Kichizaemon Raku, the eldest son of Kakunyu XIV, succeeded to the role as the 15th head of the revered Raku family of tea bowl craftsmen in 1981, a tradition founded in the Momoyama Period (1573-1603) by Tanaka Chojiro (d. 1592). His latest exhibition, “Raku Kichizaemon × Wols” at the Sagawa Art Museum in Shiga Prefecture, reveals how he pays extraordinary homage to the abstract painter Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze, 1913-51).

Wols was a Berlin-born political exile active in France. As an emotionally wounded, self-neglecting alcoholic insomniac, he developed a flair for putting the introspective tragedy of his own short life down on canvas. His discomfortingly scratchy lines, abstracted shapes resembling human viscera and forms poised on physical collapse, suggest the painter’s own advancing state of bodily and mental decay. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre admired the authenticity of this metaphysical crisis in painting. Dying from food poisoning after consuming rotten horse meat, Wols was posthumously honored by the art impresario Michel Tapie as a founding figure of the early postwar European art informel, counterpart to American abstract expressionism.

Kichizaemon discovered Wols a decade ago on seeing a friend’s small painting and etchings by the artist. He sensed an immediacy and a certain spirituality, though little has been written about Wols in Japanese, and occasions to see his works had been few. When the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art staged a Wols exhibition in 2017, it presented an opportune moment for Kichizaemon to investigate, resulting in this current exhibition of Raku tea bowls interspersed with small-scale Wols copperplates, watercolors and oil paintings, including “La Grenade Rouge” (1940/41-48).

Black tea bowls from the early 2000s show how Wols’ style was subtly manifest in Kichizaemon’s work — prickly surface effects and scratch-like lines — even before the ceramicst’s initial encounter. Chojiro’s black Raku tradition, characterized by monotonality, determined that bowls were shaped by hand and spatula, rather than being thrown on the wheel. Kichizaemon’s contemporary black yakinuki forms, by contrast, are further sculptural and glazed in multiple muted colors, such as his “‘Yakinuki’-type black Raku tea bowl” (2000).

Newly created works, including “‘Yakinuki’-type tea bowl, white clay” (2018), have their white surfaces coated in spattered blue glazes, recalling early postwar abstraction. Many bowls are also fractured, fired twice or thrice with additional glazes applied between firings. The aim was to enhance their delicacy and to draw attention to pictoriality. The Raku tradition usually involves removing the tea bowl from the muffle kiln after the first firing, fearing breakage. For Kichizaemon, however, these new pieces were conceived as privileging artistic expression over tradition — artworks as tea bowls, rather than artistic tea bowls.

The thrust of the exhibition concept was for Kichizaemon to explore the spiritual link he felt with Wols. Primarily this was through the abstract formlessness of European art informel, reinterpreted by Kichizaemon as “realms of expression that do not lead to the emergence of forms.”

Similar interpretations concerned Wols’ self-annihilation reconceived as a Buddhist-style self-abandonment during the creation process. These are potentially misreadings, though productive and elegant ones. Kichizaemon, in communion with Wols, sought to give poignancy and form to his own individual creative existence within a tradition-bound art form.

“Raku Kichizaemon × Wols” at the Sagawa Art Museum runs until March 31; ¥1,000. For more information, visit www.sagawa-artmuseum.or.jp.

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