Bronzes – Japanese

In bronze and other metals the Japanese need fear no comparison, within a certain range of subjects, with the best work which Europe can show. In artistic treatment of metals of small groups and natural objects, such as are depicted in their woodcuts, they have attained very rare excellence; and in nearly every department in casting, engraving, chasing, inlaying and damascening, they seem to have little, if anything, to learn from Europe. In bronze casting and moulding they may be considered masters. They are equally capable of colossal and minute work, and we believe there are processes known to them of which we are wholly ignorant. Their marvellous delicacy of touch and execution is more remarkable, because in the fashion of their tools, as in their smelting and refining processes, everything is of the most primitive kind. Their ovens, furnaces, etc., are simple and rude ; yet judging by the work, they have a perfect command of their materials, from the ironstone to the steel of their sword-blades.

If the Japanese have borrowed from the Chinese in bronze casting, they seem to have nothing to learn from us. They not only give all the delicate moulding of the lotus leaf, by some process unknown, but produce relief ornamentation by cutting the surrounding metal away. Such relieved work they further enrich with the burin or damascene with gold and silver. Repousse work is also known and practiced by them. They are much in the habit of graving diaper and other patterns on bronzes and filling them up with silver wire. They thus cover large surfaces of salvers or vases with good effect, and very original designs or patterns. The Japanese alloys are mostly used for ornamental castings, statues, musical instruments and bells. The name given to an alloy generally corresponds to the color produced by the treatment which the objects have to undergo before they are finished ; thus some of the alloys are named green copper, violet copper, black copper, etc. This color depends both upon the composition of the alloy and the chemicals used in coloring the metal. There are many different means used to produce one and the same color, and it so happens that almost every manufacturer uses particular compositions of his own ; generally it is only the proportions that differ, but sometimes even the constituent elements are different, although the alloy is called by the same name.

The green copper (Sei-do) is composed of copper and lead, or copper, lead and tin ; the Sentoku-do, of cop-per, lead and spelter, and, similar to the old Corinthian alloy, is said to have been first produced by a large conflagration which took place in China during the earlier part of the XVth century. The black alloy called U-do, of copper, lead and tin ; the brass, of copper and spelter, sometimes with a slight addition of lead, as for instance in Yechiu, one of the chief places of production of ornamental castings inlaid with gold and silver; the purple alloy is composed of copper and lead ; the so-called Gin-shibu-ichi is generally composed of six parts of cop-per or alloy and four parts of silver. Another peculiar composition is the Shakudo, copper with a small percentage (two to five per cent.) of gold, which produces a beautiful dark purple color, and is mostly used for articles formed by hammering or for repousse work, generally inlaid with gold and silver and producing designs some-what similar to the so-called ” Niello ” work.

The Japanese word for bronze is Karakane, which means Chinese metal. The industry of bronze casting is of very ancient origin. At first the metal was brought from China or Corea, as copper was only discovered in japan at the beginning of the VIIIth century, when bronze casting had already reached a certain state of perfection, since Giyoki the priest, who introduced the potter’s wheel, had proposed at this time to erect a monster statue of Buddha. His proposal was accepted and carried into effect by order of the Emperor Shomu (A. D. 724-749). There were formerly three of these statues in japan, each about fifty feet in height. The most ancient one, in Nara, built 743-752, was in the first place greatly damaged by an earthquake, which caused the head to fall off, and was afterwards destroyed by a fire which broke out in the surrounding temple, so that it had to be entirely rebuilt towards the end of the XIIth century. This statue still exists in Nara, in the interior of a wooden building of remarkable construction. A second one of similar proportions existed in Kiyoto, but was destroyed by fire. The third one is the well-known Daibutsu of Kamakura, and was built in the XIIIth century, of an alloy containing a small percentage of gold. Other specimens of large bronze-castings are found at Nara, Kiyoto, Nikko, Shiba in Tokio, in the famous bells which have an average height of fifteen feet and are more than ten feet in diameter.

Statues of all sizes, bells, vases, water basins, candle-sticks, incense burners, lanterns, etc., have been manufactured in large quantities for temples and their approaches. Portrait statues, like the monuments erected in foreign countries to honor the memory of celebrated men, have never been made in Japan. As articles for household uses we may mention fire-pots, water-pots, flower vases and basins in which miniature gardens are made, perfume burners, pencil cases, small water-pots of fanciful shapes for writing boxes, paper weights, and small figures representing divinities. These bronze castings are either made in the simple and severe style of the old celebrated Chinese bronzes, or else are specimens of the peculiar character of Japanese art, which chooses its subjects from natural life, either combining them with lively scenes showing a great deal of humor, together with the most minute copying of nature, or else using them to produce an artistic effect, often in a somewhat capricious way quite unexpected to the beholder. Occasionally the artist takes his subjects from Chinese and Japanese mythology, and produces all sorts of legendary animals such as the dragon, the stork, the tortoise, etc.., which are largely represented on the candlesticks and other castings used in temples or in the domestic chapels. The bronze utensils of these latter are generally composed of five pieces, two flower vases, two candlesticks, and one incense burner.

