Kakiemon: Generations of beauty

by

Special To The Japan Times

There’s still time to enjoy cherry blossoms. Through May 14, the Toguri Museum of Art in Tokyo is exhibiting a stunning new work by Sakaida Kakiemon XV, the current inheritor of one of the most famous names in Japanese porcelain. The very large lidded jar, commissioned by the museum to commemorate its 30th anniversary, is decorated with a cherry-blossom design that is at once bold and delicately refined. Together with the exhibition in which it stands as centerpiece, it beautifully demonstrates the ongoing mastery of the Kakiemon family.

For hundreds of years, since the middle of the 17th century, the celebrated Kakiemon line of potters has produced exquisite porcelain ware decorated in colorful overglaze designs. In their kiln in Arita, in what is now Saga Prefecture, they passed on from one generation to the next the special techniques needed to make what has come to be known as the Kakiemon style. Characterized by asymmetrical but well-balanced designs that make good use of empty space, this prized style of porcelain features a particularly white porcelain base and predominant use of the color red.

According to a document preserved by the family, a facsimile of which is displayed in the museum as part of the current “30th Anniversary Special Exhibition: Kakiemon,” this style originated with their ancestor Sakaida Kizaemon. In 1647 Kizaemon who, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, would later become known as Kakiemon, made a sale of his first pieces produced using newly acquired techniques from China. Some years later, in the 1670s, he successfully fired works with a milky-white porcelain base called nigoshide, which he decorated using a vibrant new red. This combination proved very popular in European markets, but during the 18th century, following increased competition from China and a decline in export opportunities, the secret for making the nigoshide base was lost. It was only after World War II that the family could revive the long-forgotten technology.

The exhibition opens with 15 works by Kakiemon XV, including several pieces that have never been exhibited before. The three largest and most impressive pieces, including the cherry-blossom jar, are displayed in freestanding cases in the middle of the room, allowing visitors to view them from all sides. There are also examples of what the artist was producing before he assumed the Kakiemon name in 2014, and a good selection of works by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. With more than 40 pieces of modern-day Kakiemon ware together in one room, it’s possible to study and compare the contributions of each of the most recent heads of kiln.

A second exhibition room provides a historical overview of the Kakiemon style, using a selection of 17th- and 18th-century masterpieces from the museum’s own collection, supplemented with choice pieces on loan from the Kakiemon family. With approximately 100 works and numerous related exhibits and artifacts, the exhibition is an excellent opportunity to trace the entire history of the Kakiemon style, from its origins in the mid-17th century to modern times.

“30th Anniversary Special Exhibition: Kakiemon” at the Toguri Museum of Art, runs until May 14; daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. and Sat. until 8 p.m.). ¥1,000. www.toguri-museum.or.jp