Japanese Porcelain at its Finest
Masterpieces of Nabeshima ware (鍋島焼展)
Under the title “The First 100 Years of Japanese Porcelain” the Toguri Museum of Art (戸栗美術館 / とぐりびじゅつかん), a private museum in Shibuya’s Shōtō district, founded in 1987, that is solely dedicated to porcelain, this and last year organized a series of four special exhibitions:
- Early Imari Ware (初期伊万里展) (4 April 2015 – 21 June 2015)
- Imari Ware – The Ko-Kutani style (古九谷展) (4 July 2015 – 23 September 2015)
- Imari Ware – Masterpieces of the Kakiemon and Kinrande style (柿右衛門・古伊万里金襴手展) (6 October 2015 – 23 December 2015)
- Masterpieces of Nabeshima Ware (鍋島焼展) (7 January 2016 – 21 March 2016)
In parts 1 and 2 of my little series of articles on the Toguri Museum of Art (戸栗美術館 / とぐりびじゅつかん) you have learnt already some basics of the history of Japanese porcelain. If you are here for the first time (or should memory provide you with bits and pieces only – after all, and as mentioned previously, it’s not shards we are talking about here…), have a look at the previous postings:
Toguri Museum of Art (戸栗美術館) (Part 1) (Engl.)
Japanese Porcelain at its Finest
Toguri Museum of Art (戸栗美術館) (Part 2) (Engl.)
Japanese Porcelain at its Finest – Imari Ware
– Masterpieces of the Kakiemon and Kinrande style (柿右衛門・古伊万里金襴手展)
While we were looking at some extraordinarily fine examples of the so-called “Kakiemon” (柿右衛門) and “Kinrande” (金襴手) styles last time, this time it’s all about “Nabeshima” (鍋島) ware.
And again, the special opportunity to have a private tour of the Toguri Museum of Art was offered by the incomparable Alice Gordenker – who has also largely contributed to the narration of this posting – and the executive of the Toguri Museum of Art, Mr. Osamu Toguri (戸栗修 / とぐりおさむ) himself on 14 March 2016.
But let’s have a look at the very early stage of porcelain making in Japan – which will also allow you the appreciate the astounding progress that had been made in the fabrication of those fine works of art in a fairly short period of time. Also, since my previous postings do not include this early times of Japanese porcelain (from about 1610 A.D.) that is called “Shoki Imari” (初期伊万里 / しょきいまり), here is one of the Toguri Museum’s most famous exhibits from the exhibition “History of Ko-Imari Porcelain” (exhibition room 3):
Dish with flattended rim, decorated with moon, hare and the character of “春白兎” (white hare in sping) design in sprayed blue and white
As you may remember from the previous postings, this kind of blue colour is called sometsuke (染付 / そめつけ) which is applied underglaze. Compared with later works, these pieces were quite thick and heavy, and had many imperfections. A closer look at the fragment of a similar dish may explain what I mean – even though the design is most appealing, the dish itself does not resemble our image of fine “china” or “porcelain”.
The following two pieces, also shown in exhibition room 3 “History of the Ko-Imari Porcelain” give us an impression and bring us into the mood for what the present exhibition is all about: Nabeshima (鍋島 / なべしま) ware – a very special range of porcelain created from about the middle of the 17th century.
Dish, decorated with camellia spray in hexagonal pattern design in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels
Dish, decorated with poppy design in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels
If you want to understand and appreciate the particular importance and charm of Nabeshima ware, you have to burding yourself with a bit of a history lesson:
These works of art were no longer made for export purposes (as the gorgeous Kinrande and Kakiemon style dishes and figurines) but were made exclusively to be given as tribute, official gifts, by the Nabeshima clan presented to the Shōgun in lavish sets. The Nabeshima clan controlled the Saga Domain (佐賀藩 / さがはん) from the Sengoku period (戦国時代 / せんごくじだい) (1467-1603) – a period in Japanese history when practically everybody was at war with everybody – through the Edo Period. The powerful clan also had historical links to the almighty Fujiwara-family (藤原氏 / ふじわれあし).
