|“Japan began marketing traditional wares to reach a
wider audience. Most of the works from 1876-1911
were made largely for Western clients.”
“I set my artistic goals a long time ago. When I became accustomed to finding great pieces,
I didn’t want to regress simply to good ones.”
The objects catch your eye as soon as you walk into the living room of his Baltimore townhouse.
Some line open shelves and catch the full gleam of sunlight pouring through windows. Others appear behind glass and glow beneath cabinets’ soft lighting. Some are midnight blue or mirror black, others gray, aubergine, and sea green. A few depict delicate birds perched on tree branches; others limn quiet houses in an idyllic Japanese countryside; some are decorated with floral bursts of color or etch a single tendril bending in the wind. The pieces are vases, jars, plates, incense burners, trays, and boxes. Each reflects an individual splendor that invites a second look, then a third, and eventually calls for a lengthy gaze of inspection and admiration.
At nearly 300 pieces, Stephen Fisher’s collection of Japanese cloisonné is one of the largest and most important in the world. The painstaking process of manufacture entails separating different colored glass pastes using thin wires of brass, silver or gold ribbon (cloisons), attaching them to a metal base, and firing the work multiple times in intense heat until the enamels melt and fuse. Japanese cloisonné enjoyed a short-lived and rare popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because of their complexity, lost records, and the demise of great masters, it is virtually impossible today to create the high-gloss treasures included in Fisher’s collection, which underscores their unique stature. What began as a hobby has evolved into a passion for Fisher, who has immersed himself in all aspects of cloisonné techniques, style, workshops, companion wares like porcelain and metalwork, and related history.
The rise of cloisonné can be indirectly traced back to 1854, when Commodore Perry arrived in Japan and forced the country, for the first time in more than 200 years, to open its doors to Western trade. “This inevitably led to the decline of the feudal system, and the restoration of the Meiji Emperor in 1868,” explains Fisher. In the 1870s, Meiji and his followers sought to modernize Japan, and the Golden Age of Japanese ceramics, enamels, metal work, and lacquer dawned, as artists, technicians, and scientists from Europe were enticed by the Japanese government to help update traditional art forms, allowing Japan to enter the modern age by competing economically with its Western counterparts. The artists created works of highest quality for World’s Fairs, beginning with the Philadelphia World’s Fair in 1876 and continuing with a range of international exhibitions: Paris in 1878, 1889, and 1900, Chicago in 1893, St. Louis in 1904, San Francisco in 1915, and back to Philadelphia for the 1926 sesquicentennial, the last time important cloisonné was shown on a global level (until very recently). A number of prominent families, impressed with the extraordinary refinement of the signed works, purchased cloisonné at those fairs and also when they traveled to Japan.
“Japan began marketing traditional wares to reach a wider audience,” says Fisher. “Most of the works from 1876-1911 were made largely for Western clients.” Demand for the art increased internationally, and artists scrambled to meet the requests. “At its peak between 1905 and 1920, there was a village outside of Nagoya called Toshima where cloisonné became a cottage industry,” says Fisher. “Almost every house manufactured cloisonné for commercial use.” Unfortunately, however, as the popularity of cloisonné grew, standards and quality began to decline: “When it became available to the masses, you could buy teacups and ashtrays for 25 cents at department stores in the United States. Fewer artists found it beneficial to create great pieces because demand for commercial items supplanted the market for masterworks.” Tensions between Japan and the U.S. prior to World War II eventually contributed to diminished quality and production; it became more difficult for artists to get supplies because the Japanese government needed copper and other materials for its increasing military machinery. Postwar, Japanese artistic endeavors were slow to be revived, and cloisonné-making suffered in such an environment.
In the 1950s, Fisher was growing up as an art enthusiast in New York City, where the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a stone’s throw from his house, and his mother, an amateur artist and mentor, arranged for private art lessons for her son from the age of six on. He was introduced to Europe in high school as an American Field Service exchange student to Belgium and later, as a history major at Haverford, he became fascinated with Japanese culture through his first-year Japanese roommate and a course he took with then-president Hugh Borton on modern Japan. After graduation, Fisher went to Vienna on a Fulbright fellowship, where he studied the Jugendstil art movement (known as Art Nouveau in the West) before it reached its later fame.
