Japanese ceramics in Sacramento


Writing my last post on The Sculptural Turn led me to reflect on another wonderful collection of contemporary Japanese ceramics, in the Crocker Art Museum of Sacramento. I visited in June 2016, and the ceramics gallery was a definite highlight, presenting a choice selection of very high quality pieces.

There are some eye-catching celadons, such as a sinuous ceramic sculpture by Kino Satoshi (b.1987). This was first formed as a cylinder on a potter’s wheel, then dissected and reassembled in a new configuration. It is from a series of porcelain sculptures called Oroshi (“strong downwind from the mountain”).

There are two celadon bowls by Kawase Shinobu (b.1950), whose work I featured in this post in 2015. The first bowl, with its 16 lobes, is a triumph of form; the second, with its delicate “kingfisher” glaze, is a triumph of colour. This multi-coloured glaze took up to eight kiln firings to achieve and the artist sees it as evoking the plumage of the kingfisher.

In contrast, a red clay bowl by Ogawa Machiko (b.1946) has a primitive, earthy quality. Her work features in The Sculptural Turn, bearing similar hallmarks – the broken, unfinished edges, the cracks and fissures.

The display includes celebrated artists from the Mingei movement (focused on traditional crafts) such as Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), whose work I featured in this post in 2012 and in this post in 2016. Another key figure in the movement was Sakuma Totaro (1900-1976), represented here by a square plate with a fruit motif, the colours subtle yet uplifting.

Overall, a small but enthralling selection of Japanese ceramics – definitely worth a stop if you are visiting Sacramento.

Crocker Art Museum
Sacramento, CA
Permanent collection

All photos: SF

Above: Kino Satoshi, Sculpture, 2014. Porcelain with pale bluish white celadon glaze. Crocker Art Museum.

Below: Kawase Shinobu, Bowl with 16 pinched edges, 2014. Porcellanous stoneware with celadon glaze. Crocker Art Museum.


Below: Kawase Shinobu, Teabowl, “Kingfisher”, 2013. Porcellanous stoneware with reddish-green celadon glaze. Crocker Art Museum.


Below: Ogawa Machiko, Vessel, no date. Red clay. Crocker Art Museum.


Below: Wada Morihiro, Tea bowl, ca. 1996. Porcellanous stoneware with black glaze and red and orange slip glaze patterning. Crocker Art Museum.


Below: Shoji Hamada, Covered box, no date. Stoneware. Crocker Art Museum.


Below: Shoji Hamada, Flask, ca. 1968. Stoneware. Crocker Art Museum.


Below: Sakuma Totaro, Square plate, ca. 1970. Crocker Art Museum.


Shapes to conjure with: contemporary Japanese ceramics


This exhibition of Japanese ceramics is small but transformative, giving the visitor space to focus not on traditional ceramic forms but on what happens when those forms are set aside. Each of the artists represented here adopts a more experimental approach, creating works that have sculptural or abstract qualities. Many of the artists are female.

The show includes work by Nagae Shigekazu (b.1953), whose extraordinary razor-thin porcelain I featured in this post in 2014 and this post in 2015.

There are angular, geometric pieces: for instance, Box by Kondo Takahiro (b.1958), a glazed porcelain work that reminded me of China’s ceramic head pillows; and Noh-inspired Form with Colored Clay Inlays by Kishi Eiko (b.1948), its surface alight with iridescent colour.

There are many organic shapes that draw inspiration from the natural world: for instance, Shell Form by Koike Shoko (b.1943), Tentacled Sea Flower by Katsumata Chieko (b.1950) and Eggshell by Sakurai Yasuko (b.1969).

Other works seem to conjure images of damage or decay: an untitled work by Futamura Yoshimi (b.1959) resembles a huge fruit covered in mould; another by Ogawa Machiko (b.1946) suggests a fragile entity that has been smashed or torn open.

A varied and interesting exhibit, well worth a visit.

The Sculptural Turn
Contemporary Japanese Ceramics from the Kempner and Stein Collection
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
9 November 2016 to 4 June 2017

All photos: SF.

Above: Nagae Shigekazu, Moving Forms, 2015. Porcelain. Collection of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.

Below: Kondo Takahiro, Box, 2009. Porcelain with glaze. Asian Art Museum; gift of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.


Below: Kishi Eiko, Noh-inspired Form with Colored Clay Inlays, 2007. Stoneware with colored clay inlays. Collection of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.


Below: Koike Shoko, Shell Form, 2013. Stoneware with glaze. Collection of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.


