The 19th-century Japanese artist Shibata Zeshin was the only lacquerware artist to be named the Artist of the Imperial Household, and with good reason. The boxes displayed at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts are astonishingly detailed and surprisingly whimsical. His Writing Box with Eggplant Design features a copper water dropper in the shape of an insect-eaten gourd amid crickets jumping between pieces of grass. Stationary Box with Attributes of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune is covered in items that might come from the latest Harry Potter novel: a hat of invisibility, wish-granting jewels, and a lucky raincoat. As if boxes weren't enough of a challenge, Zeshin began to paint with lacquer, a thick, tacky, substance that is difficult to work with. The results were spontaneous, elegant paintings full of movement. In Flowers and Grasses of Spring and Autumn, the lacquer and mother-of-pearl butterflies flit through the nearly empty canvas. Perhaps most charming and satisfying are the small albums of lacquer paintings. In one, a tiny figure crosses a snowy bridge to his snow-covered house. Go for the lacquerware, stay for the paintings.
Oct. 13-Jan. 6, 2007