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Inspired Design:
Japan's Traditional Arts

by Michael Dunn
304 pages; 320 color illustrations
Dimensions: 9.5 x 11.75 in.
Publisher: 5 Continents Editions, Sep 2005
ISBN: 8874390416
Hardcover, $85.00

One of the sublime aspects of Michael Dunn's Inspired Design: Japan's Traditional Arts is the author's appeal to the imagination: for the reader to supply the qualities of touch and weight, the feel of an object to the hand, the evidence of well-made craftsmanship that is not apparent until the object is held and used. With this, Inspired Design invites an appreciation beyond the mere visual. It is an approach particularly apt to the traditional arts under discussion, which encompass ceramic vessels, exquisite textiles, and decorative arts cunningly applied in horn, bamboo or lacquer, whose pleasure was as much in the touch as in the viewing. This is a detailed survey of Japanese traditional arts of the aesthetically elite Edo period, an invitation to approach the objects from a standpoint of beauty, fortified by a knowledge of their social history, technical details, and the distinct and very specific set of aesthetics which shaped them.

The Edo or Tokugawa period lasted from 1615-1868 and represented a time of exquisite achievement and innovation in Japanese crafts. Driven by the dual forces of a wealthy, fashion-loving feudal society and a deeply felt set of formal aesthetics drawn from and exemplified by the practice of cha-no-yu (the Japanese tea ceremony), crafts as distinct as textile production, small handicrafts such as those used in making pipe cases or netsuke (ornamental objects used as toggles in the wearer's sash), and most importantly, ceramics and metalwork, were raised to the highest level of craft as high art. Inspired Design explores each of these, as well as traditional architecture in the form of temples, feudal castles, and gardens; the carved masks of No and Kyogen drama; the arts of lacquer and papermaking; the subtle craft of the samurai sword; and much more.

Kosode costume, 17th century
Length: 154.5 cm
© 5 Continents Editions 2005

Organizing items by the materials used in their making, the first chapter, "Art from Fauna", includes materials as distinct as carvings in ivory, stag antler, and bone, adept designs in silk and leather, and items made from bamboo, lacquer, paper, and plant fibers. Since silk and leather are both predominantly wearable textiles, the primary focus of "Art from Fauna" is on fashion and fashion accessories, including battle-jackets of the samurai, wraps used by Buddhist monks, and the ornate dress of No theatrical costume. The chapter also incorporates the host of small clever adornments made of horn or bone that complete these garments. The robes, including the basic personal garments, or kosode (a more accurate term for these over-garments, the author advises, than kimono), embody a skillful handling of graphic design. Treated as a two-dimensional surface, kosode designers employed embroidery, tie-dyeing, and elaborate insets of differently-patterned silk fabrics to create sophisticated motifs based on designs both abstract and real. Asymmetry was one of the hallmarks of beauty as well as style, and many of these garments display a masterful handling of asymmetrical motif, as in the 17th-century kosode garment swathed with a free-flowing tumble of bamboo scoop-nets in a dramatic diagonal off the wearer's right shoulder. A contrasting style was found in the concept of iki, the principle of "Edo chic", popular especially in the fashionable pleasure quarters of the city where merchants exercised their fascination with style and fashionability. Unlike the warriors, the merchant class were strictly prohibited from the overt display of wealth in their garments, and turned to subtle strategies of detail and fabric to hint at their material prosperity -- outwardly simple, inwardly adorned to reveal the most exquisite tastes.

Wood is the chief material in "Art from Flora", which expands the offerings to cover arts beyond the strict definition of 'craft' by including a study of Japanese traditional architecture, whether great feudal castles, traditional interiors of roadside inns serving the aristocracy, or the retiring hush of the innermost gardens of Zen temples. Even items of the most simple daily use were often carved to reflect their owner's taste, as in the exquisitely balanced proportions of a wooden jizaikake or pot hanger hook, used to suspend cooking pots from the rafters of a country house. A survey follows of objects crafted for personal or household use, including merchants' tansu chests, trays using wood as the foundation for the rich durability of lacquer, wooden vessels, and richly gilded riding saddles. Bamboo, like wood an omnipresent and versatile material in traditional Japan, is represented by a sprightly selection of items, from hanging flower containers to pipe cases. Such items offered artisans an opportunity for cleverness at every turn in skills of weaving and adornment. The pipe cases especially are particularly fine examples of the most refined weaving techniques. Paintings and scrolls on sturdy Japanese paper, jingosa lacquered warrior helmets, carved religious and theatrical masks, and further No and Kyogen costumes made of plant fibers complete the survey of crafts founded on plant-based materials. The decorative techniques developed by the Japanese artisans in their use of these native materials were unparalleled, reaching a high level of technical and artistic complexity.