At the beginning of his nearly 30-year career as a public school teacher,
counselor, administrator, and principal in Baltimore, he was in the midst
of furnishing a townhouse and frequented flea markets and house sales.
He came across a Chinese toothpick holder and bought his first piece of
cloisonné for five dollars. “That started the madness,”
he laughs. He habituated antiques shops on weekends and went on to purchase
40 pieces of cloisonné in his first stage of collecting.
From then on, he tried only to acquire exceptional pieces of cloisonné. With a growing reputation as a collector of the finest available pieces, he traveled to New York, San Francisco, Miami, Germany, Switzerland, London, and Paris: “I left no door unopened.” He became acquainted with other collectors of Asian art, and if he noticed among their treasures a piece he wanted, he was prepared to wait as long as it took for the owner to sell. Several of his acquisitions he obtained after a 25-year wait.
“I set my artistic goals a long time ago,” says Fisher. “When I became accustomed to finding great pieces, I didn’t want to regress simply to good ones.”
One artist well-represented in the Fisher collection is Namikawa Yasuyuki, who flourished from 1872 through 1922. Regarded as one of the great cloisonné artists of all time, he helped usher in the Golden Age in the 1870s by working with German scientist and metallurgist Gottfried Wagener. Together, they developed mirror black and transparent red enamels. They also found ways to span larger spaces without the need for wires or cloisons to hold enamel in place. Pre-Golden Age, cloisonné lustres were duller and matte-like, colors were less luminous, and surfaces more porous; enamels were often held in place by the requirements of wires or cloisons. The Golden Age featured surfaces of high reflective character, intense hues, and the use of both razor-thin and sculpted wires to resemble brushstrokes, as in Japanese paintings. These, along with a series of varying techniques of signatures, helped to identify the work of Namikawa Yasuyuki.
Namikawa Sosuke, also a name associated with the best in cloisonné, was a member of the Imperial household guild (as was the other Namikawa, no relation). He developed the method of creating wireless cloisonné: “He often used wires for wet-packing the enamel and then removed them prior to firing,” says Fisher. The result of lines and openly shaded areas created a muted, painterly effect, particularly represented in trays, plaques, and vases.
Fisher divides his cloisonné collection into three schools: conservative, transparent, and exotic. The conservative school is characterized by extreme and often obsessive attention to detail and wiring, especially in the “diaper patterns” (geometric patterns usually seen in fabrics) used at the necks of vases, which were often treated like the borders of Japanese scroll paintings and screens. Namikawa Yasuyuki is considered the author and ultimate exponent of the conservative school.
The transparent school, according to Fisher, grew out of an attempt to imitate Chinese monochrome porcelains. It was influenced also by the European art glass of Emile Gallé and Fernand Thesmar, which Japanese artists had admired at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. In this style, semi-opaque and transparent enamels fill cells created by wires. In one such vase in Fisher’s collection, gold wires form birds descending to waves hammered up in silver repoussé. Another vase is totally transparent because the body used to create the vase was later etched away with nitric acid.
The exotic school often gives a three-dimensional effect: in one piece, both the stalks of flowers and the fireflies lighting on them seem to leap from the surface. Namikawa Sosuke, Kawade Shibataro, Hattori Tadesaburo, and Ando Jubei are prominent in this school.
Western works of art also adorn the Fisher house, such as European and American paintings from the 18th through the 21st centuries. But Asian art holds sway: Aside from the cloisonné, Fisher owns a number of Japanese Golden Age and postwar ceramics, baskets, textiles, and woodblock prints, as well as Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese ceramics dating from the 10th century to the present. Asian art frequently plays a signature role in the rooms he creates for clients of his interior design firm.
Still, cloisonne remians the focal point of Stephen Fisher's house and heart. He does not sell from his collection, although he has len works for exhibitions at galleries such as Baltimore's Walters Art Museum. And he'll continue to scour the world for pieces of the finest quality. As he's demonstrated before, he'll wait as long as it takes to find the perfect addition to this already awe-inpiring repository of cloisonne.