This exhibition of 130 important pieces of Japanese Imari porcelain at the NGV has been enabled by a generous donation from Mrs Pauline Gandel, an enthusiastic benefactor of the NGV over many years. In the sixty years since Pauline Gandel’s first visit to Japan she has developed a deep understanding of and great appreciation for the aesthetics and refined culture of that country. Her major cultural gesture has allowed the NGV to form the largest collection of Imari ware in Australia, and one of the most significant collections of its kind in the world.
Brocades of translucent colour
During the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the reclusive island nation of Japan became internationally recognised for one treasured product beyond all others: Imari porcelain. White porcelain bowls, plates, bottles, utensils and ornamental figurines, exquisitely finished with translucent glazed colours and gold enamels, were distributed throughout Japan and beyond to the cultural centres of Asia and Europe. Decorated with birds and flowers alongside auspicious symbols and mythological animals, Imari ware appealed to the Japanese love of the natural world and belief in the supernatural, while Imari’s highly decorative designs, floret shapes and use of gold to enhance exotic colourful designs enchanted the aristocratic classes of Europe and the rulers of Asian kingdoms.
Ceramics in Japan
Along with Egypt, Mesopotamia and China, Japan has one of the oldest ceramic traditions in the world. From the fourteenth millennium BCE the ancient people of Japan produced earthenware ceramics for daily use. The Jomon period (literally, the ‘rope design’ period) that designates this Neolithic Japanese culture and its people takes its name from the decorative appearance of its ceramic ware. This powerful tradition of the production of earthenware vessels that display the rustic aesthetic known as wabi sabi1 The term wabi sabi is often used in relation to objects with a rustic appearance. Wabi is the aesthetic of beauty found in imperfection, and sabi is a love for the old and worn. The aesthetic underpins Japanese culture to a significant degree and plays a fundamental role in the philosophy of the tea ceremony, Zen Buddhism and Shinto nature worship. continued to be favoured throughout Japanese history and remains popular to this day among those who practise the tea ceremony. However, it was a very different, more refined and delicate form of decorative porcelain stoneware, whose popularity transcended all social strata of Japanese society, that became internationally synonymous with Japan and its decorative traditions.
Vastly different in appearance, appeal and decorative possibilities from earthenware ceramics, stoneware porcelain came to prominence as an entirely new medium of creative expression in Japan from the early seventeenth century. While earthenware is made from natural clay and fired at a temperature of around 800 to 900 degrees Celsius, stoneware is fired at a temperature that must exceed 1250 degrees Celsius, and is made from a special type of crushed kaolin stone powder that is mixed with water to form a fine clay. The technique used to create stoneware porcelain allowed the possibility of producing stronger, thinner and less porous ceramic ware in a pure white colour that could be decorated with a range of bright glazed colours.
Stoneware had been produced in China since the Shang dynasty (1766–1122 BCE), with white examples being developed during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). During the Song dynasty (960–1279) techniques were refined to produce a smooth, milky stoneware porcelain. Decorative cobalt underglaze blue was applied as decoration during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). On the Korean Peninsula, during the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), fine green celadon porcelain ware and white porcelain ware were developed, with white porcelain continuing to be widely produced and popular during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897).
A bridge to Korea
Porcelain produced in China and Korea during this period of technical development had been imported into Japan and appreciated by the Japanese warrior and ruling classes, but had not been produced in Japan. The introduction of porcelain-producing technology and the rapid development of porcelain production during the seventeenth century can be associated with two circumstances. One was Japanese people travelling to Korea; the other was that Koreans began to take up residence in the coastal region of Japan adjacent to their country. During the campaign of the Japanese warrior general Toyotomi Hideyoshi to conquer the Korean Peninsula (1592–1598), several of his regional lords, who had participated in the attempted invasion, recognised the cultural and economic opportunities provided by returning to Japan with Korean ceramic artisans.2 There is speculation that the Koreans who came to Japan were from the areas controlled by the Japanese during these six years and that they moved to Japan at the end of the military engagement to avoid retribution. These newly arrived ceramicists not only introduced the multi-chamber kiln known as the noborigama kiln (‘climbing’ or ‘dragon’ kiln), which could fire at higher temperatures than the previously used single-chamber anagama kilns, but also responded to the growing Japanese demand for lustrous porcelain ware by seeking suitable stoneware clays locally. These activities, based around the Japanese traditional ceramic-producing region of Karatsu, resulted in the Korean potter Ri Sampei3 Ri Sampei later took the Japanese name of Kanagae Sanbei. and a group of other locally based Korean potters discovering suitable kaolin porcelain-producing stone at Izumiyama, near the village of Arita, in 1616. Ri Sampei, who established the Tengudani kiln on the slope of an adjacent valley, is credited with being the first to produce porcelain in Japan; however, several scholars cite evidence that porcelain was produced in the same region from approximately 1610 by other unknown Korean ceramicists.4 Goro Shimura, The story of Imari, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 2008, p. 10.
