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Quiet Beauty

Cultural Identity and Japanese Studio Ceramics
Rupert Faulkner

At the start not just of a new century but of a new millennium, there is a certain poignancy in being presented with the outcome of a single individual's journey through five thousand years of one of the great ceramic cultures of the world. Jeffrey Montgomery has built up his collection over a long period of time, sifting and distilling from the many thousands of works he has encountered a highly personal selection that reflects a particular and deeply felt aesthetic. Each piece, one knows, has been carefully and lovingly chosen. It has spent months or years interacting with and defining the private spaces of his everyday life, being repeatedly put away, taken out, redisplayed, and reassessed.

Collecting is an act of creative dislocation, a removal of an object from the context or contexts in which it has hitherto functioned, followed by its recasting according to the passions and enthusiasms of its new owner. For a collector to commit their collection to public scrutiny is a subsequent and different act of dislocation in which alternative agendas are imposed on subgroups of artifacts selected by outside curators and other third parties. Some collectors revel in the spotlight that is brought to bear on them as a result of making their collections available in this way. Others are more hesitant, wary of the intrusion into their privacy-fearful even of the threat of their collection being somehow defiled-that public exposure can be felt to bring.

While Jeffrey Montgomery has now come to terms with, and indeed takes increasing pleasure in, being known as the owner of what is probably the most important collection of Japanese folk art outside Japan, it is revealing of his modesty and caution that he chose to remain anonymous when the Japan Society, New York, organized the exhibition Japanese Folk Craft: A Triumph of Simplicity in 1992. The introduction to the exhibition catalogue observes how he acquired his first work of Japanese folk art not because he knew it was folk art, nor indeed that it was Japanese, but because it appealed to him for the immediacy of its sculptural dynamism.[1] In this respect, like the many modern artists for whom primitivism has been such a compelling focus of concern, he was moved by what struck him as the timeless quality of an anonymous product of an unknown culture. In contrast to the curators who have worked with him on various exhibition projects in recent years, he did not come to Japanese folk art through knowledge of Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961) and the Japanese Mingei or Folk Craft movement. He came to it viscerally and critically unencumbered. This being said, his involvement in what has now grown into quite a busy exhibition program has focused his collecting activity into areas that by and large fall within the parameters of Yanagi's folk craft concept. While this may have resulted in a synonymy between the term "mingei" and the name of Jeffrey Montgomery, it is important to bear in mind the route by which he came to the field of his choosing.

The purpose of this essay is not to examine the ceramics in the Montgomery collection, for this is done more than adequately by Robert Moes in his text, but, as a parallel exercise, to explore some of the forces that have shaped the development of studio ceramics in modern Japan. Japan is frequently described as a ceramists' mecca, an enchanted land where anything and everything is possible, where potters enjoy the status of fine artists and are rewarded handsomely for their efforts. It is certainly the case that potters in Japan generally occupy a higher position in the artistic hierarchy than they do elsewhere. It is also true that the making of ceramics can be a very lucrative business-the term used to describe artists in the sense of "one who creates," sakka, also has the meaning, as Japanese potters jokingly relate, of "one who builds a house." It is not true, on the other hand, that anything and everything goes. The development of Japanese studio ceramics since the 1920s has been subject, as has indeed been the case in all other areas of artistic endeavor, to the broader forces of history. The emphases one finds are the result of particular preoccupations, the background to which has to be understood before any serious critical analysis can be made.

The Japanese Folk Craft movement is an apposite starting point: its philosophy was the product of a certain set of circumstances prevailing in Japan in the early decades of the twentieth century. Yanagi's thinking comprised two main elements. One derived from the social and moral concerns expressed in the writings of William Morris and other proponents of the British Arts and Crafts movement. The other, an essentially mystical attitude towards perception and aesthetic appraisal, derived from his extensive reading of western and eastern philosophy. Like its British counterpart, the Japanese Folk Craft movement evolved in reaction to the problems of rapid industrialization and urbanization. It was also, in its search for a uniquely Asian mode of life and production, an outcome of Japan's negotiation with modernity and of the need for Japan to articulate, in the face of a domineering and potentially overwhelming West, a sense of its own cultural identity.

