A NORTHERN SONG CELADON RU WARE BOWL
Tetsuro Degawa, Director,
The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka
The newly discovered heirloom Ru ware bowl; its beauty of colour and form
It was very fortunate to have been able to showcase the newly discovered Ru ware bowl in “The Beauty of Song Ceramics” exhibition at the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka in 2016. Here is how this wonderful opportunity came about.
The Museum of Oriental Ceramics houses the Northern Song Ru ware narcissus basin as one of the most important works in our permanent collection.
With its characteristic sky blue glaze, Ru ware is inarguably the most beautiful ceramic ware of all. Producing this elegant blue glaze colour was the priority for Ru celadons. The firing temperature was monitored carefully, and it did not matter if the clay was brittle, or if there were small crackles, it was the colour of the glaze that mattered the most. No other Chinese ceramic ware has such a high requirement of the glaze as Ru ware. Among the vast number of deposited sherds found in the Qingliangsi kiln site in Baofeng, Henan, very few have sky-blue coloured glaze, which suggests that the colour of the glaze was its foremost desired quality. In order to appreciate the delicate colours, celadon wares have to be viewed in an ideal surrounding with natural lighting, and the exhibition space at the Museum of Oriental Ceramics was particularly dedicated to this effect. As artificial lighting changes both the temperature as well as the hue of the glaze, which adversely affects its appearance, it is most appropriate to view pieces under natural light.
In the 1999 exhibition ‘Song Ceramics’ (June 20 –August 15, 1999) held at the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, five Ru wares were shown, three of which were heirloom pieces handed down in Japanese collections. One of them is the narcissus basin from our museum collection. The second was later donated to the Tokyo National Museum. The last was purchased at auction in 2012 and is currently owned by an overseas collector. Other than in the National Palace Museum in Taipei (which houses 21 Ru wares), The Palace Museum in Beijing (houses 15), The National Museum of China (houses 8), The Sir Percival David Collection (houses 12) or the British Museum (houses 4), it was extremely rare to have been able to see as many as five Ru wares together. The Ru wares were the highlights of the exhibition and presenting them side by side made it possible to compare and acknowledge the slight differences in the hues and forms among the surviving wares. By the time the exhibition was held in 1999, Ru wares were well known, as archaeological studies of the kiln site in Qingliangsi had progressed significantly since its discovery in 1987.
In 2009, we held the exhibition‘Northern Song Ru Ware: Recent Archaeological Findings” (Dec.5, 2009 - March 28, 2010) (fig. 1) to show the artifacts excavated at the kiln site from 1987 to date. Many examples, some of which were not known forms in heirloom pieces, demonstrated the wide variety of Ru wares. The catalogue published for this exhibition later played an important role leading to our new discovery. It was gratifying to know that this exhibition advanced new perceptions of Ru ware, to be acknowledged even outside China. In the catalogue, the archaeologist overseeing the excavation noted that these were rarely of sky blue glazed, proving how desirable this glaze hue was when studying heirloom pieces.
In 2016, the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, held a special exhibition on Northern Song Ru ware narcissus basins from the National Palace Museum, Taipei (Dec 10, 2016 – March 26, 2017). This exhibition showcased four narcissus basins owned by the National Palace Museum, centered around the masterpiece – the so-called ‘uncrackled narcissus basin’, along with a later copy produced in the Qing dynasty.
The Northern Song Ru ‘uncrackled narcissus basin’ was presented as “the finest ceramic work of art in human history”. Ru ware was recognized as attaining the highest quality of all Chinese ceramics, and the most sophisticated ceramics ever created. It is also stated in the Geguyaolun that the most precious of celadon wares is the “uncrackled” ware, proving it is, indeed, the finest in human history.