Unlike the works from earlier decades (see the previous exhibitions linked above), there is very little Chinese influence in the designs used for Nabeshima ware. They tend to be what we think of as typical Japanese designs, of grasses and flowers. They were made in a dedicated kiln, controlled directly by the Nabeshima clan. Among other details a rather high foot or base of a dish (called “takai-kōdai” / 高い高台 / たかいこうだい) is typical for Nabeshima ware – a tribute to the “elevated” recipient. But why did the Nabeshima clan have to give those lavish presents to the Shōgun in Edo (which we simply call “Tōkyō” in our days)? Well, it all comes back to the simple fact that the Nabeshima backed the wrong horse at a very crucial point of time in Japanese history: In the year 1600 a huge battle for the control over Japan was fought (Battle of Sekigahara / 關ヶ原の戰い / せきがはらたたかい). Unfortunately, they were not in the “winning team”, the forces of Ieyasu Tokugawa (徳川家康 / とくがわいえやす), who just happened to become the founder of the Tokugawa shōgunate (徳川幕府 / とくがわばくふ) in 1603. He might have punished the Nabeshima clan by taking away their land and power, but he let them keep it, and they were very conscious of how lucky they had been, so when they sent gifts to the Shōgun (as was expected from all feudal lords, the daimyo), they wanted to make them good. Of course, the Nabeshima clan gave all kinds of gifts, including woven cloth and pickled plums. And they used their location close to Nagasaki, which is where foreign goods entered Japan, to buy porcelain from China to present to the Shogun. But in the 1640s in China there was a lot of political problems, and in 1644 the Ming Dynasty fell – the Chinese porcelain industry wasn’t able any longer to keep up with foreign demand. The Nabeshima clan wisely made use of the porcelain-making know-how in their teritory and started to make presents of their very own kind to the Shōgun: Nambeshima ware – and not just single pieces, but in huge sets of 82 pieces – five sets every month!
But let’s get on to the main exhibition hall and one of the absolute highlights of the whole exhibition (click on the picture files and exhibit summaries to learn more details):
FIRST EXHIBITION ROOM
Dish, decorated with seventeen oars design in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels
This large “shakuzara” (尺皿 / しゃくざら)-sized dish is one of the rarest pieces that just completed the Toguri Museum’s collection rather recently. It represents the “golden age” of Nabeshima ware – hence the exhibition starts with an absolute highlight. And at the same time it also characterizes Nabeshima ware as it shows the four “components” in a exemplified way:
- The relatively deep dish has a high base or foot (kōdai or, if it is particularly high, takai kōdai / (高い)高台 / (たかい)こうだい). The basic shape was made on a wheel, then pressed into a mold. This is the way most Nabeshima pieces were constructed and it created the basic shape of dishes during the most flourishing period of Nabeshima ware (the shape is exactly the one we still know today from traditional sake cups, mokuhai / 木杯 / もくはい).
- It shows the basic colours used for Nabeshima ware (up to a certain point in history): Blue, red, yellow and and green. Here again, we see the blue called “sometsuke” that is applied first, under the glaze – and the other colours applied afterwards, before the dish is put into the fire for a second time.
- Very typical for Nabeshima ware is also the back of the dish – again all in blue “sometsuke”. The pattern here is called “shippō tsunagi” (七宝繋ぎ / しっぽうつなぎ) or “shippō musubi” (七宝結 / しっぽうむすび), (or 7-treasures), usually repeated in three places, forming a triangle.
- And the pattern used for the high base of the plate – one of the most common ones is the “comb pattern” (kushime / 櫛目 / くしめ) you can see here (as on many of the other exhibits); the bases of Nabeshima ware are usually neither marked nor stamped.
Octagonal dish, decorated with collection of treasures around the character of “longevity” design in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels
The next examples somehow show a digested summary of the development of Nabeshima ware – starting with earlier works from the middle of the 17th century (dishes are still rather shallow) to the refined processing techniques of later years.
Dishes, decorated with cherry blossoms and hanging up drapery design in underglaze blue, celadon and iron-brown glazes
Have a look a the iron-brown glaze (“sabiyu”) on the top of the plate – a colour that very soon came “out of fashion”.
Just as interesting: Have a look at the rather modern-looking design on the base of the dish. It is called “inome” (猪の目 / いのめ) – “eye of the boar”. Also this is a design mainly used in the early years of Nabeshima ware, which was later more and more replaced by the “comb design”, which also exhibits no. 1 and 2 showed.
Something which is also quite typical for Nabeshima ware is way the cherry blossoms are beeing painted – all facing towards you.
Dishes, decorated with cherry blossoms and mist design in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels
Even though these dishes show some similarities to the precious ones, these are fine examples of the “golden age” of Nabeshima again (late 17th century to early 18th century). You’ll recognise the “comb design” on the base of the dish. But what really sets these five plates apart from almost all of the exhibition: All plates have the same pattern – and the same size. It’s hard to imagine that such identical dishes were hand-made. However, one has to keep in mind that those precious items weren’t given to the Shōgun in single pieces, but in very large sets, all with the same design. One set would be of the large shakuzara (尺皿 / しゃくざら) dishes like exhibit no. 1 above, then 20 in the size of the plates we see here (which is called “nanasun” (七寸 / ななすん)-size), plus 20 in a smaller size, and 20 in a yet smaller size, and then 20 cups, all matching. Today, we are of course used to mass production and having lots of the same things, but these were all handmade and hand painted. The Toguri Museum actually owns ten of the plates exhibited here, which is also pretty rare (most other items are just available as unique pieces, even though all those were also produced in large quantities – just didn’t make it through the centuries).
Dishes, decorated with cotton rose and bush clover design in underglaze blue
If you are surprised to see “good old sometsuke” again in a piece of Nabeshima of the second half of the 18th century, here is the answer to it: Around 1716-1720, the shōgunate issued new anti-luxury laws, so called “sumptuary laws” or “kenyakurei” (倹約令 / けんやくれい) in Japanese which were designed to discourage unnecessary spending, to avoid any kind of waste (at that time the country went through harsh times and famines). Hence the potters did without lavish colours or gold, but still managed to make a really gorgeous dish, with beautiful gradations of light and dark. And it still has the same mokuhai (木杯 / もくはい) shape we saw in the masterpieces before. Have a look at the details in the floral design!
Book-shaped dish, decorated in underglaze blue, blue glaze, iron-brown glaze, silver and gold
Dish, decorated with flowering motifs in underglaze blue
Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of the backside of this very modern-looking dish. You would probably be surprised to see that also this shows the traditional “shippō musubi” (七宝結 / しっぽうむすび), (7-treasures) patterns at its back, forming a formidable contrast to the simple and very “now” design of the front.
Dish, decorated with camellia and brushwood fence design in underglaze blue and underglaze enamels
Dish, decorated with cherry blossom, brushwood fence and waves design in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels
Dish, decorated with Japanese snowball flowers design in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels
Dish, decorated with peony and waves design in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels
A pattern which is fairly common in Nabeshima ware is also the “blue ocean wave” (青海波 / せいがいは) shown here particularly beautifully executed. This kind of sometsuke is somewhat different from the usual way of applying the blue colour. The technique is called “sumihajiki” (墨弾き / すみはじき) – loosely translated as “ink resist method”, which means, the blank spaces between the blue lines of the waves are drawn with ink before applying the sometsuke blue. While the sometsuke blue develops its full beauty during the process of firing (before it has an almost black colour), the ink is burnt away, creating this eye-catching pattern.
Dish, decorated with books design in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels
Dish, decorated with pine tree, bamboo and plum design in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels
Dish, decorated with three gourds design in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels
Gourds were also a quite popular motif for Nabeshima war – for a simple reason: They were regarded as a symbol of good luck, as the bottle gourd’s plentiful seeds were a symbol for healthy procreation. Something the Tokugawa Shōguns always appreciated.