Below: Sakurai Yasuko, Eggshell, 2008. Porcelain. Asian Art Museum; gift of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.


Below: Futamura Yoshimi, Untitled, 2012. Stoneware and porcelain. Collection of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.


Below: Ogawa Machiko, Untitled, 2009. Stoneware and porcelain with pooling glass. Collection of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.


San Diego visit, part 2: Japanese art at the Mingei International

Continuing the San Diego theme from my last post on Brush and Ink, I want to highlight an exhibition I saw at the Mingei International Museum, showcasing folk art and craft objects from Japan. It was a rare opportunity to explore this field in depth, and I was blown away by the bold designs and exceptional quality of the pieces.

The selection covers different regions of Japan and different categories of object: fans, folk paintings, baskets, cabinets and so on. The textiles displayed on the walls have huge visual impact, be it an Ainu coat from Hokkaido, or a summer kimono in a wonderful gold colour, by Keisuke Serizawa (1895-1984).

Ceramics form the backbone of the exhibition, encompassing older traditional items – a sturdy plate with horse eye motif, such as you would find at a roadside inn – and later craft pieces from the ceramicists of the Mingei movement, started by Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961) to champion the beauty of ordinary, handmade objects.

They include works by Masu Minagawa (1872-1953), who liked to paint her teapots with landscape designs, and by Shoji Hamada (1894-1978) and his apprentice Tatsuzo Shimaoka (1919-2007), who used rope impressions and a salt glaze to create unique effects. All three worked at Mashiko in Japan.

A beautiful, balanced show, designed to give the visitor a strong and lasting sense of the riches of Japanese folk art.

Mingei of Japan
Mingei International Museum, San Diego, CA
2 April to 2 October 2016 (now closed)

Below: Ainu coat, unknown maker, late 19th c. Hokkaido, Japan. Cotton, indigo; hand-spun, handwoven, sewn, appliqued, embroidered. Mingei International Museum. All photos: SF.


Below: Keisuke Serizawa, summer kimono, mid 20th c. Japan. Banana fibre (bashofu); indigo; hand-spun, handwoven, stencil dyed (katazome).

Below: Plate with horse eye motif, unknown maker, early 19th c. Japan. Glazed stoneware with brushwork design. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Bowl, unknown maker, 20th c. Okinawa, Japan. Glazed stoneware. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Tea bowl, unknown maker. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Masu Minegawa, ceramic teapot, ca. 1900-1950. Mashiko, Japan. Mingei International Museum.


Below left: Lidded jar, unknown maker, late 20th c. Onta, Japan. Chatter-glazed (tobikanna) stoneware. Mingei International Museum.

Below right: Tatsuzo Shimaoka, bowl, 2004. Mashiko, Japan. Salt-glazed and rope-impressed stoneware with inlaid slip. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Tatsuzo Shimaoka, tea bowl, ca. 1971. Salt-glazed and rope-impressed stoneware with inlaid slip. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Shoji Hamada, plate, 20th c. Glazed stoneware. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Shoji Hamada, cup, 20th c. Glazed stoneware. Mingei International Museum.


Ten days left to see Chinese treasures from Taiwan

The jewel of the 2016 schedule at the Asian Art Museum has been the show Emperors’ Treasures, which presents choice artworks on loan from the National Palace Museum, Taipei. This show is now in its last ten days and is absolutely worth a visit.

The exhibition includes Chinese art from the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, a period of about 800 years in total. There are paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, jades and other types of art as well, including the celebrated “meat-shaped stone” – a piece of jasper made over to look exactly like a piece of fatty pork.

I was especially taken with the ceramics: a black tea bowl with a tree leaf design embedded in the glaze (Southern Song); a wine cup and saucer in the rarest cobalt blue (Yuan); a famous blue-and-white globe vase with a flying dragon design (Ming, reign of Emperor Yongle).

The paintings are also exceptional, though I found the presentation less compelling. The exhibition followed a clear chronological format, which relies on separating the material out into discrete parcels. This structured approach works well for ceramics, less so for paintings. You lose that sense of the gradual evolution of the medium, of the constant, layered references back to earlier painters. Still, a show that is not to be missed.

Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
17 June to 18 September 2016

Above: bowl with tree leaf design. Jizhou kiln, Jiangxi province. Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). High-fired ceramic with black glaze. Height 5.1cm; diameter at mouth 14.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at http://www.npm.gov.tw/exh99/southernsong/en_03.html

Below: cup and saucer with gilt decorations. Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Porcelain with cobalt blue glaze and gilt decoration. Cup height 3.4cm, diameter at mouth 8.5cm; saucer diameter 15.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at http://www.npm.gov.tw/exh95/ming/exhibition_en/3.html


Below: vase with a flying dragon amid flowers. Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Ming dynasty (1368-1644), reign of Emperor Yongle (1403-24). Porcelain with underglaze cobalt blue decoration. Height 42.2cm, diameter at base 16.2cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at http://www.npm.gov.tw/exh96/orientation/en_b7_2.html


Below: meat-shaped stone. Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Jasper, gold stand. Height 5.73cm; length 5.3cm; width 6.6cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at http://www.npm.gov.tw/exh99/jade/big2_en.htm


Japanese porcelain at the Legion of Honor

japanisches palais dresden

On a visit to the Legion of Honor museum in Lincoln Park, I discovered that objects in the porcelain galleries had come from the Japanese Palace (or Japanisches Palais) created by Augustus the Strong. This piqued my interest because he is a figure who looms larger than life in Edmund de Waal’s The White Road, discussed in my last books post.

The Japanese Palace is a magnificent building in Dresden (pictured above) that was repurposed in the early 18th century to house Augustus’ porcelain collection, including Chinese, Japanese and Meissen porcelain. Artists working at Meissen made use of the Asian porcelain, either to copy the designs exactly, or to create new designs more loosely inspired by the originals.

The Legion of Honor shows the eastern and western pieces alongside each other, including several bewitching Kakiemon dishes from Japan. Kakiemon ware was produced in kilns at Arita, near the port of Imari. It was decorated using a particular overglaze technique (painting over the glaze in low-fired colours), in colours such as blue, red and green. The lobed shapes of the Legion of Honor dishes are characteristic: shapes such as hexagons and octagons were often used, perhaps because warping is less apparent than on a circular design.

Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA
Permanent collection (Gallery 9B)

Above: Japanisches Palais, Dresden, Germany. Image: Von X-Weinzar – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2166535.

Below: Kakiemon saucer dish from Arita, Japan, ca. 1700. Porcelain. Photo: SF.
Below: Kakiemon dish from Arita, Japan, late 1600s. Porcelain. Photo: SF.
Below: Kakiemon dish from Arita, Japan, ca. 1690-1700. Porcelain. Photo: SF.

Books: The White Road by Edmund de Waal; The Porcelain Thief by Huan Hsu

2015 seemed to mark the arrival of a new genre – the porcelain memoir. I read The White Road by Edmund de Waal and The Porcelain Thief by Huan Hsu within a couple of months of each other. The two writers approach their subject by quite different routes, yet both texts are essentially a blend of travel writing and autobiography, combined with judicious mini essays on the history of porcelain production.

Edmund de Waal made his literary mark with The Hare with Amber Eyes (2009), a very readable narrative of his family history set in Paris and Vienna, taking the family netsuke collection as its anchor. Having enjoyed the earlier book, I approached this one with high expectations.

However, The White Road is quite a different beast. It is incredibly diffuse, both thematically and in its prose. Without the very specific anchor of the netsuke, de Waal seems to drift from one alluring topic to the next, without offering much in the way of structure or argument. He covers Jingdezhen. Meissen. Wedgwood. Dachau. He visits everywhere that he writes about. He writes everything up in a somewhat breathless present tense, even the historical parts.

In the background, he tells the story of his own career as a potter. Again, the telling is kind of piecemeal, but I found this material fascinating – the journey from his earliest work (nobody would buy it) to his bespoke installations for museums around the world. The copy I bought in the UK was called The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts, whereas the US edition has the slightly scary title The White Road: Journey into an Obsession. In fact, I think the US edition has the better title, because it acknowledges that this book is more than a porcelain travelogue, it’s very much his autobiographical journey too.

The White Road is definitely recommended, but be prepared for something long, rambling and idiosyncratic in style, more like a script for a film documentary than an art history book.

The Porcelain Thief, in contrast, has a more journalistic feel. The author is an American-born Chinese who relocates to China in a bid to find out what happened to his ancestor’s porcelain collection several decades earlier. He takes a job in Shanghai, working for his uncle’s business, and painstakingly interviews his relatives to help him reconstruct some of the family history. The sections with his redoubtable grandmother are particularly fine – she leads him a merry dance, telling him so much about some things, so little about others.