Coinciding with this event, the “The Beauty of Song Ceramics”, a special exhibition mainly of Song ceramics from the museum’s permanent collection, was held. It also featured the “newly discovered” Ru bowl, which attracted many visitors and gathered much publicity (fig. 2). This new discovery would be the third known heirloom Northern Song Ru ware in Japan, and the only one in bowl form. The newly discovered piece was similar in form and size to the excavated Ru ware shown in the catalogue (no. 67) of the foregoing exhibition, ‘Northern Song Ru Ware: Recent Archaeological Findings”, but with distinctively different pale sky blue colour. The lip was broken and repaired with gold, but there was no evidence of any foreign fragments used in the course of the restoration. The piece was kept and handed down originally in its complete form, but was broken and then carefully restored with lacquer mixed with gold - the traditional kintsugi technique of restoration - by the then owner. The lacquer adheres the broken sections together, and gold powder is added to the join lines for aesthetic purposes. This method is traditionally used on tea wares, where the gold lacquer draws one’s attention and adds to the appreciation. When it was shown at the exhibition in Osaka, the rim was broken in six parts and repaired by kintsugi, as show in the illustration. (fig. 3)
The newly discovered Ru ware bowl was included in the exhibition purely by chance. When we were preparing for the “Beauty of Song Ceramics” we were informed of the existence of an heirloom Ru ware, similar to a piece in the 2009 catalogue. The representative of the owner brought the actual object to the museum to be authenticated. In November 2015, our chief curator Mr. Kobayashi inspected the actual piece and reported his findings to me. Later in March 2016, the piece was brought in to the museum again, and I had the chance to see the work in person. The form and size were comparable to the excavated examples, on each three small spur marks were visible at the foot. Its superior glaze colour, however, is probably why it survived as an heirloom object. We confirmed this was indeed authentic Ru ware and the bowl was deposited at the museum that day to be included in our exhibition in December. In some cases, we would ask for the opinion of external experts, but having carried out numerous studies and research on Ru wares, we were very confident in our assessment. Having inspected many examples of both excavated and heirloom Ru celadon wares, the consensus between Mr. Kobayashi and myself was very compelling.
Unlike excavated examples, this bowl, with its exquisite colour and lustrous surface, possesses dignity. The thinning glaze around the rim shows the colour of the body underneath is of faint pinkish tone, with three small spur marks at the foot. Excavated pieces are often chipped and unattractive in comparison.
This Ru ware bowl is accompanied by an old wooden box, inscribed in ink with “Seiji chawan” (celadon tea bowl) (fig. 4). The box suggests that it has been in a Japanese collection for a long time, but no further information is stated on the box.
The bowl previously belonged to Mr. Yuzura Sato (1917-1996) (fig. 5). We were informed by Mr. Yoshiro Kudo, doctor and ceramics researcher who met Mr. Sato in Kurume, that he graduated from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies with a degree in Spanish, and became a faculty member of Kyushu University teaching French. Mr. Kudo was a medical student at Kurume University and coincidentally met Mr. Sato in an antique shop. Mr. Sato purchased the bowl from Kusaba Antiques in Kurume in 1954.
Mr. Kudo came by the museum after the Beauty of Song Ceramics exhibition and gave a detailed account of how the Ru bowl was acquired by Mr. Sato. Mr. Sato returned the bowl to Kusaba Antiques at one point, after showing the celadon bowl to Mr. Kudo. However, at Mr. Kudo’s continued enthusiasm and urging, Mr. Sato eventually bought the bowl back, at the time already repaired with gold lacquer. He treasured the bowl dearly until his late years, and did not sell it even when he had to raise funds for his studies in the University of Rennes in France. After returning from France, he taught French as a professor at Hiroshima University.
Mr. Kudo once mentioned to Junkichi Mayuyama of Mayuyama Ryusendo, a notable Chinese antiques art dealer in Kyobashi, Tokyo, the beautiful celadon ware owned by Mr. Sato. Mayuyama travelled to Hiroshima to examine the bowl and offered to buy it, but the offer was declined. Afterwards, Mr. Sato moved to Tsukuba University, and after reaching retirement age for National Universities, he taught at Kobe Womens’ College.
Features of the Ru ware bowl
How can one determine if a celadon bowl of just 10.2cm in diameter and 5.2cm in height is an heirloom piece? Its features, such as its remarkable skyblue colour and beautiful lustrous glaze surface, completely set it apart from excavated examples. The excavated pieces rarely possess this graceful sky blue colour, and while it has been restored, all original fragments are present, so we can reasonably deduce that it was initially in pristine condition. From its complete form and beautiful glaze it is highly unlikely that this bowl would have been a piece to be disposed of.
This elegant and delicate bowl also has a thinned rim, and the fact that it has been restored by kintsugi before being acquired by Mr. Sato attests to the assumption that it was treasured and handed down through generations in Japan.
(Translated into English from the original text in Japanese)