It’s the season to see Japan’s best ceramics

by

Contributing Writer

This autumn, there are not one, but two extraordinary ceramic art exhibitions showing in Tokyo. The first highlights the solo works and private collection of Tokyo’s Seimei Tsuji (1927-2008) at The National Museum of Modern Art Crafts Gallery, while the other is a dual-exhibition of Kyoto artists Kazuo Yagi (1918-1979) and Kiyomizu Rokubei VII, also known as Kiyomizu Kyubey (1922-2006), showing at Musee Tomo.

At Tsuji’s funeral, the revered ceramic art curator and critic Seizo Hayashiya (1928-2017) stood in front of Tsuji’s portrait and said, “Hey you, you were the best potter on a wheel that I’ve ever seen!”

Tsuji had time to develop those skills as his father bought him a small hand-turning wheel before he turned 10. At 14 he established the Tsuji Ceramic Laboratory. His inspirations came from ancient art, of which many examples from his collection are on display, as well as the inherent beauty of the materials he used, namely clay from Shigaraki.

Shigaraki is an ancient Japanese stoneware style based in Shiga Prefecture, and Tsuji had the clay shipped to his Tama studio where he fired his vessels in a wood-burning kiln. The firing process, which would take a few days, created ash that melted and formed jewel-like glassy patterns and warm earthy tones on each unique piece. Of the 154 works on display, most are functional pieces for the tea ceremony, flower arrangments, dining and sake — the latter a favorite of Tsuji’s. Tsuji favored akaru sabi, a brighter and more accessible aesthetic compared to the darker kura sabi.

Examples of Tsuji’s glasswork and calligraphy are also on show, as well as works by artists he associated with.

Yagi and Kiyomizu are the antithesis to Tsuji in that the majority of their works are nonfunctional and caused quite a stir during the 1940s. In fact, Yagi and a few friends started a revolutionary art association in 1948 called Sodeisha, which means “crawling through mud.”

The most iconic and rarely shown Yagi work — “The Walk of Mr. Samsa” (1954) — greets visitors after descending the crystal-glass spiraling banister of the Musee Tomo . Yagi took the name for the piece from a Franz Kafka novel, and was also inspired by Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee.

Kiyomizu studied architecture and metal-casting before turning his eye to ceramics, and those genres infuse his work with well-calculated forms, often with subtle ash-glazes and linear patterns.

In total there are 100 exhibits within the dramatic meandering layout of the museum. These works laid the foundation for ceramic sculptural art that has influenced generations ever since.

“Tsuji Seimei: The Beauty of Akaru Sabi” at The National Museum of Art Crafts Gallery runs until Nov. 23; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. until 8 p.m.) ¥600. Closed Mon. www.momat.go.jp/english/cg/exhibition/tsuji_2017 “Yagi Kazuo and Kiyomizu Kyubey: Beyond The Boundaries of Ceramics and Sculpture” at Musee Tomo runs until Dec. 3; 11 a.m.- 6 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.musee-tomo.or.jp/exhibition_english.html