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For thousands of years, a profusion of Japanese art has been produced which has gained the appreciation of the Western world by virtue of its distinctive style, its choice of materials and forms, its simple elegance and unostentatious beauty. Much of it has also influenced Western art and defied imitation despite intense efforts made to this effect. There is an expression in Japanese which cannot be translated – one word which expresses an entire philosophy of artistic creativity: shibui. One can say that shibui stands for simplicity, for elegance, for unostentatious beauty, for Japanese aesthetics. Or one can simply say that shibui stands for something consummate which needn’t be reflected upon, something which is perceived as pleasing and is accepted.
What else has Japanese tradition taught us? Perfection and the will and patience needed to implement fine craftsmanship. Envision the moment in which the black ink of a brush touches the white paper: the character must be rendered instantaneously and perfectly. There is no turning back, no correction. One must simply be perfect in what one does. Manfred Schmid has subscribed to such perfection. He works with a material whose nigh incalculable naturalness requires a kind of cooperation hardly called for by any other. Urushi, the juice of the Japanese lacquer tree, must be processed arduously and with great patience. A material whose unique properties require a symbiosis entered into by the lacquer artist in interaction with the material; it is necessary for the two to communicate with one another.
Tapped from the lacquer tree and refined in various ways, Japanese lacquer is applied in wafer-thin layers over a long period of time. It does not dry; it hardens slowly under the influence of a highly humid atmosphere. It hardens while remaining flexible nevertheless. It has a cool appearance and yet it is pleasant to the touch. Building up the layers of lacquer is a complex process. One could liken its structure to that of the human body and the way it is made up of bones, flesh and skin. In the case of lacquerwork, what one sees is the skin; one looks at the surface. But the surface can only be as good as the foundation, like bones in the form of substrates and flesh in the form of primer coats. Patience and precision are the indispensible prerequisites for the success of the work as a whole.
- Haste and inattentiveness usually only meet their retribution at the very end in the form of unsightly skin. The basic principle is the structure of the layers, which become finer and finer the closer one approaches the surface, ending with the final sealing process in the last steps of polishing. Used for thousands of years as a protective coating, urushi quickly developed into a decorative material of surprising versatility. An enzyme called laccase, which the Japanese lacquer tree contains, invests the lacquer with a degree of hardness far exceeding that of any other Asian lacquer. This allowed for the development of typically Japanese techniques for interspersing precious metals and mother-of-pearl; these require that the lacquer is at least as hard as the interspersed material. Traditional basic colors are black and lacquer red like that still found in many Japanese utensils today.
- Manfred Schmid has devoted himself in particular to deep black, the basic color, in its depth, brilliance and beauty. Lacquer black is produced by adding iron filings. The iron triggers a chemical reaction and a discoloration of the material which the filings are filtered out of afterwards. In this way a material is created which possesses a seemingly endless depth but is free of pigments. Due to this and the application of many wafer-thin layers, a density and depth are obtained which are often quite reminiscent of glass. And yet the lacquering itself is not what calls for such great effort. It is the almost endless sanding and polishing of the individual layers, the investment of patience, sensitivity and listening during the polishing process. When working with ceramics, much use is made of the hands to shape things; the artist or craftsman invests the object with a very personal dimension.
- When processing Japanese lacquer, manual labor is also necessary but it entails quite a gentle manner of implementation. The wafer-thin layers are applied with brushes made of human hair, then sanded with natural charcoal and polished using leather and oil. Japanese lacquering masters like to polish the final layer with the skin of their fingers or the ball of the hand, which is viewed as the finest structure and a personal investment on the part of the artist. In the production of lacquer objects, immediate contact between the artist’s skin, the material and the individual layers renders a unity between the form, the raw material and the human being engaged in the process. This unity also reflects itself in the forms of objects produced by Manfred Schmid.
Although utilitarian in type, they are implemented here as solitary art objects with a power and expressivity all their own, objects which one can touch and should also use, but viewed and positioned as sculptures out of respect for their perfection or simply for fear of damage. Manfred Schmid plays with materials and forms. He combines deep black with silver, glossy black with matt black, incorporates matt red or combines the lacquer surfaces with a visible wooden structure. This all entails visual interplay uncompromisingly oriented towards the simplicity of the objects under exercise of aesthetic restraint. These are objects which repose in their use of forms while animating the beholder to explore the reflexes and play of light. Manfred Schmid’s cooperation partners are perfectionists in their own right.
He enters into a symbiosis here as well which infuses his entire creativity. In many years of arduous work, a mental ascent of Mount Fuji, he has reached a technical and artistic level even unmatched in Japan. He has always resisted influences; he has always taken his own path with its own highs and lows. And he will continue to follow this path, in the style of the Japanese tradition and with Japanese craftsmanship but in his own formal idiom and with his own signature, making each object a unicum which reflects the concept one can apply to his entire oeuvre – shibui. Günther Heckmann