Dish, decorated with collection of treasures design in underglaze blue
Dish, decorated with design of peaches and collection of treasures in underglaze blue and celadon glaze
Dish, decorated with repeated motif of a peach branch with blossoms and foliage design in underglaze blue
Cups, decorated with vine design in underglaze blue
SECOND EXHIBITION ROOM
Leaf-shaped dishes, decorated with three pine branch design in underglaze blue
Dish, decorated with bamboo design in underglaze blue
Dish, decorated with peaches design in underglaze blue
Dish, decorated with snow flakes design in underglaze blue and celadon glaze
This is an intersting one, as it reveals some foreign influence. The artist had somehow come across a microscope (most likely from Holland) and was so fascinated by the various shapes of snow flakes he realised for the first time that this resulted in various works of art dedicated to snow flakes. The glazing technique here is a particularly difficult one. It is called “somebokashi” (染暈し / そめぼかし) or shaded sometsuke. Only very skilled potters dare to apply it.
Dish, decorated with seven jars design in underglaze blue and celadon glaze
This jar motif was quite popular in Nabeshima. Sometimes it is five jars, here we have seven. By the way: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a dish with a very similar design.
Dish, decorated with daffodils design in underglaze blue
Dressing pitcher, decorated with pine tree, bamboo and plum design in underglaze blue
The little pitcher here is described as “dressing pitcher”. But don’t let yourself get confused by the name: It doesn’t refer so a sauce pitcher or salad-dressing pitcher, but it is a small container for liquid to be used in a court lady’s dressing room for preparing the white make-up to be applied to the lady’s face and neck.
Design book (dressing pitcher)
Melon-shaped celadon incense burner
This and the next exhibit show a particularly fine quality because the base porcelain is very white and flawless. In addition to round dishes, the Nabeshima kiln made many figurines of animals and incense burners, and they are almost all done in this glazing technique which is called “celadon glaze” (青磁 / せいじ).
Figurine of Chinese lion-dog (Shishi), covered with celadon glaze
Maybe you got the feeling that you might want to own a piece of such stylish porcelain yourself? Well, of course, these exhibits are all priceless. But the museum shows also some quite remarkable works of art by contemporary artisans (here: Kimimori Nakamura (中村公法 / なかむらきみのり). Have a look at the most beautifully and exactly executed “blue ocean wave” pattern (青海波 / せいがいは) at the first three pictures below! Their price tags might be in the range of what you can afford. And the last specimen (the dish with celadon glaze and sometsuke) is actually to be had (the museum sells it for 8,000 Yen).
Again one of the highlights of this exclusive guided tour was an opportunity to view, touch and photograph up close rare museum-quality examples of Japanese porcelain from the Edo Period. The physical sensation of actually touching such old porcelain may have been more impressive with the older pieces of work with their the little imperfections in their making, but the texture created by applied colours and enamel and being able to recognise small details was – again – astonishing. Even though such an opportunity doesn’t come everyday – the museum is worthwhile seeing nevertheless.
Should all that have triggered some fascination for Japanese porcelain, have a look at the following, countinuing exhibitions at the Toguri Museum of Art:
Toguri Museum of Art (戸栗美術館) (Part 4)
– Japanese Porcelain at its Finest
– Imari Ware – The Beauty of Sometsuke (古伊万里 – 染付の美展)
Toguri Bijutsukan (Toguri Museum of Art)
1-11-3 Shōtō, Shibuya-ku
The museum’s facebook link:
The museum’s internet representation:
Daily (except Mondays) from 10 am to 5 pm (last entry at 4:30 pm).
Should Monday be a national holiday, the museum stays closed the next day. Also closed during the preparation of new exhibitions and during the new year holidays.
Adults: 1,000 Yen
High school and university students: 700 Yen
Junior high school and elementary school students: 400 Yen
Discounts of 200 Yen per person for groups of 20 an more visitors
How to get there:
It is probably the easiest to approach the museum from Shibuya’s main station where various train lines and subway lines stop.
Take the “Hachikō Exit“ (ハチ公口 / あちこうぐち), cross the famous “Pedestrian Scramble“ (スクランブル交差点 / すくらんぶるこうさてん) and head north towards the just as famous department store “109“, leave it on your left side and walk towards the “Bunkamura“ (文化村 / ぶんかむら). Pass the Bunkamura on its south side and turn right at its southwestern corner. The museum is located in a rather residential area uphill. It will take you at least 15 minutes to get there from the station.