Art | CERAMIC SCENE

ENGLISH SLIPWARE

You are always on my mind

by Robert Yellin

Familiarity with an object or place can dampen the senses. It may not necessarily breed contempt, but it often leads to indifference. We see it all too frequently, as in the simple case of not visiting wonderful places in our own neighborhood, or the attitude folk here in Shizuoka have toward Mount Fuji: “Oh, that mountain.” It takes a penetrating and intuitive mind to not merely look at such things each day, but to actually see, to understand, in one’s heart, the value of even an unassuming item and the “nourishment” it gives.

One of the greatest men ever to realize this was the founder of the Mingei craft movement, the late Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961). In his classic book “The Unknown Craftsman,” he writes, “To ‘see’ is to go direct to the core; to know the facts about an object of beauty is to go around the periphery. Intellectual discrimination is less essential to an understanding of beauty than the power of intuition that precedes it.”

Yanagi has given the world much to ponder in his writings, and much beauty to see in the collection he assembled at the Mingeikan (Japan Folk Crafts Museum) in Tokyo. The current exhibition at the Mingeikan, showing until March 28, is a fine example of the beauty of the everyday. It is a glorious look at common crockery: English slipware plates.

British may find it difficult to recognize the beauty within these works, for they were common serving dishes of a type called zakki in Japanese. However, Yanagi’s pure and boundless eye often caused him to be moved by beautiful, wholesome objects, to the extent that he became like a man possessed. It was in this way that he first discovered slipware plates, glimpsed in a book in 1923.

Many years were to pass before he actually held a slipware plate. It was a momentous experience. He wrote, “I cannot forget the dumbfounded exhilaration we [Yanagi, Shoji Hamada and Kanjiro Kawai] experienced as we unwrapped the dishes at Kawai’s. The encounter was truly wonderful. The form was sound, the glaze was beautiful and the motifs had a freedom and spontaneity, with lovely taste.”

Right on the mark, Yanagi was. I felt the same way as I walked through the Mingeikan exhibition.

Slipware plates are large and were used for cooking as well as serving. Designed to be put into an oven, they are unglazed on the base. The designs inside the dishes are free-flowing and quite jazzy. Most have a dark brown or creamy yellow background, onto which the designs were drawn. The artisan worked quickly, slip-trailing liquid clay over the glazed body. We find pieces decorated with zigzags, squiggly lines, checkered patterns, birds, and even dates — 1769 or 1790 for example. (Most slipware plates date from the 18th and 19th centuries.)

On their travels to Britain in 1929, Yanagi and Hamada “had slipware on our minds,” as Yanagi wrote. They are solely responsible for introducing these stunning examples of folk craft to Japan. Upon their return to Japan they exhibited their slipware finds at Kyukodo, a gallery in Ginza, Tokyo, which created quite a sensation for these “quaint old English pots” (as Charles J. Lomax put it in his 1909 book of the same name).

A number of ceramic collectors purchased plates shown at Kyukodo and cherished them for many a moon. The curators of this exhibition contacted the families of the original purchasers, and some of Yanagi’s well-traveled plates have been reunited for this exhibition. It is a wonderful homecoming and a rare chance to see how one style of British pottery influenced a whole generation of legendary Japanese potters.

A special lecture, titled “British Arts and Crafts and Japanese Mingei,” will be delivered by Tanya Harrod (visiting professor from the Royal College of Art, London) at the Mingeikan on March 6, 6-7:30 p.m. Please contact the Mingeikan at (03) 3467-4527 for further information. Take the Inokashira Line from Shibuya Station (don’t get on an express train) and get off at Komaba-Todaimae. Walk out of the West Exit, cross under the tracks and turn left. Follow the road until it curves to the right, about a five-minute walk. The Mingeikan will be on your right. Admission 1,000 yen, 500 yen and 200 yen. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Mondays. A beautiful catalog with essays accompanies this exhibition, price 3,700 yen.

Other exhibitions of note include the wonderful Bizen world of Hiroyuki Wakimoto at Ginza Kuroda Toen, Feb. 14-20. Wakimoto fired his unusually large noborigama (climbing kiln) in January and Kuroda-san, the gallery owner, went in person to select works for this exhibition. He told me this firing was exceptional.

Wakimoto makes bold forms that often resemble stones, and he’ll also be having an exhibition this summer in Santa Fe, N.M.

Kuroda Toen ([03] 3571-3223) is located at Ginza 7-8-6 on Ginza-dori. Closed Monday.

Bizen fans can get a real fix of their favorites at the 20th anniversary exhibition of the Bizen “Cultivation” Group. Some 600 works by 46 members of the group are showing at Ikebukuro Tobu department store’s sixth-floor gallery, Feb. 19-24. For those interested in the making of pots, a special wheel and throwing demonstration will be held daily at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Another bold stoneware potter is Kazumasa Ohira. He’ll be showing at Kandori ([03] 3239-0146), located in the lobby of the Hotel New Otani until Feb. 15. The theme is kyutai (spheres) and he’ll be showing about 50 works in his unglazed yakishime style.

Beautiful celadon works by Seiko Minegishi can be viewed at Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi’s sixth floor gallery, Feb. 17-23. Minegishi is based in Tochigi Prefecture, but his works have found their way into North American museum collections.

“Japanese Ceramics Part 2” of the Musee Tomo Collection, (see this column May 14, 2003), is entering its last month. You can see this dramatic exhibition till March 3 at the Musee Tomo ([03] 5733-5131), located at Toranomon 4-1-35. Admission is 1,300 yen.

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