- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2002

Yellow and burnished leaves cling to trees in the Freer Gallery of Art's courtyard as winter arrives in Washington after a balmy autumn. They're a fitting introduction to the Freer show, "The Potter's Brush: The Kenzan Style in Japanese Ceramics," in which images symbolizing loss, love and longing prevail.
Japanese artist Ogata Kenzan (16631743) turned ceramic pieces into fields for expressing classical Japanese poetic themes in both pictorial and calligraphic forms. He drew upon Japan's beloved "The Tale of Genji" and "The Tale of Ise," with their themes of irretrievable loves, unrequited desires and absent objects of affection.
Kenzan and his older brother Ogata Korin revolutionized the period's painting and pottery. Exhibit curator Richard L. Wilson of Tokyo's International Christian University believes the potter transformed Japanese ceramics. "Kenzan the designer remade the meaning of ceramic vessel: Suddenly it could have a whole range of cultural allusions and material analogues, ranging from poetry to textile design. Above all, the pots were painted rather than simply decorated," Mr. Wilson writes in the catalog.
A ceramic attributed to Kenzan and Korin is the brilliantly designed "Square Dish With Design of 'Eight Bridges.'" With two strokes of an ink-filled brush, Korin slashed in the main element of the bridge. He delineated the clusters of irises and grass with a few more.
In an episode of the popular "Kakitsubata" (or "Flower") story in "The Tale of Ise," an exiled hero based on the real-life Kyoto courier Ariwara no Narihara stops near a bridge over an iris bog. He composes a poem lamenting his exile.
Korin's interpretation shows only the bridge and irises. The square dish, probably used for serving confections and light foods, shows the dazzling patterning and reductive style of the Kenzan style. The plate also shows how the Japanese fused the literary arts of narrative and poetry with the visual. While the two brothers worked for the newly wealthy merchant class, Korin concentrated on painting and lacquer while Kenzan focused on ceramics.
Another exhibit object, "Tea Bowl With Design of Pampas Grass," shows Kenzan's just-right placement of calligraphic grass to complement the shape of the bowl.
The bold patterns Korin introduced in paintings, as with his gold-leafed, six-paneled "Cranes" in the exhibit's nearby Japanese Screens Gallery, and Kenzan's spare, flat designs on pottery, appealed to such American collectors as Charles Lang Freer, who founded the gallery. Korin's intense colors, gold-leaf backgrounds and daring decorative compositions originated with the "fusuma" (sliding-door panels) and "byobu" (folding screens) of the fortified Momoyama castles (1573-1615). Constant battles between the feuding warlords dictated small windows that let in little light and called for brightly painted, dramatically designed large-scaled panels in the gloomy rooms.
Artist Sotatsu Tawaraya, active from 1600 to 1640, handed down the large, gold-leaf painted screen tradition to Korin and his Rimpa School. This included the dramatic patterning found in such Kenzan paintings as "White Hibiscus Flowers and Leaves."
Now, however, the decorative style served a different purpose: to please the wealthy merchant classes that were the new patrons. The brothers came from one of these prosperous families.
Freer acquired Kenzan and Kenzan-style ceramics as part of his liking for the Rimpa School from 1894 to 1911, a period rather late in his collecting career. Nevertheless, he gathered nearly 100 pieces 10 by the master himself and the rest by followers to form the largest collection of this work outside Japan.
The exhibition presents Freer's entire collection of the genre for the first time and illustrates the development of the style ranging from examples by Kenzan to later, more inferior efforts. The show poses two issues: Considering the small space devoted to the display, should the gallery include so many poorer artistic works for the sake of scholarly elucidation? The works by later interpreters and copyists that clearly are inferior also raises questions about the validity of the Japanese practice of copying.

Kenzan's potential for greatness was not apparent early in his life. When his father died in 1687, Kenzan received a lavish inheritance of three houses, the family library and half of the family's cash and art collection.
The artist changed his name to Shinsei, which means "deep meditation," and built a secluded villa for pursuing cultural projects poetry, music, the tea ceremony and, especially, calligraphy in Omuro near a temple.
In 1699, Kenzan altered his dilettantish life. He built a three-chamber climbing kiln on property adjacent to the temple. He started to produce ceramics under the name of Kenzan, meaning the location of the kiln in Narutaki, in the mountains northwest of Kyoto.
At first he produced pottery that imitated art objects and utilized square formats with designs alluding to Heian period pottery (794 to 1185). He inscribed the poems on the base.
Kenzan was not a potter, just as glass artist Dale Chihuly does not actually blow glass. Rather, Kenzan was an individual who could creatively manipulate the kiln and direct apprentices.
One such early ceramic is his colorful, intricately painted "Incense Container With Design 'Narrow Ivy Road.'" The scene comes from the ninth chapter of the "Tale of Ise" in which a party of exiles, including the central figure, comes to a mountain pass. The dark ivy-covered path that led into the hills had plunged them into sadness.
In 1712 Kenzan moved again, this time to central Kyoto, specifically Chojiyamachi, where he produced his greatest art. It was a move to expand his shrinking inheritance and be near an important distribution center for artwork. He also recognized that his strength lay in decorating surfaces of individual pieces.
Korin had returned to Kyoto in 1709, and the brothers continued their collaboration. Under Korin's inspiration, Kenzan adapted flat Rimpa designs to the rounded shapes of bowls and plates. These works that combine images from court poetry with a determinedly rustic style in painting cranes, grass and flowers are his greatest works. The exhibit's pampas grass tea bowl and "Incense Burner With Design of Mountain Retreat" are two of these spectacular works.

WHAT: "The Potter's Brush: The Kenzan Style in Japanese Ceramics"
WHERE: Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery of Art, Jefferson Drive at 12th Street SW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Oct. 27
tickets: Free
PHONE: 202/357-2700

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide