When The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, opened in 1963, it was gifted 45 craft pieces from its Tokyo counterpart. The Takashimaya department store advertising manager, Kenichi Kawakatsu (1892-1979), celebrated the inauguration by bequeathing three pieces by potter Kanjiro Kawai (1890-1966). A museum curator then selected another 415 pieces from Kawakatsu’s Kawai collection, which were donated to the museum and added to with another seven works to fill in gaps in Kawai’s early career.

The 425 Kawai pieces became a cornerstone of the museum’s collection and have been shown three times previously: in 1968, 1983, and 2005. Now, “Potter Kawai Kanjiro: Works from the Kawakatsu Collection” again brings them to public attention.

This exhibition is another of various recurrent homages to the beloved ceramist, the collector and the museum’s permanent collection, which now has over 12,000 items. Kawai’s works are also partly contextualized through exhibits by his potter associates Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach and Tomimoto Kenkichi.

Kawai’s oeuvre is frequently chronologized in three parts. The first follows him studying ceramics at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, then joining the Kyoto City Ceramic Research Institute in 1914, where after he became advisor to ceramist Kiyomizu Rokubei IV. Acquiring a kiln in 1920, Kawai made his solo debut in 1921 at the Takashimaya department store in Tokyo, with his reinterpretations of classic styles and techniques — celadon and tenmoku from the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties of China; Korean hakeme (brushmark slip) and Mishima slipware.

The exhibition covers this period well with a score of works, including the exquisite “Tea Bowl, Dai-pi-zhan Style” (1921). Seiichi Okuda, a leading ceramic authority, called the sudden revelation of Kawai’s talent a “comet.” So praised, Kawai began to doubt his emulation of historical styles in search of developing his own style.

The mingei (folk arts) revival movement also began in the 1920s, and the second period of Kawai’s career, roughly spanning the years 1927-1940, addressed what he called the “beauty of utility.”

He produced black and earthy colored glazes on simple vessel forms like “Persimmon Glazed Teapot” (1928), achieved mesmerizing green and blue glazes and pursued floral motifs. For Kawai, however, mingei was in some respects a stopover on the way elsewhere. Another potter and friend, Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), wrote that Kawai seemed “like a crane who flew from his nest to feed with his friends at the mingei pond … until finally he flew off again, soaring higher into the sky.”

The war’s end engendered Kawai’s third career phase and its new creative freedoms nourished by pseudo-philosophizing. “Everything is an expression of one’s self,” he wrote, or “great harmony while in this world.”

This period’s work was characterized by copper-red vessels, asymmetrical flasks, bird-and-flower motifs and clunky hand motifs, like that of “Cobalt Blue Ceramic Sculpture” (1962). Works like “Ash Glazed Ceramic Sculpture” (1960) renounced craft functionality, much like Kawai’s earlier sculptured faces. His bespattered glazes, visible on “Black and Splashed Three-color Glazed Flat Jar” (1956), resonated with the period’s abstract expressionist foci, though he had been running and splattering glazes decades beforehand.

All of these fascinating works constitute what is regarded as the most significant public collection, in quality and chronology, of Kawai’s oeuvre.

“Potter Kawai Kanjiro: Works from the Kawakatsu Collection” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, runs until June 2; ¥1,300. For more information, visit www.momak.go.jp.

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