brushes, ink stone, and ink stick -illustrates the famous Ono no Komachi at age one hundred in a Japanses play called "Komachi at the Gateway Temple." On the night of Tanabata, a celebration of the meeting of two constellations on the seventh night of the seventh lunar month, a priest from the temple Sekidera and his servant come near a hut near the mountains. The aged woman, known as "the ruin of Komachi," is supposed to reside there. This priest brings along children who are interested in the study of classic poetry. Their purpose is to request the interpretation of two of her very famous poems. One poem goes like this: "This abandoned house, shining in the mountain village. How many night has autumn spent there? Seeing the moonlight, spilling down through the trees, My heart fills to the brim with autumn." (Translation by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratami).

On the elegant lid of this container, Komachi smiles and reveals her rotted teeth. She is seated upon a straw raincoat and watching the moon over the faraway mountains. Her kimono is wrapped around her body in a loose way. The wardrobe also bears dragon roundels over a diaper pattern. All of these aspects make up a formal design that dates back to her noteworthy past in the imperial court of Japan. However, those glorious days are long gone in this sad portrait of an old woman with little comfort left in life. On this box her hut is situated before a brushwood fence with young pine trees in the front and a bamboo grove in the back. Both of these types of plants are symbolic in Japan of endurance through adversity. On the outer face of the box lid, the moon and clustered chrysanthemums are springing from a basket to Komachi's side. There are indicators of an early autumn which is in harmony with the seventh lunar month. It is interesting to remember that chrysanthemums likewise are symbolic of long life. This engraved portrait is a powerful reminder of the famous story of this once beautiful, young woman.... and her tragic, bitter fate.

Japanese lacquer collections are worth the time to study thoroughly, and then to reflect upon. In addition to their timeless beauty, they create a profoundly Asian atmosphere simply because of their historical reference. The Avant Collection is something only for the serious, wealthy collector to be sure. However, there are likely many fine replicated pieces which would suit your home or office very well. Take some time to learn what is available. You may be happily surprised!

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