5 minutes with... Shibata Zeshin’s The Narrow Road to Shu

Specialist Takaaki Murakami reveals why this scroll painting made with lacquer, which sold for $275,000, represents a triumph of innovation in a centuries-old tradition 


Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) has been hailed as Japan’s greatest lacquer artist. According to Takaaki Murakami, Head of Sale for Japanese and Korean Art at Christie’s, he should also be celebrated as an innovator. ‘Zeshin reinvented the medium,’ argues the specialist, ‘especially in his later life.’

In 1854, after more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation, Japan opened itself up to trade and diplomacy with the rest of the world by agreeing to the Treaty of Kanagawa. The sudden influx of foreigners contributed to a complex period characterised by rapid modernisation, fuelled by the exchange of ideas with the West, and disruption to longstanding Japanese traditions. The Narrow Road to Shu  dates from 1877, by which time Zeshin had witnessed the great transition from the feudal society of the Edo period (1615-1868) to the enlightened, Westernised Meiji period (1868-1912). 

Zeshin was aged 71 when he signed this painting, and attempting to merge the style and design sensibilities of Edo-period Japan with those of the new order. The scene — a treacherous path in the mountains of Shu in China’s Szechuan Province — was popular among artists of the Edo period. A precarious plank bridge meanders horizontally up and over the cascading river that cuts a deep gorge through the rugged mountains. At the far left, the gates and rooftops of the city of Chengdu can be glimpsed through the mist.

‘This work is quite small, but it is filled with incredible detail, which give it an expressiveness and a forceful sense of three-dimensionality,’ says the specialist

Zeshin was born in 1807 in the city of Edo — renamed as Tokyo in 1868. His father was an architectural wood-carver. By the 1850s Zeshin had become a famous and commercially successful lacquer artist. In 1869 he was commissioned to work for the imperial government, which led to his appointment as an Artist of the Imperial Household — one of only 53 artists to hold this distinction between 1890 and 1944. 

‘During the Meiji period, this was the emperor’s way of supporting domestic artists,’ explains Murakami. ‘The emperor wanted to introduce Japanese art to the international market after the nation’s long period of isolation.’

Zeshin developed exciting new lacquer textures and finishes that mimicked rusty iron, rough seas, enamelled porcelain, patinated bronze, or the delicate grain of Chinese rosewood. In the 1870s he also perfected the art of painting with black and coloured lacquer onto paper and silk. 

‘Lacquer is not like a typical pigment: it’s a very viscous, thick material, and one that could be unwieldy when showing this much detail and depth’ — Takaaki Murakami

Historically lacquer had been used primarily on decorative objects, yet Zeshin found a way to manipulate the sticky sap of the lacquer tree as if it were oil paint. Notably, the lacquers he invented for this process were flexible so that, as with this scroll painting, they could be rolled up and transported.

‘It’s easy to overlook how difficult this was to achieve,’ says Murakami. ‘Lacquer is not like a typical pigment: it’s a very viscous, thick material, and one that could be unwieldy when showing this much detail and depth.

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‘This work is quite small, but it is filled with incredible detail,’ he continues. ‘Zeshin’s technical dexterity, in particular, is remarkable.

‘The intricacy of the stream, the trees and the clouds coming down in stark blacks and browns all give the painting an expressiveness and a forceful sense of three-dimensionality.

‘This small hanging scroll — a technical tour-de-force — is unquestionably one of Zeshin’s finest lacquer paintings.’

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