Art

Bizen: Pottery that rose from the ashes

by Robert Yellin

Contributing Writer

Of all the ancient high-fired unglazed stoneware styles in Japan, none is as popular as Bizen pottery.

Like many regional potteries, Bizen derives its name from the city it’s produced in, which is in Okayama Prefecture, and it depends on local materials for its unique patterns and color schemes. An unprecedented exhibition of Bizen ware, showing classic works dating from the Momoyama Period (1573-1615) to the present, is now on display at the Crafts Gallery, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, until May 6, after which it will travel to other locations throughout Japan.

Bizen ware started as containers to store rice, tea, grains and water, and grinding bowls. However, when the tea ceremony shifted its aesthetic leanings from showy imported Chinese wares to more somber Zen-quiet utensils, Bizen ware became a favorite of tea masters.

The exhibition starts from this time — the late 16th century — although Bizen ware had been produced for a millennium before that. Under the direction of tea masters and tea merchants, forms were being morphed into freshwater containers, vases, tea caddies, chawan (tea bowls) and even sake flasks, including the revered “Toshiwasure” (“Forgetting Time”).

When the feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98) visited Bizen, he was so impressed with the skill and variety of wares being made that he designated six families as his “honorable craftsmen” and declared the area a no-war zone. In the exhibition, works by two descendants of the noted families are being shown, but more about them in a moment.

When looking at Bizen pottery, pay close attention to the unique firing effects that essentially define what Bizen is. As noted, nothing is applied before loading pieces into the kiln and, as such, all the colors, textures and grit are the results of how the ash from the kiln’s wood melts on the surface of each work; no two pieces are ever the same. The keshiki or landscapes of the pottery surface are called tsuji-aji (clay flavor, highlighting the beauty of clay tones), goma (when ash melts to mimic sesame splashes), hidasuki (straw-wrapped markings) and yohen (colorful, crusty kiln mutations), among others.

Bizen maintained its popularity but, like many pottery styles, it was hard hit during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) when tea fell out of favor and Japan was looking to the West for inspiration. It was a serious struggle to keep the flames lit, and many of the old firing ways were lost.

It was one descendant of the aforementioned families that researched and found a way to bring back the glory days of Momoyama Period Bizen, meaning the classic way to process the clay and then fire it. His name is Toyo Kaneshige (1896-1967), and for his efforts and brilliant work he was named Bizen’s first Living National Treasure in 1956.

The exhibition follows Kaneshige’s lead from here on as proceeding potters created work for the newly found resurgence of tea wares all the way to the current leaders, who not only make such vessels but have also transformed Bizen into ceramic art sculptures.

The other noted family member is Mori Togaku, 81, who built and fired the largest kiln ever privately made in history. At 85-meters long it was fired for 107 days straight. Quite amazing, as is this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition, too.

“Bizen: From Earth and Fire, Exquisite Forms” at the Crafts Gallery, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, runs until May 6; ¥900. For more information, visit www.momat.go.jp/english/cg.