Review – Ceramics and Modernity in Japan

I’m trying lately to build a solid base of knowledge in ceramics, not only of aesthetics and mechanics, but of culture and context as well. This book, part of the Routledge Research in Art History series, is an excellent resource for exactly that.

The cover of the book Ceramics and Modernity in Japan.
The image is the abstract work Mr. Samsa’s Walk by Yagi Kazuo.

It features 11 scholarly essays (including the intro and epilogue) examining how the whole ceramics world—creating, seeking, purchasing, and appreciating—changed in post-Meiji Japan. The individual topics are relatively specific, but are well arranged and referenced enough to give an excellent overall grasp of the various issues at play.

The articles are all both rigorous and accessible, with the possible exception, perhaps, of “More than “Western”: Porcelain for the Meiji Emperor’s table” by Mary Redfern, which reads like something an undergraduate in social science might write to fill in a word count assignment. Study, overly erudite, and off questionable insight

Of particular interest to me are the many references to the interplay between attitudes toward other Asian nations during Japan’s colonial and post-colonial periods and the concurrent growth of the mingei movement under Yanagi Sōetsu. There is also a very illuminating reference to the circularity of how ceramic science from Europe influenced Japanese pottery, which in turn went on to influence the British studio pottery wave spearheaded by Bernard Leach.

These incidents fundamentally changed my perception of the mingei movement and Leach; particularly his “translation” of Yanagi’s work into “The Unnamed Craftsman.” The clear biases and, dare I say, agenda they shared makes much of what they say very suspect, even as it touches on some clearly vital issues of the intersection of art and Buddhist ideas.

Anyone who is interested in fort insight into the historical context of his Japan came to be “potter’s paradise,” the tension between art and craft in ceramics, and the roots of Japan’s enormous valuation of pottery and the “living national treasures” that create it would do well to read through this one.

Highly recommended.

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