LUGANO, SWITZERLAND – One Japanese writer and philosopher noted for his ability to explain his country’s aesthetic ideals intelligibly to Westerners was Muneyoshi Yanagi (1889-1961). He analyzed the beauty of handmade arts in the book “The Unknown Craftsman” (Kodansha International, 1972).
In this seminal work, Yanagi demonstrated that extraordinary beauty can be found in items made for everyday use. He espoused that objects created by honest craftsmen are often of a high aesthetic order while artists’ attempts to make something beautiful usually fail. Of course, we have to see this in the context of history since almost everything before the modern period was made of natural materials that became more beautiful with use and age, compared with modern, synthetic materials that can look and feel unpleasant when new and rapidly worsen.
Japanese tea masters were far advanced in exploring artistic and aesthetic paths. They could see beauty in carefully selected everyday objects such as rustic Korean ceramics, some of which, in time, became priceless treasures. At first, imported Korean and Chinese objects were much valued for their artistic quality and rarity, but then tea masters such as Sen no Rikyu recognized the aesthetic merits of ordinary Japanese applied arts. Soon, craftsmen working with ceramics, metalwork and bamboo basketry were commissioned by tea masters to make utensils and flower containers for urban sophisticates, especially those in the cultural capital of Kyoto.
Originally, of course, everyday objects were just taken for granted. It was probably only in reaction to materials of the industrial age that Yanagi drew our eyes to the inherent beauty of natural materials. Today we are attuned to the abstract, as that has been the trend of modern art since the mid-20th century. That is why so many of us are attracted to the splash of ash glaze on a medieval pot or the sculptural form of an ancient wooden pot hook.
Jeffrey Montgomery feels a strong affection for Japan and its culture and has a connoisseur’s eye for aesthetic quality in applied arts. He often says that this or that object “has just got it,” by which he means it is an outstanding piece with beauty beyond description in mere words.
He recognizes, too, that the decorative designs on ceramics, for example, show a sensitivity for the curved surface and shape of the object and are painted to be appealing when viewed from all angles. He is also captivated by the way Japanese artisans use negative space — the unpainted part of a design — to complement and enhance that which is painted, revealing a highly advanced artistic sense that is refreshingly different from the norms of composition in the West.
Until the modern period, the artisan ranked low in Japanese society and daily life was hard, so how could such humble people lacking any cultural education create such profoundly beautiful objects?
Traditionally, craftsmen learned by watching their seniors while working at the hardest beginner’s chores. Gradually the apprentice would start making things, and then his future would depend on how far his skills progressed. Yanagi theorized that an individual artisan would draw on jiriki (an inner power emanating directly from his soul without need of intellect), while groups working together at a kiln, for example, drew on tariki, a mystical collective power that was greater than the sum of its members. Their creations, made by such inner powers, can be immediately appreciated by anyone with sensitivity. Neither thought nor reason can mar the deep pleasure the objects provide.
This is the final installment in a four-part series on Jeffrey Montgomery’s mingei folk crafts collection. “Crafted Japan,” an exhibition featuring a selection of mingei pieces from Montgomery’s collection, is on view at the Museo Vincenzo Vela in Ligornetto, Switzerland, through March 8. For more information, visit www.museo-vela.ch/vela/en/home.html.