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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