Chawan: Simply, some of the hardest works of pottery to create

by Robert Yellin

Special To The Japan Times

In the world of Japanese traditional ceramics there is not one form held in higher esteem than a chawan, a “mere” bowl used to serve whipped green tea.

For more than 400 years this celebrated clay form has challenged potters to create a perfect vessel of segmented harmony to “simply” enjoy a cup of tea. Yet there is much more than meets the eye when we begin to look at chawan and the subtle nuances they embody, the spirit they reveal, and the so-called “hand-held universe” as they are poetically referred to.

The masterpieces from Japan were made in the Momoyama and Edo periods (1573-1867) and again in a Momoyama-style revival of sorts beginning in the 1930s. It’s from this latter period to the present that the current “Master Teabowls of Our Days” exhibition at the Musée Tomo Museum focuses on, and it starts with the greats of the day.

But before mentioning names, what are the factors that define a worthy chawan? This surely is a question open to debate, yet most will agree upon this: It has to be a well-balanced, pleasantly-weighted form that brings together all aspects of composition from the way the lip is angled, to the curves of the body and how that will influence the inner “pool,” all the way down to the underside where the kodai-foot is carved. (Some may say chawan aficionados have a kodai fetish, but more on that later.)

Now this may all sound very easy, yet many potters have told me making a good chawan is the hardest thing in the world for them. Why? It’s the giving birth to the essence of materials and hopefully allowing technique to be forgotten, so that forming becomes like breathing, while spirit shines; only then will a chawan come to life.

The ones on display at the Musee sing that song of “life.” Interestingly enough, the chawan chosen for the cover of the catalog was made by a self-confessed amateur, Handeishi Kawakita (1878-1963). Kawakita was not a potter by trade; he came from a wealthy banking family based in Tsu, Mie Prefecture. At the age of 56 he left behind the corporate world and built a climbing chamber kiln on his extensive property. Thus began his life as a potter.

Eight years later he invited three of the most esteemed potters in the land to form the Karahinekai Society. Two of the three have works in the exhibition: past Living National Treasures Toyozo Arakawa (1894-1985, for Shino and Black Seto styles) and Toyo Kaneshige (1896-1967, for Bizen). The group, its third member being past Living National Treasure Kyuwa Miwa (1895-1981, for Hagi), was extremely influential in fostering the renewed interest in the tea vessels, most of all the chawan.

Kawakita was a liberating force for this star-studded society as he didn’t come from a ceramic background — and surely not one as illustrious as say the Miwa family who are now into their twelfth generation—yet was free and unfettered to create original works and not carbon copies of past Momoyama masterpieces. This emancipating factor on others cannot be underestimated as it freed the minds of these generational potters and thus their chawan took on new forms and designs as well, the influence is felt in all the chawan in this exhibition.

Kawakita’s chawan titled “Samidare” is striking for the way the foot is carved, actually bringing it up on one side — so simple and beautiful yet something that had never been done before. The kodai-foot, as mentioned, is a most important part of a chawan — it’s nice to see photos of the kodai next to each chawan in the exhibition — as it reveals the skill of the potter as well as his or her spirit, a signature of sorts. On a piece where the body is fully glazed, the kodai is also the only place to enjoy the regional “clay flavor” of a work. Kawakita, of course, knew all this yet wanted to make it blatantly clear that all need to look at the kodai, even if a portion of it is on the side.

From the first piece by Kawakita that greets visitors, the exhibition meanders off into a glowing parade of some of the most glorious chawan created within the last 72 years. There’s the great Kyoto potter Kanjiro Kawai’s (1890-1966) tri-colored splash chawan, Tokuro Kato’s (1898-1985) renowned “Devil Island” Shino chawan, and Jusetsu Miwa’s (1910-2012) massive split-foot Hagi “Life Blooming” chawan.

Living masters include Raku Kichizaemon XV (b. 1949) with three chawan — the most by one person; Ryuichi Kakurezaki (b. 1950) with two gnarly Black Bizen chawan; and Hiro Ajiki’s (b. 1948) black checkered one. There are 40 artists represented in the exhibition, with the youngest in their 30s, and all the works were selected by the greatest chawan critic of Japan, Seizo Hayashiya.

“Master Teabowls of Our Days” at the Musée Tomo runs till Jan. 5, 2014; open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.musee-tomo.or.jp/exhibition.html Email Robert Yellin at robert@e-yakimono.net if interested in visiting the exhibition together for a talk on the artists. Robert’s website is www.japanesepotter.com or follow his gallery on Facebook.