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Oribe ware ewer
Japan; Momoyama Period, 1573-1615
© The Art Institute of Chicago 2007

The Practice of Tea from the Edo Period to Today
Kamisaka Sekka: A World of Things

April 14 - July 1, 2007

The Art Institute of Chicago
111 S. Michigan Ave.
Chicago, IL 60603
tel.: (312) 443-3500
hours: Mon-Wed 10:30a-5p;
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Two exhibitions at the Art Institute form a companionable complement in exploring change in Japanese aesthetics, from slow to swift. The teawares and fine ceramics in The Practice of Tea from the Edo Period to Today, and the Rimpa-school woodblock prints of Kamisaka Sekka: A World of Things both illustrate the evolution of taste and design. But where The Practice of Tea exemplifies a shift occurring over several centuries, Kamisaka Sekka reveals the swift pace of a change deliberately sought at the beginning of the 20th century in Japan.

The Practice of Tea from the Edo Period to Today features thirty-four utensils related to the ceremonial drinking of tea in premodern Japan, dating from the 12th century to the present day. The tea ceremony itself was formalized in the 15th century as chanoyu or chado, literally 'the way of tea'. This display of Japanese teaware shows a fascinating movement from a highly formal, rigidly ceremonial aesthetic to its opposite, an aesthetic of exquisite subtlety in which imperfections and aging in the items are an integral part of the experience, with formality retained in the rituals of presentation. Divided into three sections, the exhibition groups teawares into the formal, semiformal and informal categories.

In its earliest incarnation the way of tea was adopted by the Ashikaga shoguns (1336-1573) from the tea rituals of the Chinese courts. This is the 'formal' style, the vessels themselves representing a high and very visible aesthetic of ceremonial perfection, a court formality involving luxurious materials and lavish ornamentation. Carved stand for tea bowl in box (artist Hou Mo, Chinese, dates unknown: red lacquer: 14th cent.) and the teabowl it supports, Jian-ware tea bowl (tenmoku) (Chinese, artist unknown: dark grey stoneware with dark brown glaze and "hare's fur" markings in iron oxide, with a metal rim: 12th cent.) show the high level of craftsmanship and stately appearance valued in these wares. Meant to support a precious teabowl within its storage box, the footed stand is made of the expensive, difficult-to-work material known as red lacquer, carved in deep relief with a bold and simple design of geometric curves. The bowl it supports shows the strict attention to flawlessness that characterizes the formal style. It is a rich example of skillful glazing, with a dark glazed ground adorned with marks of subtle lighter ornamentation in fine, furlike strokes.

The 'semiformal' style, popular from 1574-1660, shows a move into wares lighter and more airy in appearance, yet still expressive of refinement and perfection. This style was influenced by the importation of Korean wares. Tea bowl (Korea, artist unknown: porcelain with pale blue glaze: early 12th cent.) and the unadorned, yet elegant Stand for tea bowl (Japanese, artist unknown: zelkova (keyaki) wood: c. 1950), both reveal a relaxation of the stiff classicism of the formal style, but at the same time continue to retain strong conventions of regularity and the value of fineness of material. Tea bowl shows the characteristic understatement in ornament, its blue-green celadon glaze providing a refined, gentle enhancement to the eggshell-thin porcelain of its making.

Chronologically, the semiformal and informal styles overlap, and in fact utensils of both styles were often used together as complementary. However in the tea ceremony as practiced in the prosperous Edo period (1603-1868), a new aesthetic began to develop, originally promoted by Sen-no-Rikyu (1522-1591), acknowledged master of chanoyu. Known as the 'informal' style, it brought to the fore a rustic aesthetic, involving objects whose immediate appeal and value were less apparent to the casual viewer. Pieces were made of rough, thick-walled stoneware. Vessels were made uneven, caved-in, or bearing the grooves left by the fingers of the potter. Glazes were deliberately allowed to run, bubble, or puddle. Roughness and rusticity led to extremes of individuality: no two pieces were alike. Oribe-style oblong dish (Kitaoji Rosanjin: stoneware with green glaze: n.d.), used to serve the modest bites of sweets presented to guests during the tea ceremony, shows the complete reversal of aesthetics compared to the formal style. The heavy stoneware piece is an uneven clay slab, its green glaze drizzled on with a casual feel. Such objects, which initially derived from items of informal daily use by farmers, quickly became the most cherished prizes of connoisseurs. These wares are the heart of the tea ceremony as practiced in the Edo period (1603-1868), and which continues to the present day.

Comparatively, the informal style allows the piece to exhibit a far greater presence of the hand of the artist and the feel of the piece's making. Certainly the cunning execution of a lacquered tea-caddy of the formal period was a work of remarkable craftsmanship. In its finished appearance, however, it had a sense of being eternal, seamless, fully-formed. These rustic ceramics, on the other hand, were immediately apparent as a 'made' object. The grooves, the irregularity, the hashmarks of red glazing on the side all bespeak an article whose hand-crafting is readily apparent.

