English potter-artist-writer Bernard Leach (1887-1979) was lucky to have lived in Japan — during his early childhood and on later occasions — when, even though change was coming rapidly, many centuries-old traditions continued unaltered.
Born in Hong Kong to the son of a judge, following his mother’s premature death, Leach spent some of his childhood years living with his maternal grandparents, who were missionaries stationed in late Meiji Period (1868-1912) Japan. The lasting impressions made during these formative years are readily apparent in his ceramic works on show in a delightful, small exhibition at the Shiodome Museum, “Bernard Leach: Art for Life’s Sake,” that runs till Nov. 2. The exhibition is showing pieces on loan from the Japan Folkcraft Museum in Komaba, Tokyo, which has the country’s definitive Leach collection.
Leach demonstrated a talent and flair for art at an early age and later studied at the prestigious Slade School of Art in England. (He also attended the London School of Art, where he mastered the techniques of etching.) In 1909, when he returned to Japan, he worked in Japanese potteries in order to learn from masters of the craft.
Leach befriended Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961), who later wrote the seminal work on Japanese aesthetics, “The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty,” and became a founder of the Mingei (folk-craft) movement. Members of the group had noticed that the rapidly encroaching industrial revolution — despite its economic benefits — was having a profound (and not necessarily positive) effect on people’s lifestyles and values.
Modernist styles were appearing in the cities, and eyes were opening to foreign experimental art, such as that of the Vorticists, Suprematists and Cubists, who were exploring new forms of expression that departed far from pictorial depiction. The founders of the Mingei movement were concerned that much would be lost aesthetically by mass production, and espoused the belief that true beauty was to be found in objects made by craftsmen who had the user more in mind than profit.
A part of Leach’s heart was always in England, where he returned for long periods to employ his acquired Japanese taste in exploring and developing English crafts, and in making ceramics at a studio he founded in the 1920s at St. Ives on the coast of Cornwall.
Some of his earlier works display European influences: a bunch of grapes in Majolica-like blue, yellow and green glazes, or the thick treacly mustards and dark-browns reminiscent of English 17th-century galena slip-wares. But more evident are forms that reflect Japanese and Korean folk ceramics, and those homely, satisfying motifs inspired by nature: pine trees, grasses and fern-fronds as seen on early 19th-century Seto stoneware or ceramics from the kilns of Kyushu.
As a true craftsman he was also practical and, in his own personal environment, combined Japanese aesthetic ideals with Western standards of comfort. In 1909, after returning to Japan for an extended stay, he built a house in Tokyo, furnished with a horikotatsu (sunken area) for sitting with legs dangling at ease.
When many Japanese were beginning to look for comfort over appearance (never before considered as worth even a passing thought) and building bunka jutaku houses that mixed Eastern and Western features, Leach designed chairs, dining tables and eye-level tokonoma alcoves that displayed art works at the correct height for viewing, all made of native woods and materials to link household living with nature. You can see some of his work in the eponymous Leach Bar that he designed in the Riga Royal Hotel in Osaka, complete with furniture commissioned from craftsmen in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, to his specifications.
Leach’s etchings and sketches that accompany the ceramics reveal a trained hand and an observant eye. One of his earliest works is an etching titled “The Gothic Spirit” that shows a Victorian fancy of a church on a scale way beyond what any worshippers would need — so vast it would be of more use housing airplanes — and flanked by a brace of hovering, naked angels of unclear gender.
Even more appealing are his portraits, especially of his friend Yanagi, with the twinkling eyes and kindly expression that one would expect from such a writer. Two simple drawings of Kanjiro Kawai (1890-1966) and Shoji Hamada (1894-1978) show the famous potters viewed from behind, swathed in winter clothes and looking like old monks; Hamada’s lower face and spectacles are beautifully depicted with one superbly controlled, confident line.
Leach authored over a dozen books in his life, in which he revealed his belief that artworks of any quality or value should convey an element of warmth. Such a concept might seem naive these days, when almost every art magazine uses the most turgid prose to “deconstruct” line, form, color and meaning, challenging the reader to pretend to understand and believe the gospel of what is “in,” and hinting at the social oblivion for those who dare dissent. But Leach was right — who cares what people think about art? Intellectual messages, no matter how deep, are far more easily expressed in words alone; you don’t need to mess around with brushes and paint.
What really counts in art is how people feel about it. Leach understood this well, and it is refreshing not only to read his honest and humane words on the subject but to realize that they haven’t dated a bit.
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