Contemporary Japanese Craft from the Ise Collection
The Japanese term kogei (usually translated as ‘craft’)
refers to a form of highly skilled artistic expression
associated with specific regions and craftsmen in Japan.
Kogei works typically include ceramics, textiles, lacquer,
metal, and wood, and have at their core a concern for
fine craftsmanship and the inherent qualities of the materials.
Informed by centuries of tradition, these crafts have been
revitalised and expanded in recent years, with emerging
avant-garde tendencies in fields such as bamboo sculpture
and studio glass competing with established practices
and values that are deeply embedded in Japanese culture.
In the UMAG exhibition Living Kogei, which ran from
07 Aug 2019 - 03 Nov 2019, a selection of craft works by
prominent and emerging contemporary Japanese artists—
drawn from the diverse collections of the Ise Foundation—
demonstrated how contemporary artisans revere and
carry on traditional practices, while at the same time
departing from convention in search of the new.
UMAG thanks the Ise Foundation, Japanese-Consulate General
in Hong Kong and Macau, Sogo & Seibu Group and
HKU Museum Society for their generous support of the
exhibition and its accompanying publication and symposium.
The Origins of Kogei
Kogei objects are often produced with tools and materials
that have been used for many hundreds of years, but
the term itself is relatively new. It emerged in the 1870s,
when new ways of talking and thinking about art were
introduced to Japan from Europe and America. Functional
and decorative objects like ceramics and textiles (kogei)—
previously held in the same regard as painting, calligraphy
and sculpture—began to be viewed differently from works
made exclusively for aesthetic or intellectual purposes
(bijutsu, or ‘fine’ art). Kogei and bijutsu works were exhibited
separately, and began to be produced for different purposes:
the former notably as lucrative trade goods that could be used
to demonstrate the essence of Japanese culture to the world.
The concept of kogei evolved over time to reflect changing
ideologies. In the 1920s, the relationship between bijutsu
and kogei, art and craft, began to change as modernist
craftsmen influenced by international art movements
campaigned for their works to be featured alongside
paintings and calligraphy in government exhibitions,
like the Imperial Art Academy Exhibition (or Teiten).
Their efforts led to a revaluation of the place of crafts
in society and contributed to the birth of Japan’s modern
craft movement, which you can read more about here.
Today, new manufacturing technologies and processes
mean that the difference between kogei and examples of industrial design or applied art made with similar materials and forms can be difficult to discern. What makes an object kogei?
The Japan Craft Association (Nihon Kogeikai), which has
held exhibitions promoting the crafts annually since 1954,
provides a broad definition: it must be predominantly
handmade using traditional materials and techniques,
and practical enough for functional use.
Others stretch or break them, like the monumental plaited bamboo works of Tanabe Chikuunsai IV (b. 1973 )—one of the most well-known craftsmen associated with both the kogei and mingei (‘folk craft’) movements—which are hand-made using techniques derived from sixteenth-century basket making, but are shaped into expressionistic sculptural forms that can fill entire rooms.
The Japan Craft Association and Ministry of Education, Science and Culture list eight ‘official’ categories of kogei that are eligible for support through various funding schemes: ceramics, metalwork, lacquer, woodwork, papermaking, dollmaking, textiles, and a miscellaneous category that includes techniques like ivory carving. The four most popular of these—ceramics, metalwork, bamboo, and lacquer—are the focus of Living Kogei, along with glass, one of Japan’s newest but also fastest growing craft industries.
Many kogei objects fit within these boundaries, like the bowls,
plates and vases of Shinobu Kawase (b. 1950), which take
inspiration from green-glazed celadon wares exported from
China to Japan in the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279).
Expressed through a kaleidoscope of colours, forms, textures and functions, ceramics are the most widely produced craft objects in Japan today. Made since prehistoric times, traditional ceramic centres went through a period of profound change at the beginning of the twentieth century as new priorities for quality and efficient production methods energised the industry. Rather than learning from master craftsmen, many young people began to study ceramic-making through newly established university programmes, and fine artists embraced ceramics as a medium. Some came to ceramics after exploring other fields like sculpture, and even those from longstanding family lineages or regional traditions began to absorb cosmopolitan international influences.
Many young potters joined avant-garde
ceramic groups such as the Sodeisha
(‘Crawling Through Mud Association’,
taken from a Chinese term for a glazing flaw), whose artists pioneered radical ideas of
creative autonomy, eroding fixed notions
of form and function. But despite this revolution in the arts, few completely abandoned the past. Artists like Yasokichi Tokuda III (1933–2009) experimented with traditional glazes so as to find a synthesis between techniques developed over centuries and modern influences from beyond Japan.
Sodeisha founder Yagi Kazuo (1918–79) carrying an unfired sculpture to a communal kiln.
