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.

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