Kanjiro Kawai sculpted a new vision of pottery

by Robert Yellin

Special To The Japan Times

Japan’s history of ceramics stretches back for millenniums, with most spinners of clay remaining nameless. One star, however, did shape a new world of pottery: Kanjiro Kawai (1890-1966).

Kawai left us 50 years ago this autumn. Thankfully, though, he bestowed upon us some of the most brilliant ceramic art in all of Japan’s history. A celebration of his life and visionary creations is now showing in Kyoto at Museum “Eki” Kyoto.

Kawai wasn’t born in Kyoto, his life began in Shimane Prefecture where his family were master carpenters. As the second son he was free to choose a career, and at the advice of his uncle he chose the path of a potter. Diverging from a traditional apprenticeship, he entered the ceramic department at the Tokyo Higher Technical School (now Tokyo Institute of Technology) and afterward moved to the Kyoto City Ceramic Research Institute. At these two centers he tackled styles so quickly he was known as “a genius who appeared like a comet.” This training was to serve him well in his amazing usage of various glazes — on traditional forms in his early years and on avant-garde clay sculptures in his latter years.

The first part of his career aligned with the Taisho Era (1912-1926), when Chinese and Korean ceramic styles were all the rage, as was emulating them. Kawai mastered these, yet always added his own charm with fluid brushwork or etched carvings. The mid-point of his career coincided with the founding of the mingei (Japanese folkcraft) movement, also in the 1920s, and we see many works in the exhibition of a functional nature in line with the mingei’s “beauty through use” philosophy.

During World War II, potters were not allowed to fire their kilns, so Kawai devoted himself to philosophical reading and writing. One night in contemplation he put ink to paper to express “Now! Now is Indeed Eternity.”

This time of Zen musings and deep reflection brought Kawai to the third and last stage of his career, when he burst forth with revolutionary bold forms and designs but declined to be named a Living National Treasure. He also took to wood carving, furniture design and metal casting.

The exhibition displays around 200 works as well as some of Kawai’s personal belongings, including an “ugly” black-pitted chawan (tea bowl). After firing it, Kawai threw the “failure” into the shard pile. His only daughter, however, found it and began to serve tea with it. On observing this, Kawai realized that he needed to return to the pure way of seeing, like that through the eyes of a child. His “childlike” sense of wonder and joy is felt in all the works of this true maestro of mind, matter and the art of living.

“Exhibition of Kanjiro Kawai” at Museum “Eki” Kyoto runs until Oct. 23; open daily 10 a.m.-8 p.m. ¥900. kyoto.wjr-isetan.co.jp/museum