Beauty in Usage

When the young German microbiologists, Anneliese and Wulf Crueger attended a biotechnology conference in Japan three decades ago, they saw Japanese ceramics for the first time and were smitten. For the next thirty years the scientists spent every chance they got, including their annual vacations, acquiring Japanese ceramics.

The couple visited 90 kilns (kilns in the sense of workshops and pottery centers) from the northern temperate villages to the warm, subtropical southern coast. They learned to read and write Japanese so that when they ventured deep into the countryside they could converse with the potters. They studied the history and culture of Japan to better understand the wares they were collecting.

Simultaneously, they were collecting European pots. After thirty years, they had amassed about a thousand pieces, half of them from Japan. And as happens with all collectors, there came a point when they had to decide what to do with the collection. Sell it? Keep it intact? Give it away?

Happily, the Cruegers decided to find good homes for their collections and gave the European collection to the GRASSI Museum of Applied Arts in Leipzig and the Japanese collection to the Asian Art Museum in Berlin. In 2007 they published Modern Japanese Ceramics, which looks at the trends and processes of Japanese Ceramics. Here they imparted all they had learned. Now they give us Ceramic Cosmos Japan, a photographic catalog of their pots with short descriptive text in German, Japanese, and English.

With all that has happened in Japan this spring, and the losses that potters there have suffered, it is a particularly good time to look at this survey. The Cruegers collected pots of a modest size, meant for use. The variety from kiln to kiln, the blend of tradition and innovation, the use of local clays and minerals intrigued them and informed their purchases. Clearly, they were more interested in the work than in the workers.

The concept of beauty in usage deeply appealed to them and they write, “yõ no bi – Beauty in Usage is a firmly established term. Ceramics often reveal their full beauty only when used. Tea bowls with the greenish shimmering, whisked tea, a vase with [a] correspondingly coordinated arrangement, bowls and platters with the food arranged on them…” Ironically, it does not appear that they themselves ever used their pots. No sake in their sake jars. No tea in their tea bowls. I could be wrong in this notion, but that’s how it appears.

There are no old pots on these pages. The Cruegers bought only works that were being made during the years they traveled and collected, ranging from delicate blue and white porcelain to sturdy fire-kissed stoneware. The photos are good, but there are so many, often four to a page that I had focus and make myself look at one image at a time. The book is arranged by region with a good map on the flyleaf. Now, if I could just figure out how to pay for a trip to Berlin and see it all for myself.

Romance and Reality

I know that pollution from the coal fires of the Potteries in the Six Towns of nineteenth and early twentieth century England sickened workers and residents, blackened the sky, and left an ugly residue on windowsills. I understand that children – 4,500 under the age of 13 in 1861 – worked long hours exposed to clay dust and lead. I realize that this bustling hive of Industrial Revolution factories replaced rural country potters and their wares.

Yet I can’t help but get dreamy when I see images of the Potteries in their heyday. Oh, the teams of women in their long dresses pouring slip into molds for teapots and plates, the children putting handles on cups, the men stoking the coal fires and throwing at belt-driven wheels. The cobble streets and brick warehouses and deep marl holes! The energy and enterprise! I especially love photos of the “forests” of bottle kilns towering over the potbanks and residences. Yes, I like the “ovens” best.

David Sekers gives us a good overview in The Potteries. He includes numerous old photos and etchings of the work processes, interiors and exteriors of the buildings, and of the wares themselves plus maps and diagrams. He clearly loves the bottle kilns too, but does not romanticize. “A partly seasonal, rural craft based skill such as pottery making became a notoriously unhealthy occupation only as industrialization progressed.” Tasks were now divided and mechanized. Productivity was measured. Fortunes were made and lost by the factory owners.

I don’t particularly like the work that was produced. To me it seems cold and overly decorated. I like the strongly thrown country pottery it replaced. But it intrigues me that so many people dedicated their lives to pot making at Spode, Wedgewood, Staffordshire and all the other factories of the Potteries. The innovations that were developed in them are an important piece of ceramic history some of which are still used today. It is also interesting that so many women (and children) did this work, as women had not been potting in Europe for centuries.

So, thank you David Sekers for transporting me back in time for a little while to the Potteries of the Six Towns. And  a special thanks for all the pictures of bottle kilns.

