Russell Kelty discusses two Japanese tea bowls from the collection.
Through the generous benefaction of Raphy Star, the Gallery has recently acquired two spectacular tea bowls, which substantially enhance the existing Japanese ceramic collection.
The relative peace and prosperity of the Edo period (1615– 1868) fostered the practice of tea drinking in formal and semi-formal settings throughout Japan. Artists deliberately created tea bowls to suit the style of the owner, as well the context and manner in which tea was to be served and consumed.
Tea bowl (chawan), with plum blossom and geometric designs displays a striking asymmetric application of lustrous black glaze over white slip on an irregularly shaped clay body. The style and size of Tea bowl suggests it was used for the communal drinking of powdered green tea (matcha), known as wabi-cha, as defined by the great master Sen no Rikyu (1522– 1591). Sen no Rikyu advocated the use of tea bowls, found or created in Japan, that displayed simple, rustic qualities.
The motifs displayed on Tea bowl (chawan), with plum blossom and geometric designs were inspired by nature, as well as the textiles of the period. The stylised plum blossom on the outside of the bowl is depicted by means of five dots and contrasts with the more articulated version found at the bottom of the bowl, only visible after the last of the tea has been consumed. In a stroke of genius, the artist utilised a crack in the stoneware as the blossom’s stem (above).
Tea bowl has the unmistakable ‘clog shape’ (kutsu gata), a result of its being purposely indented in several places after being formed on the potter’s wheel. The distinct style and shape of Tea bowl points to the flamboyant aesthetics of the influential tea master Furuta Oribe (1543/44–1615). Ceramics displaying this particluar style have become known as oribe ware. Although no definitive text outlining Furuta Oribes’s particular style is available, the diaries of merchants and tea connoisseurs who attended his tea gatherings describe ‘the tea bowls as delightfully waggish: Seto ware with warps’, and Furuta himself as using ‘clog-shaped tea bowls created at the Mino kilns’.
Excavations suggest that Oribe ware was first developed near the birthplace of Furuta Oribe, in the Mino area, located in present-day Aichi prefecture. It is believed that during the late sixteenth century ceramicists from the nearby region of Seto settled in the Mino area and began to make stoneware with a lustrous black glaze, creating utensils in black and green to suit the individual tastes of the early seventeenth-century tea masters and wealthy merchants in Kyoto and Sakai.
In striking contrast, Tea bowl (chawan) with scenes from a teahouse was created by Ogata Shūhei (1783–1839) and is a magnificent example of Kyō-yaki (Kyoto ceramics). The substantial size of the tea bowl and the superbly executed painting demonstrate the artist at his most spectacular. Tea bowl displays a symmetrical shape and a distinct blue- and-white palette, which emulate the perfection of Chinese porcelain. The bowl was intended for use in drinking sencha, a drink prepared by infusing tea leaves in hot water. Sencha was popular among the literati (bunjin) of Kyoto, who cultivated Chinese aesthetics and artistic practices distinct from the wabi aesthetics prominent during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The gold repairs around the rim attest to the previous owner’s appreciation of the tea bowl.
As indicated by the calligraphy, Tea bowl (chawan) depicts an iconic scene from the Ako Incident, known commonly in the English-speaking world as The tale of the forty-seven rōnin, a narrative recounting the revenge of masterless samurai in 1701–02. This dramatic event was immediately adapted to the stage, to great acclaim throughout Japan and particularly Kyoto, also becoming the subject of countless woodblock prints and printed books. Prominently displayed on the exterior of Tea bowl is the former chamberlain of Asano domain, Ōishi Yoshio (1659–1703), identified by name, enjoying the pleasures of the famous Ichiriki teahouse while formulating a plan to avenge his master’s death. Tea bowl (chawan) shows the myriad amusements available in the teahouse, such as the company of geisha and singing accompanied by the shamisen. The lyrical decoration on the exterior of the bowl is complemented by the bold depictions of a giant tree alongside a diminutive pagoda of Kiyomizu temple – or perhaps the top of a float (yamaboko) participating in the annual Gion Festival.
Tea bowl (chawan) with scenes from a tea house represents the cultural ouevre of Kyoto during the early nineteenth century, a time when artists were inspired by a plethora of existing artistic traditions. Ogata Shūhei has chosen to decorate Tea bowl in a deliberately naive style, known as haiga, popularised by the master of haiku poetry, Matsuo Basho (1644–1694). This style was admired by literati for its simple, yet profound, observations evoked by poems and images of the natural world. Ogata Shūhei was also inspired by the decorative style described as Rinpa, prevalent in Kyoto during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Recent scholarship and archaelological excavations of ceramics in Kyoto have revealed the extent to which artists like Shūhei studied the work of artists such as the ceramic artist and painter, Ogata Kenzan (1663–1743), and his brother, the painter Ogata Kōrin (1658– 1716). Shūhei travelled to Edo on a number of occasions, which enabled him to access woodblock-printed books displaying the latter’s paintings and calligraphy. He was so impressed that he adopted the surname of Ogata.
The author would like to thank Richard Wilson, Professor of Asian Art and Archaeology at International Christian University in Tokyo, for his assistance with this article.
Russell Kelty is Associate Curator of Asian Art at AGSA. This article first appeared in AGSA Magazine Issue 36.
Gifts of Raphy Star in recognition of the continuing generosity of Max Carter AO through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2019