Saturday, May 2, 2015

It’s a Family Affair ... RAKU: A Legacy of Japanese Tea Ceramics

By Raku Kichizaemon XV and Raku Atsundo
Edited by Melissa M. Rinne.
Translated from the Japanese by Christopher Stephens, Melissa M. Rinne, Martie Jelinek, Juliet Winters Carpenter, Christy Bartlett and Maya M. Hara
Kyoto, Raku Museum / Seigensha 2015

Review by Lauren W. Deutsch for Kyoto Journal

The publishing of this wonderfully designed, useful English language catalog that documents the unbroken 450 years-old legacy of handcrafted ceramics by THE Raku family [and friends, see below] was timed to coincide with the landmark exhibition – RAKU:  The Cosmos in a Tea Bowl --  of nearly 100 masterpieces of ceramic art with representations of the work by all 16 generations of the Raku family tradition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (and afterwards at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.) in 2015. Robert T. Singer, curator, and LACMA’s head of Japanese Art, championed the exhibition in concert with the much - decorated Raku Kichizaemon XV, head of the Raku Museum in Kyoto and designated (1986) a Living National Treasure of Japan attended the opening.

The book is foremost an illustrated chronology of some 206 ceramic works attributed to all of the Raku masters, with biographies of the artists. An addendum clearly shows photographs of box lids and translations of inscriptions and provenance. Thus, it is an essential tool to use when deeply exploring the exhibition at home in Japan as well as on the road in the USA and Russia. It contains not only extensive notes (in English and kanji) about the pieces, but through the photographs one can see details some of the nuances that each generation contributed to the oeuvre of the esteemed “house”. RAKU is a valuable addition to a chajin’s library, even without the benefit of being in the august presence of the exhibition’s two Registered Important Cultural Properties: a chawan from each of Chojiro, (here called Raku I) and another by Raku III (Donyu), and a Registered Important Art Object by Nichiren (Hokke) coreligionist / calligrapher best friend Hon’ami Koetsu. I was impressed by the relatively small size of the exhibited chawans that seem to get just a bit bigger over successive generations. Was it because people’s hands grew?

The essays – whose specific attribution of authorship is not detailed despite the use of the first-person-singular -- include photographs of rare documents that form the basis of the anecdote-rich family and national cultural history. We learn about the painstaking efforts to pinpoint Chojiro’s roots – dead-reckoned toward China -- and a cast of other venerable successors who begat, married into, etc. to creat a definitive singular succession of masters, one per generation, to this day. Of course, this being the definitive volume on Raku, the uniquely non coiled hand – hand built functional ceramic style, we are given the opportunity to realign our understanding of the journey of each of the artists, their influences and impact over 16 generations.

Proper homage is paid to Chojiro’s muse, his contemporary, the venerable tea master Sen no Rikyu, whose official family tree has sprouted and been spliced with branches wherever fine Japanese “high” culture landed until the present time. But when- and wherever Raku was, so was tea and vice versa. There was a dialogue between contemporaries from the start. Great emphasis placed on discussion regarding Chojiro’s developing the “spirit of imayaki”, the “now” ceramics. One can see how that works well with Rikyu’s wabicha, equally informal and essentially ichi-go. Ichi-e, one meeting, never to be repeated. He also takes liberty to project that the essence of Rikyu’s conviction to commit his final act of seppuku at the insistence of the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi could somehow be intimated by holding Chojiro’s chawans.

