T he best works of art made in Japan invite the viewer to complete or add to the viewing experience. The creative approach to art and craft formation includes not just the artist’s intentions but the machinery of manufacturing--- be that a kiln or a camera—as an active and occasionally visible part of the production process. This lens towards materiality and creation applies to works dating from prehistory to the present day.
'True Beauty could be discovered only by one who mentally completes the incomplete'
The art of Japan at its very essence is performative and involves some form of subtle engagement between the object, place or space and participant. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the practice of tea or chanoyû. Okakura Kakuzô in his magisterial meditation on the topic, The Book of Tea, beautifully summarises the Japanese concept of beauty as active engagement.
An initial sense of disparity within the works brought together in Japan: Art and its Essence, is, upon reflection (and with help from Okakura's thoughts on tea practise) a rumination on history, location, process, and function. For instance, Hosokawa Morihiro’s powerful Large Iga Storage Jar is a masterclass on capturing an early Edo period jar from the kilns in Mie prefecture, close to Shigaraki.
Indeed, an impressive prototype for Hosokawa’s jar can be seen in the 15th-century Shigaraki Stoneware Storage Jar which is also included in the sale. This style of yakishime - high fire, unglazed stoneware - is a specialty of (but not limited to) Shigaraki, Iga, and Bizen (Imbe) kilns. Often seen in yakishime wares are marks or deformations, formed during the long firing process. In more recent times other styles of kilns are used and these accidental marks can now to some extent be controlled. But notably, these marks refer directly to the process of creation and have become a key signifier for wares such as Shigaraki and Bizen. The fire marks (hidasuki) in the Bizen Ware Deep Dish from the Momoyama period (1573-1615) was most likely intentional, and adds a dynamic colouration to the vessel’s surface.
Hosokawa’s jar has a large rupture in the lower third of the jar rendering it unusable for storage. The cracks appear as if something inside the jar was trying to burst free. The violence on the lower third contrasts starkly with the calm perfection of the upper body of the vessel. Clearly, Hosokawa knew what he was doing in creating this clean and aesthetically pleasing rupture. The work is a brilliant piece of modern art that interfaces with history (ancient kilns), process (fire power) and modernity (functional/ non-functional).
Tsujimura Shiro, the famous artist/ potter residing in Nara Prefecture and his two sons Yui and Kai also engage with creation, freely employing past idioms such as the yakishime technique and working at the interface of surface and form, modified by fire. Intriguingly, each has their own style, but the general artistic direction was blazed by their father Shiro. Indeed, Hosokawa apprenticed with Shiro before he set up his own kiln and Shiro’s influence is visible in his work. Shiro’s impressive, large Iga Stoneware Bowl undulates with the natural ash glaze, carefully channeling neatly into the interior pooling at the centre. Three circles appear on the rim, traces of the vessels placed on the top, during the firing process. Shiro has captured the firing process and immortalised it in his finished work, thereby completing the incomplete.
Yui’s Large Stoneware Bowl, again with three circles from vessels placed on it towards the interior’s centre, resonates with his father’s work but is also quite distinct. Yui works in the Sue ware (Sueki) tradition, a blue-grey stoneware that originated in China and Korea and entered Japan from southern Korea during the 5th and 6th centuries (Kofun era). This high-tech ware, fired at 1000 degrees centigrade in a reduction (oxygen-starved) kiln, was unglazed, although often would have had a natural ash, greenish-blue glaze formation on exposed surfaces.
In Japan, these vessels were originally employed for elite funerary implements - and roof tiles - but gradually evolved to commonplace daily usage. Yui’s ceramics capture the historical essence of Sue ware, with a modern interpretation. Kai’s work reflects different traditional kilns, raw materials and styles, but in a language all his own - such as the faceted flower vase that employs slab construction.
Kuroda Taizo with his playful forms that trick the eye is another example of an artist marrying historical references with modern sensibilities. Korean Joseon porcelain wares were his original inspiration; however, he has left his crisply-formed wares unglazed, and they appear architectonic and thoroughly modern. Michikawa Shozo and Ogawa Machiko both hailing from Hokkaido, also create thoroughly modern sculptural work. Michikawa’s work is functional, and Ogawa’s work focuses on the materiality of clay, occasionally likening it to geological formations and processes.
Other artworks included in this collection reflect traditional Japanese materials such as Orga, Vermillion, the urushi red lacquer by Tanaka Nobuyuki and an aizome indigo blue dyed Noh Robe and aizome gradation panels by Shihoko Fukumoto, that paradoxically feel much like contemporary art and yet are deeply historically rooted both in form and technique.
Frozen time with staged tableaux executed in a meticulous fashion are a selection of photographs created by Hisaji Hara. This collection showcases several works from his After Balthus series that references Balthus, the French-Polish artist who had a considerable impact on the Japanese art world, and whose works initially serve as a template for Hara, who takes the discourse to Japan and creates his tableaux in a disused medical practice. Not content with just re-contextualizing the images to Japan, he creates a film set-like stills in black and white employing multiple exposures while shifting the focus on a large format camera. Hara has succeeded in giving new meaning to his images while honoring Balthus, incorporating the past, through his camera equipment and handmade stage settings to a nostalgia tinted nod to post war Japan. Hara as completed the incomplete and by doing so has created something new, leaving us with multiple paths to interpret his work.
Okakura concludes his is chapter on ‘Art Appreciation’ in The Book of Tea to state: ‘The art of today is that which really belongs to us: it is our own reflection.’ The works in this collection show how that vital and vibrant dialogue with the past exists unbound within the present.