by Roderick Conway Morris

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Japanese Art: Continuity and Change

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 23 November 2007
National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.
a kimono decorated with stencil dying on silk,
a pattern that resembles open fans.



The relationship between tradition and innovation in Japan is complex and often paradoxical to outsiders. Profound Japanese respect for tradition is combined with what often seems to be a mania for novelty. This dynamic has given rise over the last half century or so to art-craft pieces that are made using age-old techniques, sometimes even requiring the revival of lost techniques, but adapted in ways that unmistakably reflect the modern age.

Such pieces are uniquely Japanese, yet at the same time they can appeal to anyone who enjoys creatively conceived contemporary objects, made with exceptionally fine craftsmanship.

The giving of gifts is extremely important in Japanese culture. To give such art-craft object is a perfect way to demonstrate the giver's good taste while flattering the discriminating eye and refined sensibility of the receiver.

Last summer the British Museum, which has been collecting Japanese art works since it was founded in 1753, staged a revealing exhibition of these eminently give-able art-craft pieces. The show, 'Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan,' was accompanied by a book of the same title, which remains a useful introduction and manual for those interested in acquiring pieces of this kind. The book also contains a listing, and biographical details, of some of the country's most prominent craft artists.

Following the devastation of World War II, there were fears that many ancient crafts were in danger of disappearing forever. Accordingly, along with efforts to conserve art, architecture and other cultural manifestations, a government initiative was launched to aid less tangible artistic assets - the artists and craft workers themselves, and the skills they exercised. This led to the designation by the state's cultural affairs department of what came familiarly to be known as 'Living National Treasures,' who became eligible for state assistance to help them in the pursuit of their vocations.

Hardly less important was the organizing by the cultural affairs department of a show, The Japan Traditional Art Crafts Exhibition, which gave practitioners an opportunity both to display and sell their wares, and to nurture a wider public awareness of their work. The first was held in the spring of 1954 at the main Tokyo branch of Mitsukoshi, Japan's oldest department store, which first opened its doors in 1673 as a kimono shop, and has since earned a reputation as the go-to place for people buying gifts that may help to elicit a favor.

The show subsequently became an annual event. It now opens at Mitsukoshi in Tokyo in September and travels to nearly a dozen other cities around the country, receiving a great deal of media coverage.

Another annual show, the Japan Fine Arts Exhibition, or Nitten, has roots dating back to 1907 and has been held under its present name since 1946. At the Nitten, the emphasis is more on individual expression, but it also includes art craft objects. A rivalry between the two, strong enough to split some families into opposing camps, means that artists typically will show at one or the other, but not both.

The 17th-century poet Basho defined the principle of haiku composition as 'continuity and change,' and this has become the unofficial motto of the Traditional Art Crafts show.

'Keeping tradition alive does not mean simply mastering old techniques and adhering to them,' said the 1959 catalog, in a manifesto for the exhibition. 'Tradition is living and always in flux.'

This philosophy has informed and stimulated the production of an amazing variety of ceramics, textiles, lacquer, bamboo- and woodwork, and pieces in other media.

Among the artists featured in the British Museum book is the ceramicist Tokuda Yasokichi III, who employs ancient techniques and secret color recipes handed down to him from his grandfather.

While the colors may go back to the Edo period, which ended in the 19th century, Yasokichi's use of them is innovative and thoroughly contemporary, giving full rein to chance to play a formative role. In 1991, for example, from an experiment with firing techniques emerged his startlingly modern 'Genesis' bowl, of which later he said: 'To my great surprise, these colored lines appeared on the surface.

'You could say it was a gift from God, or just an accident.'

Another ceramicist, Maeta Akiro, works only in monochrome white porcelain. In his classic 'Jar with Faceted Body,' dating from 1996, a subtle arrangement of planes transforms an everyday object into a piece of pure sculpture.

Onishi Isao, an entirely self-taught artisan, builds large lacquered dishes from a core of bent strip hoops of wood, fitted painstakingly together, the materials perfectly handled, the finish exquisite. The results are the embodiment of a restrained and tranquil beauty, quintessentially Japanese.

Baskets are traditionally associated in Japan with flower arranging, but several artists have now started to make them as objects to be enjoyed in their own right.

A brilliant example is Katsushiro Soho's 'Shallow Stream' basket, in which finely split, sinuously bent strips of bamboo produce an astonishing liquid illusion, like flowing water.

The textile maker Suzuta Shigeto, who uses ancient woodblock dying techniques to produce strikingly individual designs, once seriously thought of modernizing and updating the form of the traditional, straight-seamed kimono. Then, he said, he came to realize that 'it is actually because of the limitation of the simple shape of a kimono that such wonderful patterns have developed.'

Matsubara Yoshichi made in 1968 what remains one of the most daring of post-war kimonos, 'Melody,' employing indigo stencil dying on silk. The eye-catching pattern resembles open fans or spinning, light-refracting old-style vinyl gramophone discs.

No less daring, in a different medium, is Kuroda Tatsuaki's 'Ornamental Box in Flowing Design,' a bright scarlet lacquer container, which manages to fuse the brash modernity of a plastic banquette in a post-war American diner with a consummate demonstration of the ancient, painstaking skills of the lacquer-maker's art.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024