The combination of Japan and metalwork together suggests the tradition of the samurai sword, and it is certainly in this world that Japanese craftsmanship is pre-eminent. Less known perhaps is the world of accessories to the sword in which precious metals combined with magical alloys of copper, gold, and silver to create visual and technical miniature masterpieces. Add to this Japan’s long tradition of iron and bronze casting, and the leadership of Japan’s artists in contemporary metal work is a predictable outcome.
After the Meiji Restoration (1868), the abolition of the samurai class, and the banning of the sword, metal craftsmen turned their skills to decorative objects for the newly emerging European market created by the series of international great exhibitions at the end of the nineteenth century. Large inlaid bronze vessels and vases, jewellery and cutlery, all saw the application of Japanese inlay and alloying techniques. Highly sought after today by international museums and private collectors alike, these are the pioneers of today’s dynamic and original work.
Japanese metalwork is situated in a different value structure from European tradition where preciousness may be seen to have dominated the effort put into the creation of the object. Japanese artists pay respect to the inherent characteristics of the material with which they work, exploiting the fluidity of the metal, its capacity to hold colour and textures and its richness in being just what it is – be it inexpensive aluminium or expensive gold. What may be regarded as ‘weakness’ or ‘faults’ in material or technique are often highlighted, even exaggerated, to become an integral part of the beauty of the work. This may also be seen as an inherent characteristic of the Japanese aesthetic, evident also in the worlds of ceramic, the practice of tea, and in the art of flower arranging.
Feted in the Western world, contemporary Japanese ceramic artists are exploring the full range of the potential of clay, moving away from the traditional embrace of the random intervention of fire and the kiln to a more creatively controlled process. Japanese metalwork artists, less widely known, are similarly engaged in a creative surge to explore the full possibilities of metal in technique, surface texture and form. This field of Japanese arts practice is nurturing some of the most exciting and innovative artists of contemporary times.