The Japanese Folk Craft movement was formulated as an instrument of social and artistic reform that looked to the past as a model for the present. On the one hand it sought out, documented and collected historical artifacts made and used by the common people. The legacy of these activities is the exceptional collection of Japanese, Korean, and Okinawan crafts preserved in the Japan Folk Craft Museum (Nihon Mingeikan) founded by Yanagi in Tokyo in 1936. The beauty of these objects was seen to derive from their having been created by craftsmen working close to nature, using simple techniques and traditional styles, and living within small and harmonious rural communities without concern for capitalistic gain and the assertion of individuality. A clear distinction was made with mass-produced objects, whereby the maker was felt to be too far removed from the making process to be able to infuse an object with any kind of inner life. A differentiation from elite crafts was also made. These, it was felt, were flawed because of the way they functioned primarily as decorative rather than utilitarian objects and, more profoundly, because they were the outcome of processes driven by the consciously directed ambitions of their makers.

In addressing the present, the Japanese Folk Craft movement proposed that contemporary makers should adopt these notions of what constituted or led to true beauty as the starting point for how they lived and worked. The principle, encapsulated in the idea of the "ethical pot" proposed by Oliver Watson in his discussion of British studio ceramics, was that a proper lifestyle would lead naturally and spontaneously to the creation of proper work. [2] Although there were many who were prepared to abide unquestioningly by Yanagi's teachings, believing in the ideal of self-negation through immersion in tradition, those in pursuit of artistic originality were faced with the contradictions that inevitably arose when trying to operate within a system that prized innocence and anonymity over individualism. It was the tension resulting from such contradictions that led to the rift between Yanagi and Tomimoto Kenkichi (1886-1963), who, along with his fellow potters Hamada Shoji (1894-1978; nos. 85-86), Kawai Kanjiro (1890-1966; no. 87) and Bernard Leach (1887-1979; nos. 88-89), was one of the founding members of the Japanese Folk Craft movement.

Similar tensions marked Yanagi's relations with younger members of the Japanese Folk Craft movement such as the textile artist Serizawa Keisuke (1895-1984), the woodwork and lacquer artist Kuroda Tatsuaki (1904-1982), and the woodblock print artist Munakata Shiko (1903-1975). If Yanagi found it difficult to reconcile himself to the individualism of these practitioners, his underlying admiration for their work and his willingness to support them led to criticism from mingei purists, who felt he was in breach of the principles set out in his key writings of the late 1920s. One of the more dramatic outcomes of this was the breaking away of Miyake Chuichi and his followers to set up, in 1953, the independent Japan Craft Cooperative (Nihon Kogei Kyodan). A more recent occurrence in the uneasy history of the Japanese Folk Craft movement was the decision taken by Shimaoka Tatsuzo (b.1919; nos. 90-91) in 1991 to withdraw from the Japan Art Association (Kokugakai), one of the main organs of the official mingei machinery. As Hamada's foremost student and successor, Shimaoka is widely recognized as Japan's leading folk craft potter. His break with the Kokugakai can be taken, if one chooses to interpret it in this way, as a comment about the impossibility and perhaps even the undesirability of trying to apply mingei principles to contemporary ceramic and other craft practice.

Although the Japanese Folk Craft movement may no longer be the lively instigator of activity it once was, Yanagi's legacy in terms of his concern to define and promote that which is uniquely Japanese or, more broadly, Asian has been an enduring one. In this respect he resembled Okakura Kakuzo (1862-1913), the polemical style of whose later writings made him one of the more notable players in the game of cultural nationalism sparked off and fueled by Japan's encounter with the West. Yanagi sought the essence of the East in the everyday utensils of the common people, getemono-or at least what he and his followers classified, sometimes mistakenly, as such. Okakura, by contrast, looked to the higher arts that he, Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908) and others of their circle identified and endowed with the supreme status they enjoy today. Very different though their interests and beliefs may have been, Yanagi and Okakura were both caught up in the same swirl of identity politics that is nowadays termed "discourse on Japaneseness," or Nihonjinron.

