Thursday, November 12, 2009

Art review: Morkiami's kettles, prints evoke classic Japan

The Moon of Yamaki Mansion -- Kagekado (1886),
by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.
From One Hundred Aspects of the Moon (27).

By Jan Engoren

Readers of Yasunari Kawabata's novel Thousand Cranes will have some idea of the significance of the tea ceremony in Japanese life, of how each element of the ritual, from kettle to the tea itself, is fraught with meaning.

An exhibit at the Morikami Museum west of Delray Beach offers a glimpse into the rituals of tea over the past few centuries through a display of more than 90 iron tea kettles, while a companion exhibit evokes some of the classic themes of Japanese art in a selection of 25 woodblock prints.

The Morikami presents both exhibits with care and minimal distraction, allowing visitors to steep themselves in the imagery of the objects, so much so that going outside to look at the museum's gardens is to see the landscapes in the art come to life.

Additionally well-conceived is the consistency of theme across both exhibits. The soft, muted colors of the woodblock prints are in keeping with the restrained patinas and sheens on the cast-iron kettles.

The colorful prints -- the exhibit is called Moonlight Memories, Plum Blossom Dreams -- depict visualizations of the moon and plum blossoms from the late Edo period (1600-1868). The moon was symbolic of purity, transformation, renewal and divine power. Plum blossoms signify rebirth and the onset of spring.

The ukiyo-e prints, which come from the collection of James Stepp and Peter Zimmer, bring us the world of pre-industrial imperial Japan, with its samurai warriors and kabuki actors, its beautiful courtesans and geishas. Included are works by well-known woodblock print artists such as Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–1892) and Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III, 1786–1864).

Nine prints from Yoshitoshi’s epic One Hundred Aspects of the Moon are on display here and are not to be missed, as much for the history they impart as to appreciate the craft itself. Especially helpful in interpreting and contextualizing the prints and adding to my appreciation of the intricate images was the Morikami's program gallery guide, which details the folklore and history behind this beautiful art.

Tetsubin imitating a money purse,
late 19th/early 20th century.

In the adjoining hall is the other exhibit, Elegance in Iron, which showcases tea kettles, called tetsubin, from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Kramer.

Tetsubin came into popularity in late 18th-century Japan as part of a revolt by intellectuals (bunjin) and artists in Kyoto who broke away from the rigid, traditional tea ceremony rituals (chanoyu) using matcha, a powdered green tea, in favor of Chinese-style tea, sensha, made from whole tea leaves.

Tetsubin replaced the traditional, more delicate Chinese porcelain teapots previously used for brewing tea. The Japanese also preferred tetsubin for boiling water for tea because the iron kettle allowed for proper heating and temperature control for making a good cup of tea.

Their popularity endured for 150 years until World War II, when many of the kettles were recycled for use in the war and the industry declined.

Two trends that stand out in this collection are the conscious attempt to design vessels meant to appear Chinese in origin by depicting Chinese landscapes and/or calligraphy, and an attempt to mimic signs of age and neglect. Wear and tear were considered an asset in tetsubin by the bunjin, as was their appreciation of ceramic raku pottery, which also was made to appear aged and neglected, as if it were a "found object."

Of particular interest are the kettles made with the "lost-wax'' technique, which illustrate the iron caster’s skill working with hot metals. These examples are among the most compelling in the show for their unusual and dramatic subject matter and for their ornate decorations.

Tetsubin with the character kotobuki in different scripts,
late 19th/early 20th century.

One tetsubin features a dragon in high relief emerging from the clouds on Mt. Fuji. The kettle itself is in the shape of the mountain, the dragon is immersed in the gathering storm clouds and is partially obscured by them, creating a sense of drama. This theme is recognizable throughout Japanese art, but it was unexpected in a cast-iron kettle.

I was particularly struck by another tetsubin of Mt. Fuji sitting atop a brazier, its scalloped skirt flaring out, its handle intentionally distressed to appear to have been eaten away by worms or other earth-creatures. Noteworthy also are the three tea kettles in the shape of a fat money purse (the Money Purse of Inexhaustible Wealth) cinched by a realistic-looking iron silk cord.

Tom Gregersen, cultural director of the Morikami, said Japanese artisans attempted to create a certain verisimilitude by imitating objects and materials normally far removed from cast iron. “These quirky attempts indulge a sense of humor and can’t help but elicit a smile," he said.

The kettles are made to look weathered, and come in all shapes, including round, hexagonal, globular, and square and sometimes are made to imitate bamboo, wood containers, and even pumpkins.

Some have silver inlays, and others have nature themes: Decayed Tree Trunk with Flowers; Fresh Waterpond; Bird and Flower; Withered Lotus Leaf with a Fresh Water Crab; Grapevines Growing on a Thatched Roof Resthouse; Farmhouse with Ivy on a Thatched Roof.

One of the strengths of the exhibit is the well-thought out display. It is obvious that much thought went into the layout and presentation of the tetsubin. They are showcased in clear plexiglass cases and grouped by theme, allowing the viewer to easily compare different techniques, styles and artisans. The scale of the exhibit is viewer-friendly and the somewhat austere setting allows for the focus to be solely on the objects.

Besides the displays of tetsubin and ukiyo-e prints, the show includes Japanese silk and paper scroll paintings, including Fishing in Autumn, Fall Landscape, Plum Tree in Bloom, The Four Gentlemen and the stunning Hawk and Chinese Bulbuls, depicting a hawk soaring towards a pair of the small, sparrow-like bulbuls, amidst a mountainous backdrop.

The exhibits will be of interest to not only aficionados, but to anyone interested in spending a leisurely but informative afternoon at the Morikami.

Jan Engoren is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

Elegance in Iron and Moonlight Memories run through Dec. 6 at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens west of Delray Beach. Admission to the museum is $12 for adults, $11 for seniors, $8 for children and college students. For more information, call (561) 495-0233 or visit The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.

In the Moonlight Under the Trees
a Beautiful Woman Comes (1888), by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.
From One Hundred Aspects of the Moon (59).

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