Category Archive 'Japanese Art'
06 Jul 2011

Some Zen

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Ido Tea Bowl “Okugourai — undecorated piece” [井戸茶碗 銘 大高麗], Tokugawa Art Museum, Tokyo

From Collections & Recollections,

Ido ware was a cheap earthenware with a natural ash glaze made in Korea in the 15th century and used widely by commoners as rice bowls. After Ido ware appeared in Japan, tea masters began to use the larger Ido rice bowls as tea bowls, finding in their rough simplicity a particularly suitable to Zen expression of wabi-sabi (侘寂).

Some observations on tea bowls and Ido ware from Sanjiro Tanaka, a highly-respected contemporary Japanese ceramic artist.

Evaluating a tea bowl:

When looking at a tea bowl, the most important thing is how the rim was made. By looking at the rim, the general technical quality can be determined. Depending on the shape, the rim changes. The softness of the rim, how it feels–all of this makes the rim the most important point to watch. Also the incision on the foot rim is important. The height of the bowl and the diameter of the body and its relation to the height and width of the foot rim are factors. This balance is something I have not yet accomplished. However, when judging whether something is good and looking at it yourself, the foot rim is an extremely important element to take into consideration. The incision in the foot rim indicates age, technique, and character. In other words, like a man’s sexual organ, it is the most important point and cannot be ignored when looking at the tea bowl.


On Ido tea bowls:

Ido tea bowls are foremost healthy looking and bright. There’s also a kind of melancholy to them and they stand upright like warriors. The clay is rough and has a depth to it, and when holding one in your hands, it has a special feel to it. Certainly it is a tea bowl for a man of high position. …

The aesthetics of this tea bowl are completely in a class of its own. Even after 400 years, no one disagrees that this is the “king” in the world of tea ceremony.The old Korean tea bowls have many stunning surprises. First of all, the beauty of their shape, the choice of clay, the way the clay is made, and why a certain glaze is used on a certain clay. … This was the highest level of tea bowl making. Moreover, tea ceremony ware was among the highest prizes given by the leaders Nobunaga and Hideyoshi and so the highest artistic levels were demanded. Like swords, land, and status, the Korean tea bowls were an important part of the social order in the Momoyama Period.

Tea and zen:

I am especially interested in the Sengoku (Warring States) Period. The warriors during the Sengoku Period were always ready for a battle and in this setting, they sought serenity and elegance, drinking a cup of tea before going to battle. “Here is where we throw our lives away,” they said when driven into a corner.

01 Apr 2009

Kusho: Writing in the Sky

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Shodo, the art of Japanese calligraphy, reaches its fullest artistic development in Sosho (“grass script”) ideograms produced in free and hasty movements with the intention of deliberately embodying a philosophic concept in the kinesthetic action of creation.

The Japanese artist Shinichi Maruyama (b. 1968) combines Sosho calligraphy with photography in an art form referred to as Kusho (“sky writing”), capturing ink and water in mid-air at speeds of 1/7500 of a second .

His first American exhibition of 23 photographs of Kusho images was recently held at Bruce Silverstein‘s Gallery on West 24th Street in New York.

Chris Ro published a number of Maruyama’s images.

Beth S. Gersh-Nesic reviewed the exhibition and profiled the artist.

From Elliot Glaser via Andrew Sullivan.

23 Aug 2008

A Rather Expensive Utamaro

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Kitagawa Utamaro (1753?-1806), Mono omou koi (Reflective Love),
from the series of five prints entitled Kasen koi no bu (Anthology of Poems: The Love Section), c. 1793-94

Estimated to sell for $1,000,000 – $1,500,000 at the Christie’s auction sale of Japanese & Korean art scheduled for September 18, 2008 at Rockefeller Center in New York.

