Published: September 18, 2001
NEW YORK CITY – The first survey exhibition to explore the cultural origins of Japanese design opens at Japan Society Gallery on September 26 and will be on view through January 6.
in Japan: Artless Simplicity (Soboku); Zen Austerity (Wabi); Gorgeous Splendor (Karei) and Edo Chic (Iki).
An introductory section, Ancient Times (Kodai no bi), featuring rare antiquities that inspired later forms, is also included. The exhibition expands the conventional boundaries of Japanese design to include objects of “high craft,” such as spectacular arms and armor and extraordinary textiles. The Japan Society Gallery is the sole venue for the exhibition.
A 200 page illustrated catalogue published by Japan Society and distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. accompanies the exhibition. The principal author is exhibition guest curator Michael Dunn, a Japanese art expert and contributing author of the best selling survey, The Art of East Asia (Konemann, 1999).
Objects in the exhibition are drawn from major private and public collections in the United States and Europe. Works of unique aesthetic quality are on loan from the Asia Society, the Brooklyn Museum of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Peabody-Essex Museum; and The Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Lloyd and Margit Cotsen Collection; the Peggy and Richard M. Danziger Collection; the Victor and Takako Hauge Collection; the Florence and Herbert Irving Collection; the Jeffrey Montgomery Collection; and the John C. Weber Collection are among the distinguished private collections lending to the exhibition.
“Traditional Japanese Design: Five Tastes” illustrates the distinctive Japanese manner of creating inherently beautiful and functional objects for use in everyday life. Natural materials in bold forms create an unparalleled culture of design. The five tastes explored in the Japan Society show evolved from and correspond to daily life and culture of Japan’s dominant social classes of the Edo period (1615-1868): the rural farmers, the ruling military elite and the city merchants. Codified by influential Japanese cultural critics in the Twentieth Century such as Yanagi Soetsu, founder of Japan’s folk art movement, these five tastes offer a fresh approach to and appreciation of Japan’s unique design culture.
Ancient Times: Kodai no bi features archeological objects of fantastic form that illustrate the origins of Japan’s genius for design. Included are stone tools, funerary jewelry and ceramics from Japan’s prehistoric Jomon, Yayoi and Kofun eras. Two fine examples of such objects are an earthenware jar of the Yayoi period and a bracelet made for the burial chamber of a high ranking chief.
Artless Simplicity: Soboku is another section. The term soboku connotes a taste that is rustic, unadorned and sober. This section includes functional objects made for rural culture with simple and economical local materials. Its origins date to medieval times and continued relatively unchanged until industrialization. This taste for everyday objects made by unknown craftsmen was championed in the early Twentieth Century by Yanagi Soetsu, who founded Japan’s folk art (mingei) movement. Examples of traditional Japanese design made for food service include a superb lacquer spouted bowl and a Fuikna-ware sake bottle. Also in this section are excellent examples of rugged stitched indigo garments (sashiko) worn by farmers and fishermen, and several storage jars from Japan’s most important medieval kilns including Tamba, Iga and Shigaraki.
Zen Austerity; Wabi is another category of Japanese taste. Linked to the aesthetics of Zen, wabi is among the most refined concepts in Japanese culture. The term is used primarily in connection with the aesthetic of tea-masters-connoisseurs who appreciate a spiritual beauty in objects that appear worn, natural and of humble origin. This taste is credited to the late Sixteenth Century tea master, Sen no Rikyu, whose stringent, radical aesthetics profoundly shaped Japanese architecture, garden design and all the craft arts. Among the objects in this section are such tea ceremony utensils as an early cast-iron teakettle of minimal surface design, a rare three-sided Mino-ware tea bowl and baskets for flower arrangements in the tea room.
Another section is entitled Gorgeous Splendor: Karei. The term karei invokes the magnificent culture associated with the nobility and ruling warrior elite. Wealthy merchants of the mid-to-late-Edo period also took on aspects of karei taste. The objects assembled in this section demonstrate the highest level of traditional Japanese craftsmanship and display a bold, decorative surface design. Included are superb examples of Japanese samurai swords and their furniture, such as a masterpiece sword guard by Arichika, one of the most famous sword-furniture designers of the Eighteenth Century. Several samurai costumes from the John C. Weber Collection, many on view for the first time, represent the acme of Japanese textile design and craftsmanship. This section also includes rare kosode robes, lacquer and ceramics wares.
Edo Chic: Iki is the last segment of the show. The concept of iki is essentially urban and conjures the “smart chic” style of Edo-period townspeople and their “floating world” found in the kabuki theatre and pleasure quarters. It developed with the appearance of the wealthy merchant class and whose figures of the dandy and courtesan are prevalent in the popular literature and woodblock prints of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. The Edo townspeople created objects ingeniously designed to conceal rather than reveal extravagance. A vanguard taste in Japanese urban culture, iki is an understated elegance often expressed in small, geometric patterns on textiles whose graphic simplicity belies their high craftsmanship. Other examples are accessories that hint at the exotic or outrageously costly, like a smoking set by the lacquer artist Shibata Zeshin that sports a floral design in gold on black lacquer.
The exhibition catalogue features an introduction by Michael Dunn, along with a preface by renowned weaver, designer and collector Jack Lenor Larsen. Donald Richie, an internationally acclaimed critic of Japanese culture and author of numerous books on Japanese film, design and culture, has contributed an introductory essay. Other contributors include J. Edward Kidder, Jr, professor emeritus of International Christian University, Tokyo and a leading scholar of Japanese archeology; Morihio Ogawa, senior research associate, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and a foremost scholar of Japanese arms and amor; and textile specialist Annie Van Assche, curator of education, Japan Society Gallery.
Japan Society, founded in 1907, is an American institution with individual and corporate members that promotes understanding and enlightened relations between the United States and Japan. It is a private, nonprofit, nonpolitical organization devoted to cultural, educational and public affairs and to discussions, exchanges and research in areas of vital interest to both countries. Japan Society Gallery has exhibited Japanese design and crafts since its founding in 1971.
Located at 333 East 47th Street between First and Second Avenues, the Japan Society Gallery is open Tuesday through Friday, 11 am to 6 pm and Saturday and Sunday, 11 am to 5 pm. For information call 212-832-1155.
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