By James Singer

May 03, 2004

(click on small images below for large images with captions)

The ceramic tradition in Japan is the most ancient on earth, yet one that has found vital forms of expression in the modern world. The oldest Jomon pottery was created over twelve thousand years ago but still informs the work of some living artists. Some contemporary Japanese ceramics reflect centuries old traditions while others incorporate elements from an increasingly international arena. Many do both simultaneously.

The ceramics presented in the exhibition “Contemporary Japanese Ceramics” include work by a number of contemporary artists and illustrate, in a necessarily subjective fashion, their creativity, technical virtuosity and diversity.

Nowhere is there as great an appreciation for the potter’s art as in Japan. Many competitions are held on both national and local levels and are widely reported in the press. Success in these contests is often critical for the artist’s career and plays no small part in what he can charge for his work. Exhibitions occur regularly in the most prestigious of venues, where collectors compete for the finest pieces. This appreciation is vital for the art, for one of the elements that contribute to the excellence of the Japanese ceramicist is the fact that the country’s 10,000 potters vie for the attention of a highly informed and demanding clientele.

Surely nowhere else has connoisseurship itself been raised to such an art form. Modern appreciation for ceramics in Japan arguably begins with the tea ceremony as practiced and promulgated by the 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) and his followers. Part of the elaborate ritual of the tea ceremony involves careful consideration by the participants of the ceramic utensils used to serve the tea. Tea diaries were kept and impressions of the tea bowls and ceramic paraphernalia were recorded. These diaries are important documents for our understanding of Japanese aesthetics and connoisseurship. This translates even today into the very high prices artists can demand for tea ware as opposed to comparable work intended for less ritualized use.

This exhibition concerns itself with modern Japanese ceramics. As the ceramic tradition has been evolving continuously in Japan, the point of departure for the modern movement is a matter of choice. One could look, for example, at the innovations that took place with the opening of Japan to the West in the mid 19th century, when gas kilns, plaster molds and synthetic glazes were first introduced. However, in this essay we will start with the work of the potters Hamada Shoji (1894-1977) and Kawai Kanjiro (1890-1966) and the philosopher Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961) in the early decades of the last century. It was Yanagi who, in 1925, coined the word “Mingei” or “art of the people” to describe the traditional Japanese crafts, including ceramics, that he and his two colleagues realized were threatened by the introduction of mass produced wares. As a result of their efforts, attention was drawn to these near to vanishing traditions and interest stimulated in preserving them. One important consequence was that schools were established to preserve these traditions, as were appropriate curricula in already existing institutions. At the same time, emphasis was placed on individuality, innovation and great technical skill. As a result, even artists working in ultra contemporary idioms owe much to these pioneers.

Today, ceramic artists in Japan work in a wide variety of styles and traditions. Any effort to compartmentalize them is necessarily arbitrary, but I prefer to distinguish between those whose work is primarily functional as opposed to those whose work is made primarily for display, and those who work in traditional styles as opposed to those that have been more influenced by modern idioms.

Traditional artists look more to the past for inspiration, though they may draw from many sources – porcelain and stoneware, glazed wares and unglazed, celadons imported from Korea and China, tea bowls redolent of Oribe, Shigaraki, Bizen or any number of other styles, and their work tends to fall into the functional category. Tea ware, one of the most important ceramic genres, is often inspired by Momoyama prototypes, typically roughly formed vessels with complex glazes. Innovations occur but shapes tend to be traditional and form necessarily follows function.

Gerd Knapper

One of the most traditional artists represented in this exhibition was in fact born in Germany. Gerd Knapper (born 1943), first came to Japan in 1967 and apprenticed with Suzuki Seisei and Shimaoka Tatsuzo, before establishing his own kiln in 1969. Early in his career, he distinguished himself by winning first prize in the Traditional Japanese Ceramic Art section at the first Japan Ceramic Art Competition in 1971 and has since become a significant figure in the ceramic arena. Knapper’s work is mostly functional, employing traditional shapes and techniques, such as poured and ash fired glazes, in the manner of Hamada Shoji, Kawai Kanjuro, et al. However, they are at the same time modern, incorporating non-traditional designs, such as the chevron patterns and Ban Chang (Thailand) inspired swirls that Knapper carves into many of his pieces.

By contrast, Nagae Shigekazu (born 1953) demonstrates a more radical break with tradition. His work is characterized by innovative techniques and forms, as well as a total disregard for traditional colors and glazes. Nagae drips liquid slip into molds to create designs evocative of Jackson Pollack. These shapes are then allowed to deform in the kiln, an effect redolent of many traditional wares where random kiln effects are often prized, demonstrating a synthesis of both eastern and western, and ancient and modern values.

