In 1954-55, three Kyoto ceramists of the Sodeisha group of artists began a revolution by creating objects that fulfilled no practical role.

Kazuo Yagi, Osamu Suzuki and Hikaru Yamada took away the mouths of vases or added several more to them, played with vessels’ legs or the absence of them and turned utilitarian craft objects into modernist sculptural forms. More than half a century earlier, however, the decorative excesses of Kozan Miyagawa (given name Toranosuke, 1842-1916), in which ebullient ornamentation rendered craft’s utilitarian values impractical, were a precursor to the Sodeisha artists.

Miyagawa was among the most renowned ceramists of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). In 1896, he became the second ceramist to be appointed as an Imperial Household Artist. Born to the Kyoto potter, Chozo Makuzu, who had trained under the literati painter and potter Mokubei Aoki, Miyagawa took over the family business in 1860 and produced the kind of tea ceremony wares that were his father’s specialty.

Moving in 1870 to Yokohama, one of Japan’s major trade centers, he established a kiln and began producing locally popular Makuzu wares in addition to receiving a commission to manufacture porcelain for export.

The first section of “Miyagawa Kozan Retrospective” at The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, features many of Miyagawa’s early fencai works, pieces overglazed in soft-colored pigments inspired by European colors that had been introduced into Chinese and Japanese ceramics. His ceramics were recognized for their excellence and awarded distinctions at both domestic and international events, including the 1876 Philadelphia and 1878 Paris world expositions — forums that brought industrializing Japan prestige and lucrative trade.

It was around this time that Miyagawa embarked on a creative endeavor to find an alternative for kinrande, a highly decorative technique of gold enamel overglazing, which he had been using on Satsuma ware-inspired works that were popular in Europe and America. Kinrande was expensive and the production costs were high. Miyagawa chose to pursue taka-ukibori (sculptural relief) instead, creating elaborate vessels adorned with delicate, highly realistic, miniature relief sculpture. Most of these works were sent overseas and only later did they return to Japan. Initially catering to Western tastes, their aesthetic was later absorbed into Japanese works.

Using taka-ukibori was a novel, almost avant-garde, strategy, for it made certain that Miyagawa’s pieces were nonfunctional objects. While ceramics had long been used as a form of interior decoration, they conventionally still had everyday uses. Miyagawa’s decoration, however, either got in the way of or almost took over the objects’ utility.

For example, in “Plate with Sculptural Relief of a Pigeon and Cherry Blossoms” (late 19th century), the embossed bird and foliage that fills the concavity of the dish render it a display item, with the plate itself becoming a background to the virtuosic decoration. “Incense Burner with Sculptural Relief of Cherry Blossom” (late 19th century), too, is festooned with so much spiky ornamentation that anyone handling it could easily sustain an injury.

A large late 19th-century vase depicting chomeidake (“long-life” mushroom) picking is unconcerned about being a vessel. Instead it focuses on decorative rough cliffs with cascading waterfalls and exotic hatted figures collecting mushrooms from the steep bluffs while standing in baskets lowered on ropes. Where conventional ceramic decoration would have augmented forms to practical functions, Miyagawa’s sculptural decoration becomes the main purpose. Its practical, smooth vase lip and geometrically patterned legs appear like two incongruous artistic worlds that are uneasily cobbled together and unsure how to get along with one another.

Thematically, taka-ukibori results were also mixed. A lidded water jar sporting a relief of a peony and waking cat gives primacy to the kitschy cute preening feline in the place of a customary handle, while a large incense burner borrows from revered symbolic East Asian imagery, employing ogres as the vessel’s legs and an outsized hawk clutching a diminutive dragon as the burner’s lid. It is largely a grotesque curiosity or fantasy of ornamentation that makes the fact that it is also an incense burner more of an afterthought. Here, craft functionality accessorizes the overwrought decoration. It is perhaps not surprising that the European and American art nouveau movements, which Miyagawa’s works were consonant with and a part of, were followed by later 20th-century modernist movements favoring increasing decorative austerity.

The final section of this retrospective re-engages the harmonious rapprochement of form with function. From the 1880s, Miyagawa began experimenting with glazes and underglazes that followed from Chinese Qing Dynasty techniques. This was at a time when his Makuzu kiln shifted from crafting clay works to mostly porcelain production. In this section of the exhibition, Miyagawa’s subtle technical brilliance through experimentation — engaging innovative tradition rather than minor sculptural virtuosity — can be seen in works such as his “Green and Red-glazed Vase” (late 19th century).

It is also here that pottery recovers its more historically comfortable decorative pairing with painting in works such as the sumi-ink design on the Important Cultural Property “Yellow-glazed Vase with Plum Tree Design, Underglazes” (1893).

“Miyagawa Kozan Retrospective” at The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, runs until July 31; 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,200. Closed Mon. (except July 18), July 19. www.moco.or.jp/en

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