While some fields like ceramics and textiles were revolutionised by access to new technologies and markets after the end of Japan’s isolationist period in the late nineteenth century, others, like metalwork and lacquer, were deprived of traditional systems of patronage. Fears about the demise of these industries led to the founding of organisations to promote specialist crafts, such as the Kiritsu Kosho Kaisha (‘Company for the Establishment of Industry and Commerce’, established in 1873), along with dedicated vocational courses at newly opened educational institutions like the Tokyo Fine Arts School (now the Tokyo University of the Arts).
The first metalworking students at these institutions were trained in an atmosphere of resurgent traditionalism, but by the 1920s and ’30s, many were being influenced by movements such as Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Constructivism, Surrealism and Dada. Many, like the pioneering artist Toyochika Takamura (1890–1972), promoted metal as an art form that was as significant as painting and sculpture, and which could be just as avant-garde. Their efforts paved the way for the experimental metal sculptures in Living Kogei, all of which were produced through various mould-casting, hammering and chasing techniques.
Bamboo is a quintessential part of Japanese culture, an abundant natural resource and also a challenging artistic medium to master, with fewer than one hundred professional bamboo artists working in Japan today. Learning how to harvest, split and plait bamboo into complex forms requires decades of practice, typically by apprenticing with a master, but in modern times also through various university programmes. The most elaborate pieces take between three months and an entire year to complete.
Bamboo artists use about a dozen different types of bamboo, including madake (giant timber bamboo) and torachiku (tiger bamboo), chosen for their colour, pliability, density, age or thickness, and sometimes accentuated with smoke, dye or a protective coating of lacquer. Many contemporary bamboo artists employ weaving techniques derived from high-quality basketry of the sixteenth century, which was used for rustic flower containers in chanoyu (the Japanese-style tea ceremony). Others have been influenced by contemporary international sources, such as the American New Basketry movement of the 1960s, which explored the sculptural and architectural possibilities of basket weaving.
Prized for its sheen and lustrous beauty, the production of
lacquer (urushi)—a natural polymer distilled from the sap of
the Rhus verniciflua tree—is perhaps the most complex of
all Japan’s traditional industries. It involves a host of specialist workers and at least thirty-three stages of production, including smoothing a wood base, covering the base with a cloth, applying powdered clay and lacquer to the cloth to hide its texture, applying increasingly fine grades of lacquer mixed with different powders, and then adding several applications of high-quality lacquer. As each of the twenty or even thirty coats is applied, the lacquer must be given time to harden before a final polishing. All of this must be completed before any designs can be applied.
Until the end of the nineteenth century, lacquer was primarily made for the samurai. When they were abolished in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, many lacquer workshops fell into steep decline as support and demand for their goods dropped.
Later revitalised by various government initiatives, production continued largely unaltered until the 1950s, when traditionalists began to compete with the avant-garde, who believed in unfettered aesthetic expression. One of the most influential examples of the latter was Takahashi Setsuro (1914–2007), whose 1953 sculptural work Munraito (Moonlight) demonstrated that lacquer art could be a progressive medium. Since then, a small but enterprising circle of artists have pushed the medium in new directions by employing non-traditional techniques, such as the use of polymer plastics instead of wood or cloth as a substrate, and by creating innovative conceptual works that respect the material’s natural qualities.
Unlike metalwork, ceramics and lacquerware—all major art forms in Japan for thousands of years—glassmaking has emerged as a focus for artistic activity relatively recently, and for this reason is not included in the Craft Association’s official list of kogei categories. While simple glass beads were produced from as early as the second century BCE, it was not until the Edo period that glassmakers in Tokyo and Osaka began small-scale production of kiriko (faceted glass), inspired by transparent glass imported from Europe. Large-scale production followed in 1850s, when the lords of the Satsuma Domain established a glassworks in Kagoshima (left) which at first focused on practical tools but later produced a distinctive style of cut glass called Satsuma kiriko. By the early twentieth century, companies like the Iwata Glass Company and Kagami Crystal Company were established on Western models, with craftsmen producing personalised glass designs in large shared buildings using new forms of blowing, mould-casting and cold-working. The spread of the American ‘studio glass’ movement to Japan in the 1970s led to increased internationalisation and the adoption of more experimental methods of production, with craftsmen working in their own studios and with smaller production runs that made artistic statements. Such works, like the humorously styled vessels of Naoto Yokoyama (b. 1937)—an artist who originally studied metalwork at Tokyo University of the Arts in the 1960s—took full advantage of the perceived newness of the industry to push creative boundaries, and helped to establish Japan as a centre for the production of contemporary glass.
Exhibition Curator: Benjamin Chiesa
Ise Collection Photography: Tatsuro Hirose, Shigeharu Omi, Toshiyuki Otsuka,
Hiroshi Kaneoka and Toshiaki Miura
Translations: Kikki Lam and Rae Hong
Website Design and Illustrations: Rae Hong