A series of four talks by Mike Robinson.
JOMON is the term used for the Neolithic ceramics of Japan, it means rope pattern: the means of decoration and they are amongst the earliest pots made by humans and some of the most exuberant and extravagantly decorated pots ever made. Early AD, the present inhabitants of Japan were arriving and developing their own identity and culture, with a more complex ceramic technology and styles based on those of neighbouring China and Korea. As in so many areas, foreign ideas and skills were rapidly absorbed and turned into thoroughly Japanese expressions.
In this first talk we see the growth of a young society and the emergence of a culture from a hotch potch of foreign influences into a dynamic and highly individual identity. Some areas of Japanese art, i.e. painting long displayed their indebtedness to Chinese influence but ceramics, whilst often prepared to borrow, displayed an amazing adaptability, strength and personality.
Cha No Yu, Ceramics and the Tea Ceremony:
Cha no Yu, the Tea Ceremony is one of those Chinese imports like Buddhism and like Chan Buddhism, became Zen Buddhism and very Japanese. Initially it was exclusively an aristocratic activity but once it was adopted by the Samurai class, from a monastic ritual it became a serious expression of the life of the warrior. Later it would become just as serious to the mercantile classes and Japan as a whole, and in all social classes, ceramic, was an essential expression of the way of tea. It was the tea ceremony that raised pottery to the status of art and the potter, one able to make a distinctive contribution to the expression of the national identity.
Japan discovered porcelain later than its neighbours but quickly made up for that, producing beautifully refined, bold and highly decorative wares. When Chinese porcelain production was severely interrupted by the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in the mid-17th century, just as the west was increasing its demands, Japan stepped in to fill the gap. Names such as Imari, Kakeamon and Satsuma had as much influence on early European porcelain as had China, but once the Chinese factories came back into production, there was no way the smaller Japanese studios could compete and they lost out to their larger competitors, even though for a while the Chinese were forced to make things in the Japanese style for European markets.
In 1858 the policy of isolationism that Japan had enforced since the early 17th century came to an end and she was opened to the world, rapidly becoming an industrial nation. For a while this had a drastic effect on the decorative arts as western values and styles replaced them but eventually the revolt in favour of a return to traditional ways and expressions won and they reasserted themselves, absorbing western influences as they had successfully done others.
In Our Time:
The 20th century has seen more dramatic and wide reaching change than any previous, as much in Japan as anywhere else. This is as true in ceramics as any other area of life and the arts. Potters are still artists, but now they are also sculptors, without replacing or overriding the makers of the domestic. In 1996 a young Japanese ceramic sculptor, Yashuko Sakurai won the prestigious Fletcher prize in New Zealand and a large cash prize, accepting it with gratitude she stated that it would allow her to concentrate on producing a line of plates she wanted to make.
Today the Japanese potter is as able to express the spirit of his, her time, nation, self as successfully an artist working in any other field of the arts. And they do.