Walters highlights cloisonné collection

Exhibit marks the heyday of the intricate, labor-intensive enamels made in Japan

February 14, 2010|By Karen Houppert | Special to The Baltimore Sun

There is a flock of ducks swimming these days among the reeds in Druid Hill Park's reservoir, dark and distinct against the snowy backdrop of our twin snowstorms. Chaos might reign in the skies, but the ducks go about their business in the shrinking pools of unfrozen water with peaceful determination.

Inside the Walters Art Museum, some distant Japanese avian ancestors perform the same rituals. Here, in the Walters' new exhibit of Japanese cloisonné enamels, which runs through June 13, the ducks grace a pair of vases created by artist Namikawa Sosuke, where they fade in and out of sight beneath a watery gray pond. These works are some of hundreds of cloisonné objects drawn from the collection of Baltimore resident Stephen W. Fisher, and they represent the heyday of Japanese cloisonné: 1880 to 1920.

Cloisonné is an incredibly labor-intensive art form in which fine copper or gold wire is applied to a metal vase, box or urn. The wires serve the same function that lines might in a painting - a distinctly sharp edge of emphasis - but also act as functional dividers between colors, which here are created by a ground-glass mixture. After the wire is glued onto the foundation, a paste of ground glass and chemicals is applied one color at a time to the object, which is then fired, cooled and prepared for the next color. Because colors are so painstakingly applied, it can take anywhere from a month to several years to create a single object. When the firings are complete, the glass is ground down and sanded and polished to a translucent shine. Typically, in Japan, numerous craftsmen did this work under the auspices of a master artist, who created the original design and supervised its execution. The works were especially valued by turn-of-the-last-century Japanese who, in a push to modernize, often highlighted the works on the mantelpiece of a solitary "western room" gaining popularity in otherwise traditional homes.

The origins of cloisonné date to 1500 B.C. when the Mycenaeans first began fusing ground glass to metals, and versions have existed in cultures around the world since - though most people today associate fine enamels with Chinese artists who, according to the Walters' associate curator of Asian art, Robert Mintz, took the craft to new heights during the Ming Dynasty.

Fisher's fascination with cloisonné dates to the 1970s, when he was wrapping up renovations on his large Bolton Hill home. The house was finished; it was time to fill it, so Fisher took up "antiquing" on weekends. He bought his first cloisonné object for $5 at a tag sale. It was a toothpick holder. He still has it nestled in among what is now a collection of Japanese cloisonné enamels numbering more than 200 - some of which he says, casually, cost "quite a bit more than a car."

His fascination with the art endures some four decades later - he somewhat sheepishly acknowledges hounding a local Baltimore man for 20 years after seeing a pair of cloisonné objects at his house, until the man relented and finally sold it to him - and Fisher moves through a preview of the Walters exhibition with contagious enthusiasm. "I have three favorites," he says, then corrects himself: "No, I probably have five favorites in this show." He begins to name them and then grows distracted by a pair of nearby vases painted with maiden flowers and chrysanthemums in which intricately wrought dragonflies circle the vases' interiors. "It doesn't get any better than this," he says, drinking them in for a moment before spying the pair of duck vases. "Aren't these poetic?"

Sosuke, who painted the ducks, was an imperial court artist working in the Owari tradition at a Tokyo cloisonné factory. He made a unique mark by eschewing the use of fine copper wires as a tool for sharp borders between color fields in favor of a more painterly style of blended, bleeding colors. His soft, muted grays and browns took the images in a more naturalistic direction while retaining a very traditional Japanese emphasis on empty space. The combination creates a quiet, muffled, melancholy feel - as if the snow has blotted out all distractions but the ducks. And if we blink, they too, like the snowbound avians in Druid Hill Park, might be gone in an instant.

If you go
Japanese cloisonné enamels from the Stephen W. Fisher Collection is at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., through June 13. Admission is free. Call 410-547-9000 or go to

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