Jeffrey Olson
‘s excellent description reads (in part):

Her underrobe lies loose about her neck, as in a casual moment at the end of a day, and her eyes are unusually compressed to give the sense of the heavy-lidded stare of the daydreamer. Features or dress that might define personality or status or period are absent. Utamaro is using “delicious approximations” to decant the sensation from the scene.2
The visual glory of Reflective Love begins with the contrasts between the planes of color. The violet inner robe and matching silk hair tie are breathtaking. Purple, one of the most fugitive hues, tends to fade to grayish brown. The muted colors of the Reflective Love in the Musée Guimet prompted Richard Lane to remark on Utamaro’s subdued palette.3 Its cool tone conveys a somber mood, a brooding over something lost or never to be. The impression here—the vermilion lips and cuff lining, the velvet swirl of hair—is stirring (fig. 1). The underrobe is in a traditional tie-dyed dappled pattern (kanoko shibori moyo) that appears often in Japanese prints, usually on undergarments. Utamaro uses it to stage intimate settings, as here. The middle robe has the trellis design of plain-weave robes from crossing warp and weft threads. The fabric of the outerrobe represents crepe treated with wax resist so that the clusters of plovers and dots, symbolizing clouds or waves, appear white against the dyed grey.
The pink mica ground is exceedingly rare. …

Shibui Kiyoshi (1899-1992), a collector and scholar of Japanese woodcuts, offered that the pink mica of Reflective Love represents the light of a lantern. Extending his implication that the background is not simply a costly gloss, but is intended to establish mood by suggesting the time of day, one might equally see the pink as crepuscular. To take another step, consider the poem by Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241) using the same pivot, “vacant reverie” (omoi), to which Emperor Komyo linked his poem in the sequence mentioned above:

kino kyo Yesterday, today–
kumo no hatate nino matter how I gaze in vacant reverie
nagamu tote toward the cloud tips
mi mo senu hito no tinted in the evening, how can I know
omoi ya wa shiru the feelings of one I cannot see?
(Fuga waka shu X: 954)

2:19 recording.

01 Jan 2008

Choki: Sunrise at New Year

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Eishosai Choki (fl. 1780s-1800s), Sunrise at New Year

A bijin (beautiful woman), presumably a courtesan, has risen early to greet the rising sun of the New Year at the waterfront at Fukagawa in Edo. The woman is adjusting the top of her kimono to protect against the chill of the early morning. In the lower-left is a blossoming fukujuso plant, emblematic of the New Year.

15 Nov 2007

Patterned Feathers, Piercing Eyes

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November 10, 2007–April 13, 2008
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Currently underway at Washington’s Smithsonian-affiliated Sackler Gallery is an exhibition of the Etsuko and Joe Price Collection of Edo Period Japanese Painting. On previous display in Japan at four locations, the Price collection attracted more than 800,000 visitors becoming the most successful museum exhibition in Japanese history.

Paul Richard‘s review, in the Washington Post, makes an interesting comparison:

For the beauty-loving samurai of 18th-century Japan, those competitive aestheticians, true mastery of ink and edge were arts of the same height.

Slicing through a torso with a curving steel blade and putting ink to silk with a liquid-loaded brush, both of these were stroke arts. Both required the same swiftness, the same lack of indecision. For the master of the brush and the master of the blade, who were sometimes the same person, the flawless stroke expressed a Japanese ideal — the beauty-governed union of sure, unhurried speed and centuries-old tradition, utter self-assurance and Zen purity of mind.

Roughly 150 different paintings will be displayed 50 at a time. During the unusual five-month span of the exhibition, several complete rotations are scheduled to accommodate the scale of the collection and to protect the light-sensitive works from excessive continuous exposure.

Smithsonian Press Release

The Shin’enKan Foundation offers a CD of the collection.

01 Jan 2007

Sunrise at New Year


Eishosai Choki (active c. 1786-1808), Sunrise at New Year (ca. 1800)

Perhaps the artist’s best-known design. It shows a woman, presumably a courtesan living near the waterfront at Fukagawa in Edo, who has risen early to greet the rising sun of the New Year. The woman is adjusting the top of her kimono against the chill of the early morning. Behind her is a blossoming fukujuso plant, emblematic of the New Year.

30 Aug 2006

Tsuba on

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There is write-up on a tsuba (Japanese sword guard) for which we are temporary custodian on Rich Turner’s This one has a nautical motif. Tosogu means Japanese furniture in general.

