"Quiet Beauty." That's the apt title for a show of Japanese ceramics whose viewing is like settling into warm ocean waters on a perfect summer's day.
Now at the Bard Graduate Center in Manhattan, this touring exhibition -- "Quiet Beauty: 50 Centuries of Japanese Folk Ceramics from the Montgomery Collection" -- consists of about 100 vessels. Here are vases, sake bottles, pots, flasks, a few figurines and teapots, dishes, platters and jars -- like a warm brown-colored 16th century Tamba storage jar with rivulets of olive glaze around its shoulder. ("Tamba" refers to an area of medieval kilns on Honshu, some of which are still producing pottery to this day.)
All the pieces come from the collection of Jeffrey Montgomery, and are part what is considered to be the foremost collection of Japanese vernacular art outside of Japan. Montgomery is Scottish, but the collection is based in Switzerland. Robert Moes selected the pieces and oversaw the elegant catalogue.
You don't have to know much about ceramics to appreciate the lovely tonalities of clay or clay and glaze. A Shodai Ware Jar from the 18th or 19th century decorated with brushfuls of ivory rice-straw glaze that look like clouds is especially soothing. And it would be very difficult to not smile at an Okinawan incense burner from 1765 in the shape of a mythical Chinese lion.
For those who want to learn more, this airily installed and inviting show provides plenty of background material in a fully illustrated exhibition guide that you can take around with you, and two videos on the making of pottery and on the Mingei, or Japanese folk art movement. "Mingei," or people's crafts, encompasses the rediscovery of all types of folk art and craft in the early 20th century after the rapid Westernization of Japan devalued this material.
In the 1920s, Japan developed a fresh appreciation of crafts, which were never separated from the fine arts until the late 19th century. Today, in pottery more than any other medium, craftsmen are widely revered and often find it easier than painters and sculptors to make a living.
The exhibition has work by several recent and contemporary ceramists. A glazed stoneware plate from around 1970 by Hamada Shji (one of the founders of the Mingei movement, 1894-1978), is a brilliant foray into abstraction, while a glazed stoneware dish by Kinj Jir (designated a Living National Treasure by the Japanese government) from around 1980 employs traditional Okinawan white-ware with flying fish.
For those who know a lot about Japanese pottery, the opportunity to study examples from many different kilns is not to be missed. A bulbous-bottomed 17th-century Satsuma Sake Bottle with a lustrous iron-brown glaze is worlds away from a wildly decorative Kiyomizu Ware rectangular sake bottle overglazed in red, blue and green with the Three Friends of Winter (pine, bamboo and plum) from the Kyoto area. Different from them both is a Karatsu Ware Small Dish, also from the 17th century (Edo period), which has three swallows flying under wisteria in brown slip that was applied prior to an over-all transparent grey-green glaze.
There are also individual rarities, like a Bizen Ware Sake Bottle from the 16th century (Momoyama period) with an unglazed neck and natural ash glaze (sesame-seed glaze) spilling down the shoulder and sides. A selection of early porcelain pieces rounds out this handsome and informative survey of folk ceramics.
The nonprofit Art Services International organized the exhibition and tour. "Quiet Beauty" remains at Bard through June 15th. From New York, it goes to the Frederik Meijer Gardens, Grand Rapids, Mich. (Aug. 13-Jan. 4, 2004); the Honolulu Academy of Arts, Hawaii (Jan. 31-Apr. 11, 2004); the Tyler Museum of Art, Tyler, Tex. (May 8-July 18, 2004); the Society for the Four Arts, Palm Beach, Fla. (Mar. 4-Apr. 10, 2005); and the Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, N.M. (Feb. 25-Aug. 13, 2006).
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.