Crawling through the mud in style

by Robert Yellin

Special To The Japan Times

It’s quite fitting that the major Osamu Suzuki (1926-2001) retrospective, the first since the ceramicist’s passing, is taking place at The National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, the hometown of the artist.

Suzuki was one of Japan’s most important ceramic artists of the 20th century and he reshaped a new Japanese ceramic scene out of the ashes of World War II. What must it have been like for a young budding artist to encounter a devastated homeland? For Suzuki and a few of his clay-artist partners, namely Kazuo Yagi (1918-1979) and Hikaru Yamada (1923-2001), it was a call to forge a new path, a new vision of the possibilities of what could be done with clay. Thus they created their influential Kyoto group Sodeisha, or “Crawling through Mud Association,” the name originating from a Chinese ceramic term that meant a glazing flaw. On their inaugural postcard from July 1948 this was their proclamation, “Postwar art needed the expediency of creating associations in order to escape from personal confusion; but today, finally, the provisional roles appears to have ended. The birds of dawn taking flight out of the forest of falsehood now discover the reflections in the spring of truth. We are united not to provide a ‘warm bed of dreams,’ but to come to terms with our existence in broad daylight.”

And the trio, in their own deeply powerful and influential ways, fulfilled their ideals in taking clay from utilitarian and tea wares to a realm of pure art that shocked Japan and at the same time liberated it from its past.

Suzuki was the romanticist of the three, often drawing on nature for inspiration and in this exhibition are 150 works, dating from 1949 to 1998, with titles such as “Afternoon Nap in the Summer” or “Spirit of Tree.”

Suzuki was born in the potting district of Kyoto as the third son of a ceramic specialist; his father was a wheel-master working for the prestigious Kyoto potters Zengoro Eiraku XIV (1852-1927), XV (1880-1932) and XVI (1917-1998). After graduating from the ceramic division of the Kyoto Municipal Second Technical High School in 1943, Suzuki later signed up for the naval air force; some months passed and the war ended.

Growing up surrounded by a rich Kyoto functional wares tradition, Suzuki didn’t take much notice of that until later on in his life when he remarked, “Looking back now, I think I plunged into this unprecedented adventure without really reflecting on what it really meant. Later, on reflection, I gradually realized the importance of this matter when seen in the light of the great tradition of Gojozaka (the major pottery district of Kyoto in the past).

Suzuki, Yagi and Yamada were impulsive youths, yet they were a group of sophisticated minds. They undertook deep philosophical, technical and managerial discussions as to how to proceed with Sodeisha. In fact, they set out to build a whole new vocabulary for Japanese ceramics, challenging their audiences with their “no mouth-opening” works that baffled viewers prompting them to ask, “What’s the function of this?”

Even more mystifying to many was the fact some works had triple openings or multiple appendages (see Yagi’s groundbreaking and rarely displayed, “The Walk of Mr. Samsa” on the fourth floor). There was not much practical usage here, yet there was a much deeper function, of uprooting the norm to blaze a new path of youthful visions for a war-weary nation looking to the future.

Suzuki’s “Clock of Kana” from 1965 chimes to that: three small windows are found within sections of the “clock” and are just there seemingly to create “empty” space. Yet, the scrambled kana characters appear as if kinetic energy is pulling them about and each wants to spin off the clock and fall into one of the dark windows to create a new life combined with the next kana. Although it was made almost 50 years ago, the analogy of random events that end up creating a story, or a life, appear true for any age, as much as we are given the endless possibilities of “kana encounters” we call destiny.

Suzuki’s deisho (clay images) and deizo (clay statues) are the works that have come to define him. He rejected using a wheel for much of his career and this rejection of past forming methods allowed him to create works of surprising grace and beauty with linear forms and subtle edges.

Starting in the 1960s, Suzuki took inspiration from Neolithic Jomon dogu and haniwa figures, particularly horses, and sculpted them down to a stark poetic essence. There are many in the exhibition, some stamped with snowflakes, yet one pairing in particular “Horse,” dating to 1967 and 1971, is a highlight of the exhibition. A later work from 1996 titled “Fleet Steed” is a statuesque piece that stands out. The way light shines off the slanted top is majestic and ethereal — if only the museum had installed shifting lights to highlight the shadows and various moods of the work. Many of these works, later taking on the themes of wind, clouds, birds, trees, seasons and sun, are in a rusty reddish glaze that Suzuki created, a glaze that personifies the elusive Japanese aesthetic term shibui.

Suzuki also worked in other styles, most notably seihakuji or bluish-white porcelain as well as persimmon glazes and rustic Shigaraki natural ash-glazes.

Suzuki’s influence carries on today with the many ceramic artists who passed through his university classes — he taught at Kyoto Municipal College of Fine Arts—and his works are held in major museums within Japan and around the world. This is a stunning exhibition that allows visitors to see for themselves in an unprecedented showing the reasons why.

“Suzuki Osamu: Image in Clay” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto runs till Aug. 25; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,200. Closed Mon. www.momak.go.jp The exhibition will move on to the Aichi Prefectural Ceramic Museum, Oct. 12-Dec. 23; Tokyo Station Museum, July 26-Aug. 31, 2014; and The Hagi Urakami Museum, Nov.1-Dec. 23, 2014. Robert Yellin’s Japanese ceramic art information site can be viewed at www.e-yakimono.net