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Understanding the Ceramic Art of Ogata Kenzan Through an In Depth Examination of a Mukozuke [Food Dish] with a Design of Wisteria
Professor Arakawa Masaaki, Gakushuin University
The Kyoto potter Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743) created ceramic works that are the origin of what many people in Japan today think of as the refined Japanese tableware. Contemporary dishes that are beautifully decorated and served in Kyoto kaiseki restaurants are in fact made in the Kenzan style. Kenzan ware depicts the Japanese landscapes and nature scenes of four seasons through both shape and design enhancing the appeal of the food that is being served. At the same time, the food also enhances the beauty of the dish itself. The light and refined design of this ceramic style transports diners who enjoy cuisine to the different world of beauty. The appearance of Kenzan ware transformed Japanese ceramics into an art infused with wit and esprit creating a unique form that cannot be found in other traditions.
Ogata Kenzan (his real name was Shinsei; Kenzan was in fact the name of his kiln) was born in 1663 into the wealthy kimono and textile merchant family, the Kariganeya, in Kyoto. Kariganeya at that time was the leading textile designer and was a favourite of Tokugawa Masako (1607-1678), also known as Tofuku-mon-in Masako, the wife of the Emperor Go-Mizunoo (1596-1680). The Kariganeya was started by Kenzan’s great-grandfather, Dohaku, who was the brother-in-law of Honami Koetsu, one of the founders of the Rinpa School. The brilliant painter Ogata Korin (1658-1716) was Kenzan’s brother. Having been raised in such a family and environment, Kenzan became an intelligent ceramic artist and differed considerably from the other potters who up until that point were basically craftsmen.
In 1699, Kenzan built a kiln in Narutaki Izumitani, Kyoto, and began in earnest his life as a potter. Narutaki is located in the northwest of the capital and this direction was called ken or inui, which is why the kiln was named Kenzan, literally meaning ‘mountain of ken (northwest)’. The northwest direction (ken) was respected as the shinmon or tenmon [deva’s gate] and meant good luck, the opposite of the northeast kimono [demon’s gate] in Onmyodo [the Way of Yin and Yang], traditional Asian esoteric cosmology. Thus the name of Kenzan was in fact an auspicious name.
Differing from other kilns in Higashiyama, Kyoto, which focused on mass production, the Kenzan kiln made only a small number of excellent works, mainly special utensils for specific events and tea gatherings or the gifts of the New Year and Hassaku, the first day of August in the Chinese calendar when people exchanged gifts in thanks.
The Narutaki kiln site was near Ninnanji temple where royalty and the aristocracy enjoyed viewing nature in each of the four seasons since the Heian period (794-1185). Many elegant villas of court noble were also located in this area. The beautiful two-tier Narutaki falls generating from the Omurogawa River was the only waterfall that could be viewed in the capital and the nobles visited this waterfall in search of coolness in the heat of summer. The Narutaki area continues to be a place of scenic beauty with villa into the present day. Kenzan ware was born in such environment and had continued to be supported by a wealthy elite who loved traditional Heian-period style.
The work offered in this sale (lot 37) depicts wisteria, which is a symbol of early summer. It was made as a mukozuke [food dish] for the kaiseki meal during tea gatherings. The vine of the wisteria is painted in iron oxide, the outline of a flower truss in underglaze blue and the white flower in articulated in white slip, a special technique Kenzan developed. The shape of dish is reminiscent of Oribe style wares created in the late in Momoyama period that was first shaped on a turning wheel and adapted using a mould.
One of the distinct features of Kenzan ware is the free and easy style of the painted lines with numerous variations. By the end of 17th century, the line quality of decoration on Imari and Kyoto ware in general was uniform and lacked variation. Kenzan tried to revive the traditional style, referring to the tsuketate technique popular in the Momoyama period that employs a flourish of the brush to express volume. The iron oxide painting in Oribe and e-Karatsu style ceramics made in the Momoyama period used the mokkotsu technique in which the soft wash strokes of various shades were used. Kenzan must have been quite determined to bring his works to life by reviving the much earlier Momoyama style with the use of light and free brushstrokes that can be seen in his works.
The side of the exterior of the vessel is decorated in underglaze blue and iron oxide on a white slip ground. The base sports his signature ‘Kenzan’ in iron oxide. This dignified style of signature is characteristic of Kenzan ware from the Narutaki kiln period (1699-1712). In fact, the sherd of the same shape as this lot was uncovered during the recent excavation of the Narutaki kiln site, which began in 2000. It is now housed in the Hozoji temple in Kyoto.
There is a similar set of five ceramics in the collection of MIHO MUSEUM and it is highly possible that this work was a part of the same set that was made up of ten dishes.