"Art from the Earth" is the largest chapter, appropriately giving a fifth of the book over to that most refined and discriminating taste in Japanese crafts, pottery. Here the author steps outside the Edo time frame, opening the chapter with samples of prehistoric pottery of the Jomon era (ca. 12,500-400 BC), early-historic pottery of the Heian period (794-1185 AD), and works of other early eras as a precursor to an in-depth survey of the Six Ancient Kilns which catered to Edo nobility and supplied the demands for wares used in the tea ceremony and elsewhere. Located in centers of ceramic activities such as Shigaraki or Echizen, each kiln had its own style based on local clays and regional variants in craft. Text on technical aspects such as types of clay, choice of glazing, and placement of the pot inside the firing chamber of the kiln highlight the complex mingling of craft and chance embodied in creating these powerfully simple pots and storage jars, which were meant for actual use as well as aesthetic appeal. Incorporating such details, Inspired Design invites an appreciation, not only of the subtly appealing articles themselves, but of the great skill underlying the preparation of what seem to be, at the outset, rough and simple wares. It is an invitation to a bewitching connoisseurship.

Netsuke, 19th century
Stag antler
Diameter: 4.6 cm
© 5 Continents Editions 2005

As coda, the metal arts, the second element of art "from the earth" touch on samurai armor and the surprisingly lyrical artistic treatments of the round discs of sword guards, but primarily invoking the serious and all but mystical aspects of the Japanese sword, so central to this feudal, warrior culture. Detailing the metallurgic secrets of its forging, the aesthetic elements of its beauty, and the Zen tenets of the samurai swordsman whose embracing of "no mind" was as much part of his warrior training as the weapon he bore, the Japanese sword is all but the ultimate embodiment of austere elegance -- as elite in its making as in its wielding.

Author Michael Dunn's writing achieves that quality that only those who truly love their topic can bring to it, factual, yet infused with vitality and interest. His presentation of these works incorporates a variety of aspects, including the social details surrounding these objects, the world of feudal pomp and mercantile prosperity, the historic development of techniques and social attitudes, and details of craft production where they lend to an appreciation of the skill, difficulty, or achievement involved. Liberal quotes from Japanese authors both ancient and modern lend depth to the discussion. Over three hundred photographs support the text, subtly and tastefully done, each with detailed annotation including an explanation of the article itself, its function or ownership, and the artistic motifs being rendered therein. The end picture is not one of individual objects, but of the artistic sensibility of an era.

Set off in tone and spirit from the excursions that follow, the introductory chapter of the book is a striking study of Japanese aesthetics worthy of being a standalone piece in its own right, a handbook by which one might most appreciatively navigate the objects which follow. In it the author provides a survey of Japanese aesthetics in an attempt to define the particular qualities prized, sought after, and valued in these traditional crafts. Westerners, particularly artists so fascinated with the new, the flashy, the novel, would do well to read of these very different aesthetics, deeper, almost alien, and yet, with their own significant satisfactions. This moving chapter on design and asceticism, on handmade items which "reach out emotionally to their owners", will give heart to anyone world-weary of the aridity of modern mass-production:

Because the finest crafts do not reveal their layers of meaning and their nuances of hidden beauty all at once, a certain intuition and sensitivity is required, if not demanded, of those who view and handle them. The reward is often sudden, like a flash of enlightenment, as if the eyes had been opened and at last one can truly see. This vital role of intuition and sensation cannot be over-emphasized, because if these objects are looked at only objectively, from a purely intellectual or analytical angle, barriers to any deeper appreciation seem to be invoked. And, while an understanding of history, craft-making materials and techniques can certainly be an aide to connoisseurship, the real appreciation of beauty is ultimately based on feeling.

Storage jar (tsubo), Late 15th -
early 16th century
Echizen stoneware,
natural ash glaze
Height: 26.4 cm
© 5 Continents Editions 2005

Dunn traces the rooting of these aesthetics to a variety of sources: Shinto, Zen Buddhism, the precepts of the warrior-caste, the protocols of the tea ceremony. Concepts such as asymmetry, simplicity, astringency (a reduction of something to its essence through age and time), and reserve (that a work does not reveal itself all at once) are among those aspects that attempt to define the essential qualities of beautiful objects in the Japanese taste. This chapter, which also discusses in depth the practice and philosophies of the tea ceremony, provides the grounding for an appreciation of these objects and wares in their original, intended sense. Perhaps the most obvious evidence of this heightening of pleasure is in the appreciation of the clay wares, whose beauty is easy to overlook without an understanding of the ideals they were meant to embody. And the wares themselves reward such contemplation: the more one looks, the more one perceives the depths in these objects, with their sturdy shapes and restrained, complex effects of glazing.

Michael Dunn's position makes him uniquely suited to explaining these ideals for Western understanding: himself a Westerner (British), yet having lived and worked for over thirty years in Japan, deeply intrigued by its traditional arts and having absorbed the aesthetics of its historic crafts. He writes sincerely and straightforwardly about the crafts illustrated, the people who made and used them, the role they served in fulfilling the functions of high art, and of their enduring aesthetic appeal. Inspired Design: Japan's Traditional Arts offers itself on two levels: on the one hand, a survey of works of master-craftsmanship from Japan's most fertile cultural period; and on the other, insights into a framework of perceiving, of accepting the presence of an object, far different from the Western norm. One may well find oneself echoing Dunn's sentiment that "my interest returns more and more to things that can be handled; back again to the quietly satisfying world of Japanese traditional arts..."

--Katherine R. Lieber

Katherine R. Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: Inspired Design: Japan's Traditional Arts, and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews, may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link or by clicking on the link above.

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