The narrative switches back and forth from his travails in present-day China to the travails of his family in the previous century, but Hsu keeps the two in equilibrium and writes with clarity about Chinese history and Chinese porcelain. His account feels disconcertingly honest at times, to the point where he doesn’t seem very likeable – his sexist comments on the dating scene in Shanghai, for instance; his ingrained hostility towards his cousin Richard (not a kindred spirit). This authenticity is the hallmark of the final section of the book, where there is definite bathos in a scene where the characters go digging up random sections of vegetable patch. Well worth reading, and full of interesting detail, but it does point up rather harshly the difficulties of pursuing this kind of quest.

The White Road: Journey into an Obsession
Edmund de Waal, 2015.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 401 pages, $27.00 (hardback).

The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China
Huan Hsu, 2015.
Crown, 380 pages, $27.00 (hardback).

Cotswold Farm: Arts and Crafts with Chinese porcelain

cotswold farm exterior
Last weekend I joined a field trip to Cotswold Farm, an Arts and Crafts house with terraced gardens and terrific views. In the main, we were there to see the ceramics, but my overriding impressions are of the house itself. It is used by groups of clergy on retreat, though not on the day of our visit. Lucky clergy, I thought.

The farmhouse was built in the 1720s and expanded to twice its original size in about 1900. The Arts and Crafts interiors are the work of the architect Sidney Barnsley (1865-1926) and his assistant Norman Jewson. The library in particular is full of delights: wooden paneling, delicate plasterwork, metal sconces and curtains with rich embroidery.

We saw Chinese and Japanese ceramics, mainly blue and white export porcelain, collected by J. Dearman Birchall between 1860 and 1900. One of our guides was Colin Sheaf (Bonhams), who explained that at this time there was a surge of interest in blue and white export porcelain of the Kangxi period (1662-1722), pioneered by such well-known figures as Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. These pieces had been sitting around in country houses since they arrived in the early 18th century but were now re-presented as the height of fashion. This shed new light on my visit to the Russell-Cotes Museum in Bournemouth, another late Victorian collection that includes blue and white porcelain.

Not everything came from China or Japan, it turned out. Certain pieces that seemed to be Imari ware were reproductions by the French Samson firm. Our guides chose to keep quiet about this at first, and they fooled the group very nicely.

Cotswold Farm
Near Cirencester, Gloucestershire

This visit was open to members of the Oriental Ceramics Society; information on how to join this group can be found on their website.

Above: Cotswold Farm. Image at http://www.cotswoldfarmgardens.org.uk/.

Below: Cotswold Farm, the library. Image at http://www.traveleditions.co.uk/tour/cotswolds-arts-and-crafts-traditions/photos.

cotswold farm library

Below: Cotswold Farm, interior. Image at http://www.cotswoldfarmgardens.org.uk/.

cotswold farm interior

Clandon Park in ruins after fire

clandon park fire

The National Trust suffered a bad fire last week at Clandon Park, a Georgian house in the Surrey countryside. The fire broke out on the evening of 29 April and spread through the building, continuing to burn until the next morning, despite the best efforts of the fire service. Nobody was injured.

Implementing their emergency protocols, National Trust staff collaborated with fire crews in the rescue of items from the collection. They now report that a significant portion of the collection was saved, including paintings, furniture and textiles.

I visited Clandon several times because we used to live just a few miles away, so this news really hit home. Perfect like a dolls house, it presented an eye-catching façade from almost any angle, designed in vivid red brick with Italianate stone detailing. Inside, the showpiece room was the central Marble Hall, an all-white entrance hall that rose through two storeys, gleaming with marble and elaborate plasterwork.

Chinese art was certainly represented in the collection, which included about 50 Chinese porcelain birds from the 17th and 18th centuries, displayed throughout the house. There were cranes, parrots, pheasants and ducks, brightly coloured and highly decorative. So far, the fate of these birds is unclear – we can only hope that some have in fact escaped the blaze.

The National Trust has launched an appeal for donations to Clandon Park: more information can be found on their website.

Above: Clandon Park on fire. Photo: National Trust.

Below: Posing in front of the porch at Clandon Park in 2010.

steps at clandon

Below: Marble Hall at Clandon Park. Designed by Giacomo Leoni in the 1730s. Photo: NTPL/Nadia Mackenzie, at http://www.ntprints.com/image/352312/the-marble-hall-designed-by-giacomo-leoni-at-clandon-park.

marble hall clandon

Below: Marble Hall at Clandon Park after the fire. Photo: BBC news, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-surrey-32545837.

marble hall clandon after fire

Below: Chinese porcelain ducks. Gubbay Collection at Clandon Park. Photo: NTPL/Nadia Mackenzie, at https://nttreasurehunt.wordpress.com/2010/09/03/thinking-pink/.

chinese porcelain ducks v4

Ceramics and glass: a talk on contemporary Chinese art

wan liya ceramics

I was glad that I had the chance last night to hear Kate Newnham, Senior Curator at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, describing her work on a show of contemporary Chinese ceramics and glass, which she co-curated with specialists from The Potteries Museum, Stoke-on-Trent, Shanghai University and twocities gallery, Shanghai.