Pots for the Taxman

Imagine having to send pots to the government as tribute. And imagine that these pots are used in festivals, banquets, and ceremonies hosted by the royal court and government offices. But there is a problem. The good people of your land steal the pots! So you are required to inscribe the name and seat of the office that takes your wares in tribute on each pot that you send. Vases, bowls, jars – everything! It would be like putting your governor’s name and city on each of your pieces. Horrors!

This was exactly the case with Korean Buncheong ceramics. Often 80% would go missing after a banquet until officials came up with the idea of having potters label the pieces. Today, looking at the lovely Korean Buncheong ceramics, you would not immediately guess that the writing – stamped, engraved, brushed with iron oxide – was anything other than decorative. It is a fun bit of history to think about as we try to get our tributes (taxes) to the IRS before the looming deadline Monday. Actually, I would not mind sending the governor a few bowls with his name written in iron oxide around the rim, if I didn’t have to send money.

Soyoung Lee, Associate Curator, Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Jeon Seun-chang, Chief Curator, Leeum, Samsun Museum of Art in Seoul share this story and more in Korean Buncheong Ceramics. They discuss Buncheong wares, which were made during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Korea, both aesthetically and historically.

The wares were thrown on the wheel and fired in efficient mud kilns to stoneware temperatures. Often slipped by dipping or by brushing and covered with sgrafitto peonies, leaves or vines, the pots are, as Lee and Seun-chang point out, startlingly modernist in appearance. “ One sees and feels the potter’s touch,” they write, “…[the pots are] defined by [the] extensive use of white slip…Buncheong design is characterized by its unconstrained, experimental spirit and minimalist look… these ceramics are fascinating because they defy simple dichotomies such as utilitarian object vs. creative art; low-tech and individualist handicraft vs. highly finished commercial product; rustic and naïve decoration vs. what a twenty-first century viewer might consider contemporary, even avant-garde…”

Wealthy Japanese of the Edo period fell in love with Korean pottery including and perhaps especially, Buncheong pottery. They imported Korean wares for use in the tea ceremony. Indeed, they were so enamored of Korean works that the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi captured Korean potters during the infamous “pottery war” and brought them to Japan to work. In time, Japanese potters were making their own Buncheong inspired works.

This is the kind of book that will bring you a feeling of calmness as you sit and slowly turn the pages and look at the photos. After you have done this two or three times and let the images seep into you, you will be ready to focus and read the erudite text.

Moon Balls and Secret Poems

In the sixties, while trimming the top of one of her closed forms, Toshiko Takaezu accidentally dropped a piece of clay into the interior. She could not retrieve it. After the pot was fired, she discovered that this errant bit of clay added the dimension of sound to her vessel. She liked this and was inspired to wrap small wads of clay in paper and purposely enclose them within the inner space of her works, thus making sound an important part of each piece.

She is also rumored to have left poems inside her enclosed forms, poems that cannot be read until the pot is broken. It almost doesn’t matter if she actually did this or not, the notion of it, the mystery, intrigues. I can’t imagine purposely breaking one of her pieces for a poem, but I can imagine, if you own one of these works, always having in the back of your mind that one day you might. The pot is thus imbued with possibility, yet another dimension. And should a disastrous accident happen turning a treasured piece into shards, there, at least, is a poem-gift as compensation for the loss.

The Art of Toshiko Takaezu: In the Language of Silence edited by Peter Held, Curator of Ceramics at the Arizona State University Art Museum’s Ceramics Research Center is a celebration of Takaezu’s work. Takaezu is widely known for her big forms, especially her moon balls, large, organic orbs, often shown in clusters in a field of grass. There is something both child-like and profoundly confident about these orbs. Upon seeing them, anyone who has made two small pinch pots and put them together (and who has not, even amongst people who do not work in clay?) will immediately imagine herself making giant ones. But of course, it is not quite that simple.

The Art of Toshiko Takaezu offers thoughtful essays, wonderful photos, many of them full page, a chronology, and a tribute. We discover the outlines of her life: growing up in Hawaii, moving to the mainland and studying with Maija Grotell, leading to her exhibitions and teaching years at Princeton. We learn that she also wove; worked with bronze: and created evocative paintings on canvas. And we are repeatedly told how quiet she was, how private. Perhaps it is for this reason that there are few photos of her in the studio, and almost no information about her working methods, her glaze making, or her kilns. “Usually with glazing, I like to be alone,” she says, “Glazing is a personal thing.”

The book comes from the University of North Caroline Press, which also gave us the lovely A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes last September. Takaezu died March 8th of this year.