NEW YORK – The vivid colors dazzle your eyes, whether you are looking at a bright yellow flower, a sapphire-blue peacock against a cerulean blue sky, or a golden dragon breathing fire. This is the nature of cloisonné, which was mastered by Chinese and Japanese artisans centuries ago and found acclaim all over the world.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City describes cloisonné as “the technique of creating designs on metal vessels with colored-glass paste placed within enclosures made of copper or bronze wires, which have been bent or hammered into the desired pattern. Known as cloisons (French for ‘partitions’), the enclosures generally are either pasted or soldered onto the metal body. The glass paste, or enamel, is colored with metallic oxide and painted into the contained areas of the design. The vessel is usually fired at a relatively low temperature, about 800 degrees Celsius. Enamels commonly shrink after firing, and the process is repeated several times to fill in the designs. Once this process is complete, the surface of the vessel is rubbed until the edges of the cloisons are visible. They are then gilded, often on the edges, in the interior, and on the base.”
Owing to their showy look, cloisonné pieces were originally made for use in palaces and temples as they were considered appropriate here but not in a restrained home. Over time that would change and these works became highly prized.
According to an article published online by the Confucius Institute, Chinese cloisonné had its roots “in the Near East in ancient times and its craftsmanship reached its apex in the Byzantine Empire. In modern times, Western interest in the cloisonné was rekindled in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair, where works of Chinese cloisonné won first prize. Initially, craftspeople in the Ming Empire mainly created cloisonné artwork on metal objects such as brass or bronze vases, kettles or other objects. But they also innovated beautiful cloisonné artwork on porcelain vessels.”
Superior pieces of Chinese cloisonné are those having marks and of the period, said Isadore “Izzy” Chait, founder of I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers in Beverly Hills, Calif., while “Japanese (cloisonné) is a whole different subject. The Chinese started in the 15th century and the Japanese started in the 19th century … but the best is circa 1900 and early in the 20th century. Sometimes they are signed by the artist or workshop/factory. They also did wireless cloisonne … called musen shippo. They also did transparent cloisonné which we refer to (in French) plique a jour. they also did it on pottery and porcelain.”
The golden era for Japanese cloisonné was the 40 years or so around the turn of the 20th century. As the grip of the Tokugawa shogunate loosened, foreign trade became possible as the Meiji period (1868-1912) was ushered in. The resulting East-West trading allowed artists on both sides of the ocean to be inspired by each other with Japanese enamellists seeing how far they could take their craft.
While Chinese pieces notably tend to be fully decorated and Japanese pieces having more of the background showing, there are a number of differences between the two styles, including Japanese pieces being marked more often than Chinese Ming-era pieces. Japanese glaze colors also tended to have a broader range with Chinese pieces favoring the Ming aesthetic and opaque glazes. Openwork was more usually seen in Chinese pieces.
Among the stylistic differences between Japanese and Chinese cloisonné, Chait said, is that Japanese pieces generally have none or fewer wires in the background. Value can be dramatically increased if a piece is signed by famous makers, such as Tokyo’s Namikawa Sosuke, where even a small vase can fetch tens of thousands of dollars.
Sosuke was a renowned Japanese cloisonné artist, who is well represented in museums, including the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, which has an extensive collection and in 2010 presented a well-received exhibition, “Japanese Cloisonné Enamels from the Stephen W. Fisher Collection,”
According to the museum, “These enamels played an important role in Japan’s assertion of its own modernity in newly opened international markets. Reaching artistic maturity in the 1870s and being aggressively produced through the first decades of the 20th century, production of these brightly colored works was stimulated by worldwide demand fed by Japan’s participation in international expositions and world’s fairs. Masterworks of cloisonné were sent as showpieces to the expositions where they served both to meet European expectations of Asian exoticism and inspired the development of international modern decorative styles.”
“Cloisonné enamel has only a few precedents in premodern Japanese art but rose rapidly to become synonymous with the best of Japanese design, decoration and technical refinement during the liberalizing tenure of the Meiji government,” Walters associate curator of Asian Art Robert Mintz said at the time.
While most cloisonné is made with wire lines, a method of making wireless cloisonné developed in the 1880s and made famous by the Owari cloisonné artists that retains the brilliance of true cloisonné, with built-up layers of colored enamel, where the absence of the lines shows creates a painterly effect. Sōsuke and his factory’s artists were renowned for this technique in the late 19th century.
According to the Confucius Institute, three tips before you buy are to 1) feel the heft of a piece as a fine piece will have a fair amount of copper, 2) really feel the piece by running your hand along its surface to ensure the wires and enamel glaze are secured to each other seamlessly and a smooth surface means the piece has been polished well and 3) pay attention to the patterns and details to detect any air bubbles and ensure color is even and that transitions from one color to another are gradual.
Above all, enjoy these beautiful works of art rooted in ancient times.