It was 20 years ago today . . . that the famous Kikuchi Collection of Modern Japanese Ceramics was shown to “smashing” reviews at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The 300-piece collection sparked a great interest in modern and contemporary Japanese ceramics that has continued to this day. The exhibition was a milestone for 20th-century Japanese ceramic art.

For the two decades since, though, the collection has been in storage or on display for Madame Kikuchi alone.

Now that’s all changed, as her fabulous new museum — Musee Tomo — opened in Tokyo on April 20. The inaugural exhibition, “Japanese Ceramics Today, Part 1,” running through Aug. 3, aims both to restage that overseas debut and give Japan its first look at the Kikuchi Collection.

It’s about time a museum devoted to modern and contemporary ceramic art opened in Tokyo, and I don’t think anyone could imagine a better venue than the Tomo, created by Madam Kikuchi and her distinguished design team. It is a spectacular setting that unfolds as you move through it like an elaborate stage set. At the far end of the long entrance hallway a subdued mural by Toko Shinoda awaits; another Shinoda wall creation, this in silver tones, accompanies visitors down the spiral staircase — where anyone feeling a little overwhelmed can clutch tight onto the sparkling glass banister by Naoto Yokoyama.

This is only the beginning.

To set the tone for the current exhibition, Madame Kikuchi has selected work by two Kyoto artists to show in the “prologue” chamber preceding the main display rooms. There is a set of three plates with wave designs by Tatsusuke Kuriki, made in 1982, and a tall, swordlike celadon form titled “Blue Wolf” by Sueharu Fukami, from 1998.

A-ha, the perceptive reader may say. Why is such a late piece showing in an exhibition meant to restage the collection’s 1983 overseas debut? According to museum curator, Mari Hanazato, Madame Kikuchi has continued collecting, and wanted to show here the depth of her collection as it has grown over the years. To the original array of works she has added pieces by Kazuo Yagi, Fukami and Kuriki, Machiko Ogawa, Ryuichi Kakurezaki and Shoko Koike, to name just a few.

The current exhibition unfolds like a play in seven scenes — Clay and Fire, Pattern, Come to Life, The Reach of Color, The Essence of Ceramics, Form’s Pursuits, and Meditation — and spotlights 100 works by 69 artists. (Just 59 pieces were shown in 1983.)

The first room highlights some yakishime (high-fired stoneware) works, with standouts being an ash-glazed sculpture by Kazumasa Ohira, a massive Bizen platter by Kakurezaki and a superb Tokoname plate by Kimiaki Takeuchi.

There are surprises at every turn in this display. Entering the second “scene” the visitor is met by a breathtaking wall of platters and plates by a variety of ceramic artists: Tatsuzo Shimaoka (1972; boring), Yasokichi Tokuda (1981; splendid), Koichi Tamura (1978; refined), Shugo Takauchi (1982; sumptuous), and Morihiro Wada (1987; perfection).

The vision on the opposite wall, however, is nothing less than surreal. Out of a dark recess a nimbus radiates. That recess harbors a rare Beni-Shino platter with a grass design by Tokuro Kato (ca. 1955-63). It left me speechless. I have never seen a ceramic work so dramatically displayed in my 20 years of viewing.

Turn another corner and a brilliant gold-leaf jar with a circle pattern by Hakuko Ono comes into view, followed by other works in porcelain. They range from an eerie masterpiece by Yoshimichi Fujimoto — a jar with flames and moths (1990) — to an ornamental vase with red-and-green overglaze designs (1982) by Goro Kawamoto.

A special sanded display area was created to showcase three decaying Bibles (1981) by Takako Araki. When I have viewed Araki’s Bibles on a regular gallery pedestal in the past, I have been moved by the thought and sensibility that went into them. In the Musee Tomo, the concept of time and degeneration expressed in these haunting ceramic tomes has at last been displayed in a fitting context.

“Imprisoned” in a glass case next to Araki’s installation is a celadon vase (1975) by Mineo Okabe. The depth of the glaze is not as brilliant as some celadon works from the artist’s later years, and I was a bit disappointed this was the only Okabe on display. Also sharing the room are a Yagi masterpiece from 1978 titled “Tide,” and “Walking Circle,” (1975) another Kuriki work that delighted the senses.

Yet a little further along we find a curious sculpture by Seimei Tsuji (1982) comprising a row of three cans and a walking cane leaning against the gallery wall on which a bowler hat hangs from a peg — all these items are ceramic. One more wall display follows, this time with jars and sculptures that include works by Shoji Kamoda (1979; divine), Koheiji Miura (1975; eclectic), Taimei Morino (1981; sophisticated) and Ryosaku Miwa (1982; contrived). Also there are mesmerizing works by Shinobu Kawase and Shin Fujihira.

I thought this was the end of the exhibition, but one final small room appeared, containing a Shino covered jar (1975) by Osamu Suzuki. This is Meditation — the final scene of the ceramic “drama.” I entered the room as if walking on air and gazed introspectively upon a hushed painting by Yasuo Kazuki, beneath which sat a black work, “Zone” (1971), by Yagi.

I felt as if in a dream world.

Nothing has ever been seen like this in Japan, and I had to go back a second time. The first time I had the good fortune to meet the design genius Richard Molinaroli. (Check out www.mfmdesign.com ). He has worked on past exhibitions for Madame Kikuchi, including the Smithsonian display. Molinaroli spent three years creating the Musee Tomo, along with George Sexton Associates, who devised the spectacular lighting.

Many of the artists whose works Madame Kikuchi collected all those years ago are now leaders in their fields. Others are living national treasures, while some have long since passed on, leaving behind the beauty of their work. One such is Kenkichi Tomimoto, whose small covered box (1961-62) is the last piece in the exhibition.

It was with thoughtful senses that Madame Kikuchi introduced a whole new world to so many overseas ceramic enthusiasts and now, finally, there is a permanent place in Japan where we all can share her vision and passion.

The Musee Tomo is behind the Okura Hotel at 4-1-35 Toranomon, Tokyo; (03) 5733-5131. Admission is 1,300 yen. Closed Monday.

A fine exhibition showing in Tokyo is “Chanoyu Zokei Ten (Forms for Tea)” at Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi’s seventh-floor gallery until May 18. Initiated in 1984 by the Tanabe Museum in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, the exhibition shows works selected by a jury and prestigious awards are handed out which are avidly sought after by chadogu (tea utensil) ceramic artists in western Japan. The exhibition highlights many award-winning works from previous years, as well as ancient wares.

At the same store on the sixth-floor the legendary Seimei Tsuji is showing his “simple and deep” chadogu until May 26. Tsuji-sensei will give a gallery talk May 18, starting at 2 p.m.

The 17th Japan Ceramics Art Exhibition is at the Daimaru Museum May 15-27. The museum is on the 12th floor of the Daimaru department store inside Tokyo Station.

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