Unlike other artisanal enterprises, including other ceramic styles, and despite the propensity towards the technique / style evolving from the outside into adjectives – from raku to raku-like, Raku prides itself in maintaining the singularity of its head-of-house as the only producer of its works; there are no contemporaneous students or schools that are recognized, as the book details through text about other kiln sites. There is also an extremely valuable chart of recognized seals of the Raku masters and some other raku-ists.
What impresses me more is that successive Raku generations are not “taught” by the previous one. The three-step mastery process shuhari is described as 1/ learning the basics (shu), 2/ breaking with conventions to express oneself (ha) and 3/ finally transcending hte inherent contradictions between convention and consciousness to find true freedom of expression (ri). One almost gets the feeling that the existence of the head Raku of any generation lives and works in relative isolation to preserve the essence of his creative spirit through the length of his days. Another Raku maxim is onko chushin, literally, “warm to the old, know the new”. A video of Kichizaemon, making a chawan may be found online. One can see him going into a zone that seems to begin with his hand caressing the clay. This clay may have been drawn and processed for him by his grandfather, Raku XIII, Seiynu. in the tradition of each generation preparing clay for two ahead.
I remember being generously invited into the workroom / studio of Onishi Seiwemon, head of the famed and only remaining Kyoto cast ironworks that makes chagama, one of the Senke Jusshoku, 10 Senke Craft Associations. What impressed me most were the clearly well-worn dies, and patterns for kettles for tea ceremony that were on his drafting table. These crafts people not only inherit names, they also become chief stewards of facilities, relationships, prestige and fine examples of works from the past prestige, but also handle the very tools that brought them to this moment in time.
In addition to chawan and other chadogu, the book and exhibition offer other examples of work, including incensers, plates, flower containers and other objects. There is much discussion also about the fundamental aesthetic qualities of Chojiro’s “Two-color Glazed Lion” that provide “important signals which presage the subsequent development of the Chojiro tea bowl.”
Another essay goes into the layout of the Raku production facilities and techniques, such as the identity of the fuel, and use (or not) of bellows, as well as sources of clay and glaze materials. I now wish I had done a little digging along the banks of the Kamo River for a souvenir! To further the notion that each generation must make his own mark in a succession of artistic tradition, it is explained that the Raku enterprise lacks any “definitive recipe books about glazes or clays, leaving each master to discover new ways to “create hitherto non-existent expressions”. We are told, “Raku family does not have any secret hereditary texts.”
“While they inherited Chojiro’s black glaze, they also have the second generation Jokei’s black matte glaze; the third head Donyu’s black lustrous, glossy curtain glaze; the fourth generation Ichinyu’s mixture of black and crimson glazes; the fifth head Sonyu’s black glaze with its lusterless yet refined matte kase finish reminiscent of a metal survae; the seventh head Chonyu’s jet black, lacquer-like surfaces. In this way, the black glazes of the Raku heads f are never the same; each must invent his own individual black glaze within the confines of the medium while questioning the age in which he lives, and distinguishing himself with a unique style.”
Another essay dwells more on wabi and the influences of Zen Buddhism, the “Beauty of Relativity and Yoshida Kenko’s Essays on Idleness, waka poetry, especially the Man’yoshu and later Kokin wakashu.
The “Ultimate Wabi” section, likely written by Kichizaemon, connects Chojiro’s chawans with a discussion of a 1997 European exhibition of Raku ware and another where he explores his instinctive connection with the sensibility to the work of Mark Rothko, Yves Klein and Marcel Duchamp.
“I cannot but feel that Duchamp, the mother of modern art, and Chojiro, who drowns his tea bowls in black glaze, must have shared similar viewpoints,” adding,“ The totality of Chojiro’s tea bowls transcends all types of language and cognition.”

The book ends with information about the Kyoto-based museum and Raku Kichizaemon Pavilion at the Sagawa Art Museum.

A great companion to this book is Morgan Pitelka’s Handmade Culture: Raku Potters, Patrons and Tea Practitioners in Japan. (Honolulu. University of Hawai’i Press. 2005.) Here I was able to learn more that  many tea masters enjoyed making raku-style chawans for their own use, sometimes in backyard kilns and other times in the ceramic master’s studios. Pitelka delves deeply into the social, aesthetic and economic impact of patronage on the production of raku wares. Further he explores in depth the evolution of cultural “households” in Tokugawa Society, and much more about chado’s Iemoto system and its relationship to the Raku family. Like Raku, he also writes about the expansion of raku technique through the establishment of kilns in the West.