Notes from the exhibition: "THE COSMOS IN A TEA BOWL - TRANSMITTING A SECRET ART ACROSS GENERATIONS OF THE RAKU FAMILY; The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Dec17- Feb 12. The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. March 14-May 21.
In the culture of Japanese ceramics, Raku ware holds a special place because of its history and unique production techniques.
Molded by hand, without the use of potter’s wheel, Raku tea bowls are asymmetrical and rough. Devoid of any ornamentation, they come only in two colors: red and black.
To someone unfamiliar with the Japanese aesthetics, they may appear crude, akward, almost primitive. Yet, they gave rise to a rich tradition and form a touchstone of Japanese spiritual culture.
The original technique was developed 450 years ago and has been transmitted down 15 generations of artisans through isshisoden: the process in which secrets of the trade are passed exclusively from a father to one son only.
Because of this strict, time-honored system, authentic Raku works appear as if they were created over centuries by a single artist.
Raku tea bowls were first fired by Chojiro around 1580 at the request Sen no Rikyu who served as the tea master to legendary warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
At the time, under Rikyu’s influence, ideals of Zen were radically reshaping the Way of Tea in Japan, and it is believed that Rikyu’s friendship with Chojiro played an important part in fostering these changes.
Chojiro created his simple, unadorned bowls with the purpose of using them during sacred tea gatherings hosted by Rikyu. Honoring simplicity, tranquility and imperfection, they eloquently expressed the spirit of wabicha, which Rikyu advocated.
Originally referred to as imayaki ( lit. contemporary ware), Chojiro’s austere, pottery differed dramatically from the highly decorative arts of the Momoyama period and its lofty, majestic style of tea preparation.
Chojiro's aesthetics also stood in stark contrast with the tastes of Hideyoshi, who built the portable Golden Tea Room to impress the emperor and was fond of ostentatious display of power and wealth.
Ironically, the permission to use the name Raku, (which means “enjoyment” “ease” “comfort) was granted to the family by Hideoyoshi himself . The word was derived from “Jurakudai” – Hideyoshi's extravagant, opulent residence in the vicinity of Kyoto Imperial Palace.
A bowl form emerges slowly, guided by the movement of the potter's hand.
The clay is soft, simple, gentle. Its humbleness and impurity have special symbolism that resonates with the wabi aesthetic. Clay embodies death and renewal. It is part of the eternal cycle of life.
The rounded shape of the bowl, its, gentle swelling at the base and delicate constriction of the rim naturally reflect soft curves of the potters palms. The position of his hands is the same as that of the person who will later drink tea from the bowl.
Once formed, the bowls are sculpturally trimmed with the use of iron or bamboo spatula. More than half of the clay is removed in the process, which is unique to the Raku ware.
Fired slowly, in a small, low temperature kiln, the clay comes out soft. Because of the shape and the material, the bowls feel intimate, warm, gentle to the hand.
This process has remained the same since Chojiro’s time.
Not through words
"Transmission of tradition does not simply mean carrying out and passing down a formula" says Kichizaemon XV, fifteenth descendent of Chojiro and the current Raku master. "Instead, tradition means that, while inheriting the essence of Raku ware, the head of each generation creates a new aesthetic within his respective period."
Over the last 450 years, none of the raku masters have left any records of secret techniques, glazing recipes or any instructions in written form. It is the Raku tradition that a father does not teach the son directly, lest he becomes influenced by one fixed pattern.
Each upcoming successor has to forge his own style -- by looking at pieces left by Choijiro and other predecessors, by observing his father: his work, his struggles, his life.
Kichizaemon XV: "The Raku legacy is never one of mere emulation. The Raku master must place himself at the front of the lineage dating back to Chojiro, but he is not to copy the past. Instead, he must build his own world of Raku ceramics. Raku is not transmitted through words. He must feel it himself. He must ask questions of himself and find the answers himself. He must never imitate."