Russell Kelty introduces the only known, named historic tea bowl in Australian public collections

In the rarefied atmosphere of the tea room even the smallest works of art are painstakingly considered for their effect, revealing the owner’s cultivation and prestige. Tea bowl (chawan) named ‘Morning light’ (akebono), a recent Gallery acquisition, is the only known, named historic tea bowl in Australian public collections and was crafted in the seventeenth century at the historic Shigaraki kilns, near Kyoto. Its asymmetrical body, intermittent pools of translucent 
green ash glaze and rustic appearance display the effect of an aesthetic revolution that took place in the tea rooms of wealthy merchants in the late sixteenth century.

Morning light’ would have been considered highly desirable for its rugged texture, revealing the ‘flavour of the clay’ (tsuchi aji) and its uneven surface marked by elegant hairline cracks. The subtle tonalities of the red Shigaraki clay just visible beneath the uneven ash glaze must have inspired its owner
 to bestow its evocative name, and written in gold lacquer on the accompanying box. The repairs in gold and silver on the rim of ‘Morning light’ are evidence of its importance, as it was painstakingly repaired rather than simply discarded, testifying to an appreciation for tea bowls that were well worn with age, an appreciation cultivated by its previous owners.

Morning light’ evokes the most prominent aesthetic concept of this period, wabi, defined as that which is unpretentious, imperfect and austere. The tea bowls most readily associated with wabi and coveted by tea connoisseurs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were created in Korea and at the ancient kilns of Japan. The wares created at Shigaraki originally provided regional populations with rustic utilitarian wares for everyday use, some of which were repurposed for
 the tea ceremony. Tea masters appreciated them for their imperfections, in startling contrast to the well-established taste for the technical perfection of Chinese ceramics.

The transformation of the tea ceremony began in the late fifteenth century with a Buddhist prelate named Murata Jukō (1423–1502). Jukō sought to harmonise Japanese and Chinese tastes and believed that those who entered his austerely appointed tea room shed their status and material wealth, since each participant was considered equal. He also imbued his innovative tea practice with performative elements from Noh theatre and the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, which placed an emphasis on the communal nature of life. The most striking element of the ceremony was that participants were required to use the same tea bowl. As a result, tea bowls became the most prominent utensils of Jukō’s wabi-cha, with the most spectacular examples coveted by the wealthy merchants of Sakai and powerful daimyō based in Kyoto seeking to express their own prestige and power.

Like any great work of art, ‘Morning light’ repays patience and careful attention with a final flourish – a pool of white glaze speckled with blue, which is revealed at the bottom of the bowl after drinking the last of the tea. This final element of drama begs for imaginative interpretation as it is that which is obscured or only partially revealed that is considered the most elegant in Japanese art. The wabi ethos in which ‘Morning light’ was created and appreciated is best expressed in a poem by Fujiwara no Ietaka (1158–1237) and is often referred to by tea masters of the late sixteenth century:

To those who wait
Only for flowers
Show them a spring
Of grass amid snow
In a mountain village.

This acquisition was made possible through the continuing generosity of Mr M.J.M. Carter, AO.

Russell Kelty is Associate Curator of Asian Art at AGSA. This article first appeared in AGSA Magazine Issue 35.