Nagae Shigekazu

Yukio Yoshita

Yoshihiko Yoshida

Yukio Yoshita was born in Ishikawa Prefecture in 1960. He is a graduate of both the Kanazawa College of Art, where he is now a part time professor, and Kutani-Yaki Technical Training Institution. He has won numerous awards and prizes in juried exhibitions in Japan, where his work has been widely shown in various galleries. He works in porcelain to which he applies complex glazes. The piece shown here is typical in demonstrating his use of warm, faded-looking pastel colors. He uses very thin multiple applications of multicolored glazes and gold to give a rich layered texture to his work, which must undergo multiple firings between glazings.

Yoshihiko Yoshida (born 1936) is traditional artist who nonetheless also manages to invoke a contemporary feel in his work. He was a pupil of the renown potter Arakawa Toyozo, where he apprenticed for thirteen years until starting his own kiln in 1969. His work is recognized particularly for the subtlety of his glazes. In the work shown here, he has paddled a thrown bowl into a six sided form and applied a Shino glaze with understated iron glaze markings.

Fukami Sueharu

Another type of continuity is seen in the sculptures of Fukami Sueharu (born 1947). Fukami works in seihakuji or pale blue-green celadon glazed porcelain. Celadon wares, long prized in Japan since they were invented by the Chinese in the 11th or 12th century, have been made in Japan since the 16th century and have been appreciated there ever since. Yet while some of Fukami’s subject matter, such as his oversized sword blades, is informed by Japanese tradition, his elegant sculptures clearly reflect an international style. Constantly refining his shapes, his work is noted for its technical perfection. Fukami, who likes to inspire his viewers by giving his sculptures big titles, like “Cosmos” and “Hope,” is on record as saying that he has tried to remove any evidence that his hands ever touched the clay.

The young artist Takahashi Kazuya (born 1978), concentrating, like Fukami, on pure form, creates graceful rhythmic shapes inspired more by modern Western design than traditional Japanese elements. Clean, dramatic lines are often highlighted with sharp angled edges distinguishing his slip cast works in unglazed porcelain.

In contrast, there is the spare, spiritual work of Mihara Ken (born 1958). His restrained but varied shapes evoke a sense of harmony that emphasizes the quality of the clay. Mihara’s hand built works are first fired at low temperature and then covered with fire resistant clay before being high fired. When after firing the outer covering is removed, the austere character of the unglazed stoneware is revealed.

Mihara Ken

Takahashi Kazuya

Kamei Yoichiro

Finally, we present the very contemporary work of Kamei Yoichiro (born 1974). In 2001, Kamei became the second youngest person ever to win the Grand Prize at the prestigious Asahi Ceramics Fair. His work was chosen both for his totally original architectural concept and for the technical achievement of joining complex porcelain bodies.

I have tried in this brief introduction to show the diverse yet some-how coherent qualities inherent in modern Japanese ceramics. Japanese ceramicists today draw freely from the most ancient traditions and the most modern elements of design, technique and materials. In particular, I have tried to highlight the East-West dialogue that informs much of this work.

Fortunately, in recent years this dialogue is increasingly being conducted in America with Museum exhibitions – three notable examples are included in the bibliography – through art galleries, through a growing literature and, not least, in the work of many American ceramicists whose efforts have been influenced by the East just as artists in Japan have been influenced by the West.

The discussion presented here has been necessarily limited by space, but the interested reader is referred to the following brief bibliography:

Baekeland, Frederick, Modern Japanese Ceramics In American Collections. Japan Society, Inc, New York, 1993

Cort, Louise Allison and Winther-Tamaki, Bert, Isamu Noguchi And Modern Japanese Ceramics. The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C., 2003

The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, New Expression In Porcelain:Developments In The 1990’s. Tokyo, 1996

Moes, Robert, Quiet Beauty, Fifty Centuries Of Japanese Fold Ceramics From The Montgomery Collection. Art Services International, Alexandria, VA 2003

Nakaizumi, Masamichi and Todate, Kazuko, ed, Leaders Of Contemporary Japanese Ceramics: Exploring Techniques And Forms For The New Century. Ibaraki Ceramic Museum, Ibaraki, 2001

It is a matter of great sorrow to us at that the publication of this article comes after the passing of the author, who died on March 9, 2004. James Singer was a private dealer specializing in contemporary Japanese ceramics and Asian antiquities; he was also an early and enthusiastic supporter of and a good friend. We will miss him as will his many other friends in all walks of life.