The bronze is cast in clay moulds formed upon models made of a mixture of wax and resin, which is melted out from the finished mould previous to pouring in the metal. The artist who makes the model generally does the casting himself, and in most cases the workshops consist only of the master’s family and two or three assistants. The melting furnaces are of exceedingly small dimensions, and generally made of an iron kettle lined with clay. After casting, the piece is carefully corrected and worked out by chiselling, but the best bronze workers prepare the model, the mould and the alloy in such a way as to pro-duce castings which need no further correcting or finishing. In some cases also the whole decoration is produced with the chisel working upon a smooth surface; this, for instance, is frequently done in the provinces of Kaga and Yechiu, which are very important centres of the bronze industry. The bronzing of the pieces is done in many different ways, each manufacturer having his own particular process, which he modifies according to the composition of the alloy and the color he wishes to produce. The chemicals used for this purpose are very few in number, and limited to vinegar, copper sulphate and verdigris as the principal substances; other materials used less frequently consist of iron sulphate, red oxide of iron and lacquer. It. may be added as a peculiarity, that an infusion of Eryanthus tinclorius is also made use of in the bronzing process.

The ornamentation of bronze castings is not only produced by relief patterns, moulded or chiselled, but also by inlaying the objects with gold, silver, or with a different alloy. This kind of workmanship is called ” Zogan, and is principally carried on in the provinces of Kaga and Yechiu. The process by which the inlaid work is effected differs according to the nature of the material on which it is applied. Sometimes the design is hollowed out to a certain depth with a graver or chisel, and the ornamenting metal, silver, gold, etc., generally in the shape of threads, is laid into the hollow spaces and hammered over; should the alloy be soft enough, the edges of these grooves are first slightly driven up, so that when the silver or gold has been laid in they can be easily hammered down again, so as to prevent the inlaid metal from getting loose, or else the surface is merely covered in the required places with a narrow network of lines by means of filing, and the thin gold or silver leaf fastened on to this rough surface by hammering. This last process is the one used mostly for inlaid iron work. It is also said that the design is often produced by a process very similar to that of the so-called ” Niello “; only instead of the black sulphuretted silver and copper, a more easily fusible alloy is used. In-laid work of the above kind is principally made in Kaga and Yechiu, at Kanasawa and Takaoko, where the alloy used for the bronze casting is mostly composed of copper, tin, zinc and lead.

In addition to the castings, the repousse work should be mentioned, by which mostly small metallic ornaments for swords, tobacco pouches, etc., and also larger pieces such as tea-pots, scent-burners, vases, etc., are produced. The inlaying of this kind of ware is sometimes of extraordinary delicacy and beauty. The dark blue color shown by a great number of smaller pieces is that of the Shakudo, composed of copper and two or five per cent. of gold.

Finally, attention should be called to the so-called “Moku-me,” a word which might be rendered by “veins of the wood.” The metal work designated by this name presents a sort of damask pattern, composed of variously colored metals, chiefly white, silver, red copper, and a dark blue alloy. Pieces of this very difficult sort of workmanship are produced by overlaying and soldering together a certain number of plates of the said metals or alloys, by hammering, kneading, resoldering, filling up the hollow spaces with new metal, and repeating these operations many times ; finally, when stretched out into a thin sheet, this composition shows the aforesaid pattern all composed of veins of the different metals that have been used. There is no doubt but that bronze castings, as well as the chiselled or inlaid ware, belong to the most remarkable creations of Japanese industry. Whatever may be the judgment concerning the model and the patterns, it will be admitted that the workmanship, the patience and the skill by which the most complicated forms are produced, as well as the art of combining variously colored metals, merit the highest praise and attention of connoisseurs.

The large bronze Koro (incense burner) in the centre of the gallery was dedicated in the year 1700 to the Sacred Temple of Kanyeizi, in Uyeno, Tokio, where it filled the place of honor until 1867, the year of the over-throw of the great Tokugawa Shogun. The results of the revolution were fatal to the revenues of the priests, who were forced to part with their treasures. The Koro was purchased by a bronze collector in Tokio, whence it found its way to this collection.

Among the noted bronze workers represented in this collection may be mentioned Gorosa, whose descendants to the ninth generation still produce artistic work; Saymin, the founder of a school of workers early in the XVIIIth century, whose designs and castings are unrivalled; also his pupils, To-un, Gui-do, So-min, Shingamitz, Doo-min, and Ka-ya-sai ; of this school there are some fifty examples in the collection.