Pottery is not only one of the oldest human crafts — it created a foundation for human culture. But after the introduction of plastics and other mass-produced materials, pottery and ceramics became less central to daily life in many parts of the world. In Japan, however, ceramics still have a vibrant history and presence, both as everyday objects and as exquisitely crafted (and passionately collected) pieces of fine art.
Archaeologists have uncovered pottery vessels that originate well before the Neolithic period, some dating back nearly 30,000 years. The practice of forming vessels with clay, then solidifying by drying or firing in high temperatures, was essential as humans shifted from hunting and gathering food to cultivating it, as it allowed more sophisticated cooking and storage. Pottery figurines of people, animals, and symbols were also central to the development of ritual and spirituality. The earliest pottery found in Japan dates back to 14,500 BCE, before the start of the Jomon period. Unglazed ceramics found after this time are characterized by marks made by cords or ropes pressed into the wet clay before firing in an open fire. This distinct pattern gave the name to that entire era of Japanese history — “Jōmon,” meaning “cord-marked.”
The Jōmon period stretched until 300 BCE, followed by the Yayoi period until about 300 AD, and over those millennia, the people of the Japanese archipelago shifted from hunter-gatherers to settled agricultural communities. Their pottery went through massive transformations as well. After 300 AD (start of the Kofun period), innovations like the potter’s wheel and kiln came into use, leading to vessels, figurines, and funerary objects that could be more uniform in shape and color. However, most products were still “earthenware” or “stoneware,” fired at lower temperatures and with unglazed, rough surfaces. Glazing began in the Heian era, when artisans first brought back the technique from Tang dynasty China. In the early 13th century, Katō Shirōzaemon, a craftsman from Aichi prefecture, studied pottery in China and returned to found a kiln at Seto which became a center for ceramic production. Glaze colors included brown, pitch black, bright white, and dark green. These wares were so successful that the term “Seto-mono” (literally “products from Seto”) became a widespread term for ceramics — like “Kleenex” for tissues — and the town became known as one of the most important “Six Ancient Kilns” of Japan (the other heritage sites are at Bizen, Echizen, Shigaraki, Tamba, and Tokoname).
Of course, Chinese ceramics, especially refined green celadon from Longquan and blue-and-white porcelain from Jingdezhen, continued to be widely imported by Japanese nobility, as well as inspiring trends in local production. Ceramics and teaware were prized as part of the tea ceremony, which had evolved as part of Buddhist practice, but had also become extremely lavish, orchestrated by ruling elites as a powerful tool of politics and diplomacy. But a major shift happened during the Muromachi period (1336–1573), when the famed tea master Sen no Rikyu made a conscious turn to old-fashioned, unglazed styles of Japanese pottery. It suited his desire to make the tea ceremony more “austere” and localized, as it was more humble, spontaneous, and rugged than its glazed (and often imported) counterpart. Rough earthenware tea bowls gained prominence, and were an obvious symbol of “wabi sabi,” the aesthetic principle that finds beauty in what is most simple, raw, and understated. This style was designated “raku ware” — first produced by a single family of artisans, and later adopted with variations by other kilns and even exported abroad.
In the following centuries, these two tendencies in Japanese ceramics were in dialogue with one another. On one hand, opulent and refined porcelain, sometimes blue-and-white known as “Arita” (named after the center of porcelain production) and blue-red-and-gold known as “Imari” (from the harbor which this work was exported) used brilliant lacquers and designs. On the other, the rough facades, crackles, imperfections, and asymmetries were the attraction of “wabi sabi” ceramics. In the political and upheavals of the early 20th century, traditional crafts or “kogei” were on a decline, but the “mingei” (or Japanese folk art) movement, spearheaded by philosopher Yanagi Sōetsu in the 1920s and 30s, helped valorize the “hand crafted art of ordinary people.” “Mingei” criteria included wares that were: made by anonymous crafts people, produced by hand in quantity, inexpensive, used by the masses, functional in daily life, and representative of their home region. This emphasis on craft and everyday utility continued once ceramics were revived in the post-World War II era, and paradoxically, may have helped create a path for more experimental ceramics as well.
Over the past decades, many artists have turned to ceramics as a medium that unites deep knowledge of tradition with fresh creative expression. Today, contemporary “studio pottery” is still a vibrant art form, filled with those who are innovating with form (like Hiroshi Nakajima, who tweaks existing techniques of celadon), or concept (like Chieko Katsumata, whose works take on improbable forms like coral reefs), or both. Their impact can be seen the global art world, which has recently embraced pottery and traditional crafts as a hot commodity like never before, as well as in popular culture, where a new generation’s interest in home decor and artisanal tea, coffee, and plants have driven a market for ceramics. It may have surprised Sen No Rikyu to know that many hundreds of years after his death, influencers would be using the #wabisabi hashtag as they post photographs of their steaming matcha in an earthenware cup. But if these objects can cause the same contemplation, perhaps he would have approved.
JAPAN HOUSE Related Exhibition
KESHIKI | The Landscape Within
Contemporary Japanese Ceramics from the Brodfuehrer Collection
04.17.2019 – 06.09.2019
JAPAN HOUSE Gallery, Level 2
KESHIKI | The Landscape Within presents over sixty contemporary ceramic pieces from the Brodfuehrer collection, inviting visitors to join this pioneering collector in his journey around Japan. Check Exhibition.