12 Aug 2006

Aotsu Yasutoshi Collection Exhibition

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Aotsu Yasutoshi (1893-1984)

Mr Richard Turner, one of Australia’s leading Nihonto collectors and authorities, has started a blog ( devoted to the discussion of Japanese sword furniture which will undoubtedly prove of great interest to collectors and connoisseurs.

The first posting announces the exhibition at the Sukagawa City Museum in Fukushima of the collection of the tosogu (Japanese sword furniture) of the late Aotsu Yasutoshi, who left an extraordinary collection, assembled over seventy years of collecting, including some 420 tsuba (swordguards) of extremely high quality and aesthetic interest.

The current exhibition is available on-line. There is no translation, but the viewer needs only to click on the left/right arrows to navigate the site.

Ko-Katchushi (Armor-maker made) tsuba, probably mid-Muromachi (c. 1392-1467 AD) – design motif: snowflakes

20 Mar 2006

An Ukiyoe by Koson


Koson - Bird and Begonias
Bird and Begonias, Koson Ohara (1877-1945) c.1910

Subject: A silhouetted bird flying through the driving rain, beneath it sprays of flowering Begonia.

The same essential image was recorded almost 1200 years earlier in Europe.

Venerable Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of England, Book II, Chapter 7:

The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant.

04 Jan 2006

B.W. Robinson Dead at 93

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B.W. Robinson
photograph courtesy of Yahya Abdelsamad

The Telegraph yesterday, 1/3, reported the sad news of the death of Basil William Robinson, author and Orientalist, on December 29th at the age of 93.

Born in London June 20, 1912, Robinson was educated at Winchester, and at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. While at Oxford, he prepared a a B.Litt. thesis on the collection of Persian miniatures in the Bodleian Library, which many years later was to form the basis of a comprehensive catalogue.

Upon completing his degree at Oxford, he accepted the post of headmaster of a school at Bognor Regis. He had been an enthusiast and collector of Japanese art, arms, and armor, since boyhood, and in the capacity of a collector became acquainted with A.J. Koop, Assistant Keeper of the Metalwork Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum. An inquiry resulted in a friendship, and with Koop’s encouragement, he sought a post at the Museum. He was runner-up for an Assistant Keeper’s position, but the favorite soon resigned; and, in 1939, Robinson succeeded to the appointment.

He joined the Royal Sussex Regiment in 1942, enlisting in the ranks, but was sent to officer training school, and then commissioned (on the basis of his knowledge of Urdu) in the 2nd Punjab Regiment. He subsequently served as an Intelligence Officer in the Headquarters of 14 Army, which defeated the Japanese in the course of the campaign in Burma whose major actions were the battles of Imphal and Kohima.

After the end of the war, Robinson was sent to Singapore to be employed, on the basis of his knowledge of Japanese swords, in evaluating large quantities of swords surrendered by the defeated enemy. He was able to obtain the services of Colonel Yamada Sakae, of the 3rd Air Force, who had been a member of the sword evaluating committee of the Japanese War Office, to assist in his task.

He returned to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1946. In the years following the war, Robinson proved a prolific author, publishing monographs on Persian miniatures and paintings, on Japanese swords and armor, and on the woodblock prints of Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi. His The Arts of the Japanese Sword (1961) was one of a small number of post-WWII publications in European languages which played a crucial role in opening up the study of Nihonto to Western students and collectors.

He became Deputy Keeper of Metal work in 1954, and succeeded the illustrious Charles Oman as Keeper in 1966. In 1967, Robinson was elected honorary president of the To-ken Society of Great Britain. He was president of the Royal Asiatic Society from 1970 to 1973. He was Keeper Emeritus at the Victoria and Albert from 1972 until his retirement in 1976. He is remembered with gratitude for his many contributions to the advancement of learning, and with affection by many friends, students, and long-time correspondents.


Yahya Abdelsamad, Basil William Robinson, Japanese Sword Society of the United States Newsletter, 37:1, February, 2005.

27 Nov 2005

Contemporary Origami by Hojyo Takahashi

Hojyo Takahashi 2004

(click on picture for more images)

Simply astonishing.

Other works

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