A crucial aspect of Okakura's championing of Asian values was the attention he focused on the tea ceremony (chanoyu). One result of this was the publication in 1906 of his short but celebrated The Book of Tea. [3] Inasmuch as this was first published in English, it was outwardly directed. Nevertheless, as Christine Guth has shown in her study of the activities of the business magnate and tea devotee Masuda Takashi (1848-1938), the tea ceremony functioned at the heart of the process by which Japan established a set of canons for the appreciation of its artistic heritage during the closing years of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. [4] Many of the great collections found in Japan's most famous museums were formed by industrialist tea enthusiasts like Masuda. This pattern persisted throughout the twentieth century and is still a pervasive feature of Japanese art collecting.

For early-twentieth-century Japanese potters looking to find ways forward from what they saw as the stultifying legacy of the Meiji government's promotion of export crafts, the types of tea ceramics exchanging hands in the art market, and becoming known about through the publicity this generated, presented themselves as a new and exciting source of inspiration. The 1920s and 1930s were also a time when archaeological investigations of regional kiln sites began to get under way, much of the early work being conducted by local groups of potters. This combination of factors resulted in what is sometimes referred to as the Momoyama revival-a surge of interest in, and the attempt to reproduce and reinterpret, the varieties of tea ceramics made at Japanese kilns during the Momoyama period (1568-1615). The tea ceremony, through the efforts of Okakura and others, had become a powerful metonym for traditional Japanese culture. Added to this was the way in which the Momoyama period, as reflected in the use of descriptors like the "Japanese Renaissance," was coming to be seen as one of the great highpoints in Japan's artistic past. Whether they were conscious of it or not, therefore, those pioneering potters in Seto, Mino, Bizen, Karatsu, Hagi, and elsewhere were responsible for the formulation of ceramic vocabularies as loaded with overtones of Nihonjinron as those deriving from Yanagi's championing of folk craft getemono.

In the 1950s, when the Japanese government established the system of Living National Treasures (more properly called Important Intangible Cultural Properties) and the associated Traditional Crafts Exhibition, Momoyama tea ceramic revivalism and mingei regionalism were two important components of what went into determining the boundaries of permissible activity. The first ceramist Living National Treasure appointees were Tomimoto Kenkichi (appointed 1955 for overglaze enamel decorated porcelain), Ishiguro Munemaro (1893-1968; appointed 1955 for iron-decorated stoneware), Arakawa Toyozo (1894-1985; appointed 1955 for Shino and Black Seto wares), Hamada Shoji (appointed 1955 for mingei ceramics) and Kaneshige Toyo (1896-1967; appointed 1956 for Bizen wares). Their work and the ceramic types produced by more recent Living National Treasure appointees and other subscribers to the traditional crafts movement constitute an astonishing series of attempts to engage with and explore the culturally autochthonous. The use of this term may seem inappropriate for work based on Chinese and Korean prototypes, but if one looks at the varieties of non-Japanese ceramics that have been used as models for contemporary work, they have been, to a large extent, types that have a history of having been collected and appreciated in Japan. They are, in other words, indigenized varieties of nonindigenous ceramics charged with specifically local, that is to say Japanese, cultural resonances.

Governmental institutionalization of the traditional crafts and other artistic practices during the 1950s was a response, it can be argued, to the turmoil that followed Japan's defeat in the Second World War. The Americanization of Japanese culture was a concern, just as there was a need to forge a sense of cultural unity to assist the process of national recovery. There were also worries about the decline of traditional craft production in the face of continuing industrialization and urbanization. The conditions were similar in nature, if more pressing and immediate, to those which Yanagi, Okakura, and their generation had previously responded to in their different ways. Thus, even though there was a conscious rejection of the prewar nationalist agenda and the excesses in which it had resulted, the underlying search for the essence of Japaneseness remained very much the same.

The 1950s also saw the maturation of an avant-garde ceramics movement at the hands of a growing body of practitioners tired with traditional crafts establishmentarianism. Makers belonging to the Kyoto-based Shikokai and Sodeisha, two ceramist groups established in 1947 and 1948 respectively, set out to challenge the primacy of the ceramic vessel and to question received assumptions about utility and function. The result, as evidenced by the extraordinary blossoming of abstract sculptural ceramics in late-twentieth-century Japan, was the opening up of a whole new world of creative experimentation.

