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Liberating Japan’s world of ceramics

by Robert Yellin

In the ceramic world of early 20th-century Kyoto, Chinese ceramics, not Kyo-yaki (Kyoto-style pottery) were the rage of the day, and any potter worth a spin on the wheel strove to emulate them. In form and color, the ability to perfectly copy an ancient Sung dynasty vase was held up as the highest peak a Kyoto potter could climb. Kyoto was to remain bound in a Chinese spell for at least four decades, until World War II changed everything.

Against this backdrop, Kazuo Yagi (1918-1979), one of Japan’s most influential ceramic artists of all time, was born and matured. Known as the father of modern Japanese ceramics, Yagi not only changed the way Japan thought about clay art with his groundbreaking ideas and creations, but he also brought about a revolution in the studios of Kyoto that has continued to this day.

In commemoration of the 25th anniversary of his death, a large retrospective has been traveling Japan since last year and has now made it to the capital. Showing at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum until Aug. 21 is “Kazuo Yagi — A Retrospective,” a rare chance to see a broad range of clay art from the man who shook the conservative mid-20th century Japanese clay world to the core.

Born the first son of traditional Kyoto potter Isso Yagi, one would naturally have assumed that the young Kazuo would apprentice under his father and continue in the chawan (tea bowl) tradition. Young Kazuo never traveled down that path though. His inquisitive young mind was constantly looking skyward to the boundless distance and unlimited opportunities that existed after Japan’s surrender.

Inspiration for his work came not from his father’s work, or the work of his father’s contemporaries, rather it appeared in the works of foreign painters Paul Klee, Max Ernst and Joan Miro, as well as the terra cotta sculptures of Isamu Noguchi and Shindo Tsuji. In “Futakuchi Tsubo (Jar with Two Mouths” (1950), an early work in the current exhibition, the influence of Miro is bursting out all over the pedestaled form.

What makes the piece so unique is how Yagi has taken the rounded form — as a potter would on the wheel — and manipulated the clay into a more sculptural shape by adding a soft indention and then the two mouths. He then painted, in a more Western color scheme than found on Kyoto ceramics, intersecting lines and dots that bring the piece into a painterly realm.

This was Yagi’s genius: breaking through rigid barriers of long established views that a pot is simply a pot and must serve some functional duty. He brought together sculpture, poetry, painting and philosophy and pumped them through his being — the two mouths on this piece literally resemble heart valves — in a way that even today continues to positively confront us with the possibilities of clay.

His groundbreaking work, and possibly the most influential ceramic sculpture (or o^bjet-yaki as Yagi preferred) Japan has ever-known, is his 1954 piece, “Walk of Mr. Samsa.” It’s not so much the piece itself that has caused so much talk all these years; it’s more the concept and the liberation brought about by his method of forming it.

Up until “Mr. Samsa,” the potter’s wheel was seen as the main shaping tool, which greatly influenced forms by the sheer centrifugal energy it produced. Mostly the results are round, cylindrical and symmetrical. Yagi liberated himself, and his imagination, by simply looking at the wheel as one of many tools, and not the sole force that dictated the resulting forms of the clay. For “Mr. Samsa” he chopped up his thrown tubes and attached them to the Ferris-wheel body in angular antennaelike appendages — after all, protagonist Gregor Samsa did turn into a cockroach in Franz Kafka’s 1915 novel “Metamorphosis.”

The work is the marquee piece of any Yagi exhibition and greets the visitor in the first room at the museum. Few exhibition spaces can match the warmth and intimacy that the intimate Art Deco atmosphere of the Teien, a former Imperial residence, offers. “Hand,” one piece from his famous latter series, is even, oddly enough, displayed in an upstairs bathroom.

The rebellious Yagi wasn’t so much interested in breaking traditions, as much as he wished to expand on them. He felt the Kyoto clay world was contrived, stagnant and self-righteous. Understanding the beauty of classical Chinese, Korean and Japanese ceramics, he took ideas from all these respective pots, rather than merely copy them. This is apparent in 1971′s “Open Open” box, his remaking of Korean incised slipware with English graffiti, or in 1948′s Kyoten (Kyoto Exhibition) award-winning “Annular Eclipse,” a tall vase decorated in the style of Klee.

Yagi also made a revolutionary leap in naming his works — for example, his main clay group is called “Sodeisha (Crawling through Mud).” Formerly, works had straightforward names such as “Flower Vase, Iron Glaze.” Yagi was twisting minds with his naming, even making a “vase” that in no way can hold water (No. 21 in the lavish bilingual catalog). Other names that stick in the mind are “Village in the Bottom of a Lake,” the eerie “A Cloud Remembered” and “Aspect of Budding.”

In his latter years Yagi preferred working in black, as it allowed the forms of his work to speak the loudest. He also took to glass and bronze, and many works in these two mediums are also in the exhibition.

When asked to describe his art, he replied like Bob Dylan, the “song and dance man,” “I’m just a tea-cup maker.” Yagi’s genius sings on.