At the opening of “The Cosmos in a Tea Bowl: Transmitting a Secret Art Across Generations of the Raku Family” at The National Museum of Modern Art, in Kyoto, the current head of the Raku family, Kichizaemon XV (b. 1949), explained that the event would be “an unprecedented and once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of such a grand scale” that it would include important works by Raku founder Chojiro (date of birth unknown-1589) and Honami Koetsu (1558-1637), the artist who inspired the founding of the Rimpa school — pieces that are rarely exhibited together in public.

The exhibition fulfils that promise, introducing the art and tradition of the Raku family’s 450-year history in the form of 140 works, including 12 Important Cultural Properties. It’s an unusual choice of exhibition for a museum of modern art. Mainly a selection of tea bowls made by generations after Chojiro, the exhibits trace the family’s history to Kichizaemon XV and Raku Atsundo (b. 1981), who will become Kichizaemon XVI. Other works by related figures such as Koetsu complete the exhibition by placing it in historical context.

Raku-yaki (Raku ware) mostly comprises tea bowls and utensils for chanoyu (tea ceremony) and was first produced in Kyoto by the Raku family during the 16th century. Chojiro began making unique tea bowls — which were each hand molded — at the request of Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), the great tea master who advocated wabi-cha, a wabi-style tea ceremony influenced by Zen Buddhist-inspired concept of finding the beauty in simplicity and imperfection.

Rikyu was then the head of tea masters under the patronage of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), and the tea master’s wabi aesthetic was in stark contrast to that of Hideyoshi, who built the ostentatious Jurakudai, a residence near the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and a portable Golden Tea Room to impress the emperor.

“What Chojiro created for Rikyu, in around 1580, were simple monochromatic red or black tea bowls without any ornamentation, which I believe embodied Rikyu’s vision of wabi-cha most eloquently,” says Ryuichi Matsubara, a senior curator of MoMAK. “His tea bowls appeared to be the total opposite of the Momoyama Period (1573-1615) mainstream arts, whose magnificent and decorative style is represented by gilded folding screen paintings such as “Rakuchu Rakugai zu” (“Scenes in and around the Capital”) by the Kano school.”

At a time when such extravagant displays of wealth and power were popular, Chojiro’s austere and serene pieces and Rikyu’s wabi-cha spirit were “radical and avant-garde then as they are still now,” says Matsubara.

Originally Chojiro’s tea bowls were called Imayaki (contemporary ware) then Jurakuyaki until they eventually became known as Raku yaki, because Hideyoshi allowed the makers to use the seal of Raku, probably derived from Hideyoshi’s Jurakudai.

“Oguro,” a black Raku tea bowl by Chojiro on display at the exhibition, is a perfect example of Rikyu’s philosophy. Reduced to its ultimately minimal form by the lack of any decorative element, even the inside of the bowl appears like an infinite space, described by Kichizaemon XV as, “Just like a black hole.”

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the juxtaposition between the stillness of Chojiro’s tea bowls and the dramatic and vigorous expression of “Two-Glazed Lion Dog,” a sculpture he produced in 1574. The lion dog, full of individuality and energy, seemingly ready to pounce at any moment, reveals some of the origins of Raku ware. It not only confirms that Chojiro used a technique that was based on Chinese susancai (three-color glazes), but also how passionately he could still express himself as an artist, reflecting the spirit of the Momoyama Period.

In the culture of Japanese ceramics, Raku ware holds a unique place because of its history with Rikyu, its production techniques and the succession of its artisans. The tea bowls are made without a potter’s wheel. Instead, they are molded by hand and sculpturally trimmed using a spatula, before being fired individually in a small black Raku kiln fueled by binchotan charcoal and kept alight by bellows. This process has remained the same since Chojiro’s time.

Though seemingly primitive, the hand-molding gives each piece a warmth and intimacy through the imprint of the potter’s palms and fingers — the quintessential element of a Raku tea bowl that reflects its creators sensibility and personality. It’s an art form that has been passed down 15 generations by means of isshi sōden, the transmission of art secrets from father to son.

“All past generations have never left a record of secret techniques or glazing ingredients in written form,” explains Kichizaemon XV. “It is the Raku tradition that a father does not teach his son directly, to avoid influencing his successor to one fixed pattern. Each upcoming successor has to find his own glaze and style by looking at pieces left by Chojiro and other predecessors, and by observing how his own father lives, works and struggles with his artistic goal.”

Kichizaemon XV himself chose to inherit the name of Raku Kichizaemon at the age of 27, after he had graduated from the National Art School of Tokyo and anguished whether he should instead pursue a career as a contemporary sculptor in Italy.

“Raku ware remains as vital as ever today, 450 years after its foundation,” says Matsubara. “The spirit of its tradition lies in each generation’s creative engagement with his own contemporary era. Each generation is an individual artist with his own style — it’s as if the 450 years of Raku history is a single entity of vibrant contemporary art.

“This is why we put this exhibition of Raku here — at The National Museum of Modern Art.”

“The Cosmos in a Tea Bowl: Transmitting a Secret Art Across Generations of the Raku Family” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, runs until Feb. 12; 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,400. Closed Mon. www.momak.go.jp/English The exhibition then moves to The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, March 14-May 21.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.