Art | CERAMIC SCENE

BIZEN -- AND BEYOND

The Emperor's phantom porcelain set

by Robert Yellin

Rarely, if ever, has a dinner set taken on such a mysterious aura as the maboroshi (phantom) porcelain service made by the late Yoshimichi Fujimoto (1919-92). Used only once and then, for reasons that remain enigmatic, hidden away for years, it comprises 230 pieces, enough to serve 15 diners. Only two, though, have ever used the set — the Showa Emperor and Empress, who dined off it in 1976. The dinner service was then sentenced to a dark and fabled existence . . . until now.

Showing at the wonderful Musee Tomo in Tokyo until Sept. 23 is an exhibition — “Yoshimichi Fujimoto Overglaze Porcelain: The Phantom Dinner Set for the Showa Emperor” — that gives visitors the chance to see this historical set along with other Fujimoto masterpieces. All are simply enchanting.

Fujimoto’s career was twofold: besides being a ceramic artist par excellence, he was also an extremely influential teacher at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts. The impact he made in the latter role is clearly evident from the works of his students, now established potters, some of whom are regrettably so in thrall to their late master that they produce dull and lifeless Fujimoto copies.

Fujimoto’s work is bewitching in the way images of nature seem to burst off the porcelain forms with stunning clarity. Standing before the magical pots he made at the end of his career, we enter a ceramic world never seen before: birds perch in apricot branches or fly over streams in which fallen maple leaves flow, all depicted with startling realism. To achieve this, Fujimoto devised his own techniques of layering enamel colors over each other to create an effect like that of watercolor.

Meanwhile, early in his career, Fujimoto used a stoneware body, painted over with fanciful, lively designs. He switched to porcelain in 1973, as it was better suited for his enamel technique and the designs he wished to create. In March 1973, he embarked upon a porcelain-testing phase that would last more than a year. He used a color scheme of red, yellow, green, dark blue and purple known as gosai, which is the standard palette for Ko-Kutani porcelain. In 1976, at the request of Tomo Kikuchi — the museum is named after her — Fujimoto was commissioned to make the maboroshi set.

One would imagine an out-of-the-ordinary menu for the Imperial couple, yet what was served on Fujimoto’s dishes was quite mundane: an appetizer of sliced salmon, consomme soup, shrimp pie — and custard pudding for dessert.

Fujimoto said years after the set’s completion that it “was and would be the most unforgettable work of my life.”

Great as this set is, though, it is surely not the defining moment of Fujimoto’s career. That would have to be his development of a glaze style called yubyokasai, in which he painted on a pure white porcelain body. This technique gives a three-dimensional, painterly depth to his nature motifs that defy the clay medium. We are able to stand on the shore with a snowy heron, or perch on a branch with a wagtail as it stares out to a white infinity on a jar or plate.

Fujimoto used yubyokasai from 1983 onward; in 1986 it earned him the designation of living national treasure — one of the few such honors bestowed in the pottery world in the last 20 years that I wholeheartedly agree with. In this generous and blessed artist we find the best of Japan’s ceramic art combined with his enlightened gift of teaching.

“Yoshimichi Fujimoto Overglaze Porcelain” runs till Sept. 23 at Musee Tomo, Nishikubo Bldg. B1F, Toranomon 4-1-35, behind the Okura Hotel; (03) 5733-5131. For a detailed map, see www.musee-tomo.or.jp/usage.html Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m-6 p.m.; admission 1,300 yen.

May brings many wonderful exhibitions on the ceramic scene, including a sweeping historical review of Bizen ware at the Ibaraki Ceramic Art Museum. Titled “Captivation of Bizen Unglazed Stoneware,” this runs until June 27. Bizen, as with most pottery styles, is named after a town, in this case one located in Okayama Prefecture. Bizen ware, which has been crafted since the late Heian/early Kamakura periods (late 12th-early 13th centuries), mainly comprised earthy everyday items before the style was introduced to the exclusive tea world during the 16th century.

Falling out of favor in the 19th century and facing extinction, Bizen kilns were figuratively “re-lit” after Toyo Kaneshige (1896-1967) revitalized the spirit of Bizen in the early 20th century. It is to Kaneshige that all current Bizen potters owe the style’s present popularity.

On display in this comprehensive exhibition are 134 works, including such legendary pieces as a vase dating from 1557 and a Kaneshige mizusashi (water jug) that was used to decorate 62 yen postage stamps in 1991. The show concludes with works by the definer of contemporary Bizen, Ryuichi Kakurezaki (1950-).

“Captivation of Bizen Unglazed Stoneware” runs till June 27 at Ibaraki Ceramic Art Museum. Open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; admission 700 yen. The museum is a 70-minute express train ride from Ueno Station on the Joban Line to Tomobe Station, from where there is a free city bus service. By car, the museum is a 10-minute drive from the Tomobe exit on the Kita-Kanto Expressway.

Starting May 12 in Tokyo, then traveling to four other locales, is an exhibition offering the chance to see two legendary potters showing together for the first time. The impact on 20th-century Japanese Mino ceramics (Shino, Oribe, Yellow Seto and Black Seto) of Toyozo Arakawa (1894-1985) and Tokuro Kato (1897-1985) was so profound that, like Kaneshige for Bizen, they are responsible for rekindling the flames in their respective areas of Toki, Gifu Prefecture, and Seto in Aichi Prefecture. Both specializing in tea wares, the “quiet” Arakawa and the “dynamic” Kato were rivals of sorts — but their rivalry brought out the best in each. Held at Nihonbashi Takashimaya’s eighth-floor hall, this is sure to be a very popular exhibition. (The exhibition runs till May 24 in Nihonbashi, then travels to Yokohama Takashimaya, May 26-June 7; Nagoya Matsuzakaya Museum, Sept. 11-Oct. 3; Sano Museum, Mishima, Saitama Prefecture, Oct. 8-Nov. 8; and Kyoto Takashimaya, Feb. 23-Mar. 7, 2005.)

Other exhibitions of note include a showing of tea wares by former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa at Kochukyo, next to Nihonbashi Takashimaya, May 18-22. Hosokawa is a very able potter making a variety of styles, including Raku and Shigaraki.

At Ginza Wako is Kyoto’s Kazuo Takiguchi, who has a wonderful sense of humor and line. The exhibition will focus on everyday wares and runs May 18-25. (Please note Wako is closed on Sundays.)

John Dix will be showing his wood-fired pots at Gallery Shun, May 12-16. Dix hails from Michigan and studied in Bizen before establishing his own kiln in Hyogo Prefecture in 1995. Gallery Shun, (03) 3444-7665, is located in Hiroo, Tokyo, near Meijiya Plaza.

In Kansai, potter Ken Matsuzaki, who is based in Mashiko, Tochigi Prefecture, celebrates his 25th exhibition at Umeda Hankyu in Osaka, May 26-June 1. Matsuzaki’s exhibitions always feature hundreds of works in Shino and Oribe, as well as sublime ash-glazed works fired in a wood-burning kiln.

Finally, don’t miss the powerful black works of one of the most important ceramic sculptors of our day, Yo Akiyama — on display at the Inax Tile Museum in Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture, till June 6.

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