Such an aesthetic did not mean simply lobbing a lump of clay onto the potter's wheel and turning out any old ugly thing. It took years of practice to achieve the apparent rough spontaneity, the subtleties of aesthetic 'rightness' that are the true hallmarks of the informal style. As teaware ceramist Richard Milgrim noted in a presentation given at the Art Institute, even the most lumpish-seeming chawan must exemplify certain formal considerations, including proper proportions of the lip of the bowl, the foot of the bowl, the weight and heft of it, and how it feels in the hand when filled with tea. Milgrim pointed out that when on exhibition the bowls are displayed empty, when in fact an integral part of the aesthetic experience is that they are meant to be touched, lifted and held, and most importantly, seen filled with an emerald swell of delicately frothy green tea, the way they would be received by a guest at the tea ceremony.

The 'informal' style is that branch of chado which still survives in practice today (the other styles are represented, but less frequently), and several of the teawares in this section of the exhibition are, unexpectedly, 20th century. That they stand equally well in style and execution side by side with items from the 18th century shows the timelessness of the informal teaware aesthetic. Where items from the formal and semiformal styles might appear dated or exotic, the restraint and spontaneity of the informal wares seem to find a footing in our modern era.

Chado and its wares are founded on creating an aesthetic unity among host, guests, the objects in use and the surrounding environment. In the West, such a melding is rare. The finest vessel may be a costly vase meant only to look at; the daily cup may be a machine-thrown bit of white ceramic, satisfactory for its task of getting the coffee to our lips. In chado is found an amalgamation of both, of items meant for touch, handling, drinking, simmering water, and as well to be regarded with appreciative attention as particularly harmonious. The evolution of aesthetic here is a fascinating study of development from the 12th century to the present day.

Kamisaka Sekka (1866-1942)
Spring Herbs
from the series A World of
Things (Momoyogusa)
, 1909-1910
Color woodblock print
© The Art Institute of Chicago 2007

Along the opposite wall, twenty woodblock prints from Kamisaka Sekka's (1866-1942) A World of Things (Momoyogusa) (color woodblock prints: 1909-10) show the deliberate infusion of modernity into a formerly traditional art. As Japan opened up to the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it sought to move out of traditional modes and engage with the more progressive aspects of Western culture. This included discarding or modifying many means of expression that had evolved, like the tea ceremony, over centuries, and invigorating the arts with contemporary ideas and techniques from the West. It was a deliberate reaching for an art that would express the advancement and swift modernization of the nation

To this end Sekka, a noted artist of the centuries-old Rimpa school, was sent to study in Europe at what was then the height of the Art Nouveau period. In these vivacious selections from A World of Things Sekka reaches for traditional themes, at times presented conservatively but more often reworked with the modern influences from his academic European training. This is, in a sense, japonisme reinvented by a Japanese. With the asymmetry, the traditional subjects, the wistful transitory quality to the scenes, these are clearly Japanese prints. And yet, the color-block approach and the use of radical hues (in A Walk Around The Paddy Fields the paddies are bright yellow, green, pink) bespeak an entirely new infusion of design and principle. Fisherman, flowers, the evocative moments of moon, wave, or snow so particularly associated with Japanese decorative painting and print are here abstracted into flat color forms in compositions which recall their traditional origins but also represent a new approach of spareness and decorative minimalism.

Willow and Cherry Branch shows the clearest influence of Art Nouveau on Sekka's design with its sinuous handling of nature-based forms and the decorative flow of the willow branches across the picture plane. Silvered Waves Against A Beach likewise uses the agile device of a repeating wave in a manner representative of both the patterning of kimono, and the hypnotic curves of the Nouveau style. At the same time many of these are surprisingly modern. In Pine Beach with Shrine Gate, the pines and gate are color cutouts so bold and distinct that the piece has overtones of collage. Other images employ a sketchiness that touches on both calligraphic style, and the quick brushwork of impressionists and postimpressionists. In Flutist Among the Cherry Petals the woodblock print mimics a pert brushstroke in outlining the figure, giving a dash of humor to this trimly composed image of a young flute-player in traditional dress.

Sekka brought a new simplicity to the woodblock print, a simplicity evocative of modern abstraction, and yet perfectly complementary in updating the traditional schools of painting in line with a modern vision. The twenty selections from of A World of Things represent the successful harmonizing of past and present.

Social and economic factors shaped the evolution of teaware over eight centuries in premodern Japan, ending in forms evocative of rustic irregularity. Those same factors in 20th century Japan transformed the decorative aspects of the centuries-old Rimpa school into a modern experience of appealing simplicity and bold design. Two variations on aesthetic change, one slow, one swift, show the ways in which traditional forms may evolve. Both The Practice of Tea from the Edo Period to Today and Kamisaka Sekka: A World of Things run through June 1, 2007.

--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.

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