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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