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Set of Twelve Incense Containers

Set of twelve incense containers

Set of twelve incense containers, 1900–1950. Lacquer by Suzuki Hyosaku I (1874–1943), decoration by twelve artists. Japan. Lacquer on wood. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60M295a-l.

What is the design of these incense containers?
This set of twelve incense containers contains a different design for each month of the year. Each container has its own box, and on the lid is written the month and title of the design motif, and the names of the artists. The designs are from left to right, bottom to top:

  • January:  A silk toy ball for a game played on New Year’s day
  • February:  Sacred jewel of the fox messenger of the Shinto god Inari in commemoration of a the Inari Festival held in February in some parts of Japan
  • March:  Cascading willow branch
  • April: Falling cherry blossoms
  • May: Saxifrage (yukinoshita) plant shoots of the early summer season
  • June: The Thunder God, representing early summer storms
  • July:  Silk thread and mulberry leaves (the food of silkworms) symbolizing the
  • Star Festival on July 7
  • August: A plump eggplant
  • September: Waves and rabbits (inside the container), symbol of the moon (prominent at this time of year)
  • October:  Rice plants and grains representing autumn harvest
  • November: Maple leaves
  • December: Leaves of bamboo, a plant that stays green in winter

How is this used in the tea gathering?
In a full, four-hour tea gathering, which includes the serving of a light meal, sweets, and two kinds of tea, the host builds the charcoal fire in front of the guests. The host then places a small piece of incense near the hot coals. As the incense warms, it gives the tearoom a pleasing fragrance. The guests ask to view the incense container more closely, and will likely inquire about the shape and the maker. In some tea gatherings, the host places the incense container in the alcove for the guests to view. Incense containers come in a wide variety of shapes—animals, seashells, gourds, toys—and often evoke the time of year. They are usually made of ceramic, shell, or lacquered wood.

How were these objects made?
Lacquer ware such as this may involve up to three artisans—one to make the wooden core shape, one to apply several coats of lacquer, and one to apply the decoration. Some lacquer artists do both the lacquer and decoration on their works. Japanese lacquer or urushi is collected from the sap of a tree (Rhus verniciflua). It is applied in thin coats, often in many layers. Urushi contains the same irritant as poison ivy or poison oak so many people have uncomfortable skin reactions when contacting liquid lacquer. Each layer is sanded and buffed before the next layer is applied. Lacquer artists must work in dust-free and humid environment so the coating will harden properly. The
lacquer forms a strong, watertight surface, but it scratches easily, so great care is taken to carefully wrap such pieces when not in use.

Sources:
Department of Asian Art. “Lacquerware of East Asia,” in Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. <www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/elac/hd_elac.htm>
Yoshiko Kakudo. The Art of Japan: Masterworks in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. San Francisco: Asian Art Museum and Chronicle Books, 1991, pp. 232–233.

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