An early and seminal event in the history of Japanese avant-garde ceramics was the Shikokai's sponsoring in 1950 of an exhibition of ceramic sculptures by Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). The primitivism of the works shown in this and a second exhibition held in 1952 struck a deep chord among young Japanese makers. Noguchi's example encouraged them to look to prehistoric Japanese ceramics, particularly those of the Jomon (10,500-300 B.C.; nos. 1-2) but also those of the Yayoi (300 B.C.-A.D.300; no. 3) and Tumulus (A.D. ca. 300-646; no. 4) periods, as a parallel source of inspiration to the avant-garde works of influential European and American artists being introduced to Japan at the time.

Prehistoric Japanese ceramics have by no means been the only source of inspiration for avant-garde experimentation, but they have been a particularly potent one. They have come to be known about through archaeological excavations, the number of which reached exponential figures during the economic boom years of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. As with historical kiln sites, many of these excavations have been carried out as a result of Japan's stringent cultural property laws, which oblige property developers and civil engineers to ensure that sites are investigated and, if necessary, excavated before building or rebuilding work can proceed. The more dramatic findings from these archaeological investigations have fuelled a popular imagination obsessed, in the immutable spirit of Nihonjinron, with trying to describe the Japanese national character in terms of quasiscientifically defined Jomon and Yayoi archetypes. In this respect the term identity politics can be attached to makers who explore the primitive and numinous through reference to prehistoric Japanese models as readily as it can be to Momoyama tea ceramic revivalists and folk pottery resurrectionists.

To analyze is not to criticize. It is to try to understand and explain. It is too easy to look at what there is and to think that things could not have been otherwise. This essay does not pretend to address the full complexity of what has shaped the development of Japanese studio ceramics since their emergence in the early twentieth century. What it does propose, however, is that there has been an ongoing process of selection and institutionalization of certain key forms, and that this process has been informed by the politics of cultural nationalism resulting from Japan's negotiation of the modern world. A critical aspect of this has been, furthermore, the way in which archaeology has provided whole new vocabularies through which contemporary makers are able to explore issues of cultural identity.

At the beginning of this essay it was suggested that collecting and exhibiting were acts of dislocation that removed objects from their original contexts and recast them according to the enthusiasms and agendas of collectors, curators, and other third parties. In concluding, it is hoped that the act of dislocation which this essay represents will have helped to position the ceramics so beautifully illustrated in this catalogue not just as the products of certain moments of history, nor simply as reflectors of Jeffrey Montgomery's particular aesthetic, but also as living artifacts that sit at the heart of a continually evolving dialogue between past and present.

1. Japanese Folk Craft: A Triumph of Simplicity (New York: Japan Society, 1992), pp. 7-8. [back]

2. Oliver Watson, British Studio Pottery: The Victoria and Albert Museum Collection (London: Phaidon Christie's in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1990)
pp.15-16. [back]

3. Okakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea (New York: Fox, Duffield and Company, 1906) [back]

4. Christine M. E. Guth, Art, Tea, Industry: Masuda Takashi and the Mitsui Circle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993). [back]


One hundred extraordinary ceramics from one of the world’s premier collections of Japanese folk art will go on view March 27, 2003, at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture in New York City. “QUIET BEAUTY: Fifty Centuries of Japanese Folk Ceramics from the Montgomery Collection” explores the near-perfect combination of form, color, texture, gesture, and sense of spiritual harmony embodied in Japanese folk ceramics made between 3000 B.C. and 1985. The exhibition is the first outside of Japan to explore this broad range of production. The objects have been selected by Guest Curator Robert Moes, an internationally respected art historian specializing in Japanese folk art.

Following its premiere in New York, the exhibition will travel to museums in ten American cities, including Grand Rapids, MI; Honolulu, HI; Tyler, TX; Palm Beach, FL; Ithaca, NY; and Santa Fe, NM.

Introduction | Quiet Beauty Exhibition | Catalogue | Exhibitions