The touring exhibition “Ahead of the Curve” presents work by 20 Chinese artists, many of whom have not shown before in the UK. While preparing the exhibition, the British team made two research trips to China, where they explored ceramics studios within Chinese universities, and in artists’ homes in Jingdezhen.

I haven’t seen the exhibition yet but the overview given in this talk suggested a quite disparate body of work – not so surprising when you have 20 artists of different ages, crafting in different media and selected precisely because they are innovative and at the cutting edge.

Still, Newnham highlighted several unifying trends, such as artists inspired by the classical Chinese tradition, artists following a more international trajectory, and artists with a particularly conceptual focus.

Wan Liya (b. 1963) illustrates the first and last of these trends, with his porcelain replicas of plastic household bottles, traditionally decorated in famille rose enamel. There is a visual dissonance that reminded me of certain works by Ai Weiwei (b. 1957) – marble replicas of unexpected objects, such as a hard hat or a CCTV camera. I saw these in his Blenheim Palace show in 2014.

Curiously, the underlying humour also reminded me of installations by the Korean artist Meekyoung Shin (b. 1967), who creates detailed replicas of vases in coloured soap – that is, replicas of precious objects, as opposed to replicas of throw-away objects decked out to look like precious objects. I saw these at Korean Eye 2012 and in her London show in 2014.

I was fascinated too to learn about the contemporary artists working in glass. Newnham explained that it is only 15 years since the first glass studios were set up in Chinese universities, so this is a new and developing area. She highlighted (among others) works by senior glassmaker Zhuang Xiaowei (b. 1956), and a mysterious piece by Shelly Xue (b. 1981) – a pair of angel wings synthesized from a host of narrow glass tubes.

Ahead of the Curve: New china from China
Talk by Kate Newnham, at Burlington House, London
14 April 2015

This talk focused on the touring exhibition Ahead of the Curve: New china from China, previously on show at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, and currently on show at The Potteries Museum, Stoke-on-Trent until 31 May 2015.

This talk was open to members of the Oriental Ceramics Society; information on how to join this group can be found on their website.

Above: Wan Liya, Birds’ Twitter and Fragrance of Flowers (detail), 2010. Image: Wan Liya, at http://www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/bristol-museum-and-art-gallery/whats-on/ahead-of-the-curve/.

Below: Shelly Xue, Gather Series – Angel is Waiting II, 2014. Image at:

shelly xue angel wings

Travels in California, part 5: surprise Korean ceramics

Images of gallery exhibition spaces
I was bowled over to discover that – unique among airports – the airport at San Francisco operates an accredited museum within its terminals and, what’s more, our visit coincided with a show of contemporary Korean ceramics, co-curated with the Asian Art Museum.

We were on our way from the aircraft to the baggage carousel at this point, so I could not spend nearly as long as I would have liked. There was a plentiful selection of work by each of the eight artists and I lingered especially over the pieces by Park Young Sook (b. 1947).

These included a set of nesting bowls in buncheong – a technique from the 15th and 16th centuries, in which white slip is applied to stoneware, then decorated using techniques such as inlay, stamping and incising; several exquisite porcelain vessels, including a version of the classic Korean moon jar; and a porcelain recreation of a traditional Korean wrapping cloth (bojagi). This display was an unexpected treat – I wish they could come up with something like this at Heathrow!

Dual Natures in Ceramics: Eight Contemporary Artists from Korea
SFO Museum at San Francisco International Airport, San Francisco, CA
17 May 2014 to 22 February 2015 (now closed)

Above: Park Young Sook, buncheong inlaid bowls with lid, 2002-03. Stoneware with stamped and slip-inlaid decoration. Asian Art Museum. Image at http://www.flysfo.com/museum/exhibitions/19210/detail?num=4.

Below: Park Young Sook, selection of porcelain vessels, displayed at SFO Museum in February 2015. Photo: STF.
park young sook porcelains
Below: Park Young Sook, porcelain recreation of traditional Korean wrapping cloth, displayed at SFO Museum in February 2015. Photo: STF.
park young sook wrap cloth v2