Early Japanese porcelain
Early Japanese porcelain understandably imitated Korean wares of the Joseon dynasty and soon after adopted motifs of Chinese Jingdezhen porcelain of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). First the Japanese made blue and white porcelain known as sometsuke (meaning dyed with indigo blue): designs were painted on with cobalt blue before the glazed surface was added.5 Hugo Munsterberg, The ceramic art of Japan, Charles E. Tuttle, Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, 1964, p. 136. However, Japan soon applied its own distinctive aesthetics to its porcelain ware. While Chinese ware displayed particularly bright blues applied with well-defined brushstrokes, Japanese sometsuke featured softer, less distinct hues of blue that conveyed a dreamy, ethereal mood that the Japanese found pleasing. Within one or two generations of their foundation Japanese studios were using additional overglazed enamel colours in the Chinese style of Wanli wucai ware6 Wanli wucai is also known in French as famille verte. Wucai means ‘five enamels’ or ‘five colour ware’, but in reality is mostly three enamels (red, green and yellow) within outlines in blackish dry cobalt, along with an underglaze blue, and the white of the porcelain body. Together these elements make up the five colours. that featured yellow, red, purple and green in addition to the underglaze blue, and which became known in Japan as iroe (‘colour picture’).7 The process of producing polychrome porcelain in China generally involved two firings: one at a temperature of over 1250 degrees Celsius for the blue and white underglaze design, and a second at under 1250 degrees Celsius for the overglazed enamel colours. In Japan it was felt that a tree stay firing process gave a better result. This involved an extra initial high temperature firing for only the base shape and then the two stages for the underglaze blue and overglazed enamels.
Some of the first polychrome ceramics are credited to Sakaida Kakiemon (1596–1666) and the Kakiemon family studio. The elegantly designed decoration on Kakiemon works followed the asymmetrical aesthetic and use of empty white space found in traditional brush and ink painting, as can be seen in Octagonal bowl birds and flowers, 17th–18th century The name Kakiemon is thought to originate from kaki, meaning persimmon, which refers to the subject as well as the distinctive red colour that features on many of the studio’s earliest pieces. Interestingly, visitors to the Kakiemon studio, now under the custodianship of Sakaida Kakiemon XV (1968–), can find a persimmon tree growing in its courtyard to this day. During the seventeenth century Kakiemon porcelain ware became the most highly sought-after porcelain in Europe.
From the time of Japan’s great sixteenth-century military rulers Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi to the opulent Edo period, with its Tokugawa shoguns and their regional lords, and burgeoning merchant classes, a taste for the decorative use of gold and its association with nobility was a major influence in the production of large painted screens, lacquer ware and textiles. Therefore, it was natural to add gold embellishment to the palette of translucent glazed colours on porcelain. It is this most decorative and colourful style of Japanese porcelain, known as kinran-de, that forms the nucleus of the recently acquired NGV Imari collection. The term kinran-de originates from the Japanese word kinran, a sumptuous brocade fabric woven from colourful silks and gold or silver–leafed paper threads. Mostly used for ceremonial Buddhist robes, theatrical costumes and ornate obi kimono sashes, kinran is closely associated with luxuriant decoration.
The application of gold decoration to porcelain started in China during the Northern Song dynasty and reached its peak during the Ming dynasty. It was during this time that examples reached Japan and became known as kinran-de. While the date when kinran-de porcelain production began in Japan is not known, recent research indicates that the first pieces emerged during the Enpō era (1673–1681) and that the porcelain was produced in great numbers during the Genroku era (1688–1704), with the second half the Genroku era noted as producing pieces of the highest quality and most elegant design, as can be seen in Lidded box with clematis and chrysanthemum. This is attested to in the book Wakan Sansai Zukai, written by Yoshiyasu Terashima just nine years after the Genroku era ended, in 1713. It refers to Japanese kinran-de from the Imari kilns of Hizen8 Hizen is the Edo-period name for the region currently known as Saga prefecture. as being of the same quality as pieces created in Nanjing, China (meaning the porcelain-producing area of Jingdezhen), in particular porcelain produced by Kauemon (referring to Kakiemon), which are noted as displaying exceptional technique.9 Toshihide Kurita & Emiko Taguchi, Koimari kinran shu sakuhin meihin sen, Soujusha Art Publishing, Tokyo, 2017. This account stands up to scrutiny, as it is well known that from around this time Japanese kinran-de pieces were being transported to China, receiving praise from Chinese connoisseurs and even being imitated in that country.
Turmoil in China and the Dutch East India Company
Throughout the Ming dynasty China was the leader in the production of porcelain, which was shipped from China by the Portuguese and Dutch. The porcelain went primarily to Europe, but also to other Asian ports, Africa and the Americas (notably Peru).10 William R. Sargent, Treasures of Chinese Export Ceramics from the Peabody Essex Museum, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2012, p. 85. Two major occurrences coincided with the early days of porcelain production in Japan and dramatically broke the monopoly China had enjoyed for over 300 years. A transition of power from the Ming dynasty to the Qing dynasty threw China into decades of internal conflict and instability. The Manchu conquest11 Manchu is the ethic group that made up the Qing conquerors of China. Its conquest and related rebellions are regarded to have started in 1618 and ended in 1683. that rolled over China from the north to the south, and the ensuing rebellions, consumed most of the seventeenth century and brought the majority of Chinese porcelain production to a halt. In addition to this, from the early seventeenth century the Dutch East India Company had been designated by the Tokugawa shogunate as the sole European trader of Japanese goods. In search of alternative places of porcelain production, the Dutch turned to developing kilns in the region of Arita and nearby port of Imari in Japan. These two circumstances, the expanding Japanese Edo-period economy, and the passion of the new middle classes for luxury items similar to those favoured by their lords resulted in increased production of high-quality Japanese porcelain wares with sophisticated decoration.
Imari on the world stage
The secrets of porcelain production could not be concealed by China, Korea and Japan forever. By the beginning of the eighteenth century several Europeans had discovered the basic techniques of porcelain production, and in 1712 the French Jesuit missionary priest François Xavier d’Entrecolles published Lettres édifiantes et curieuses de Chine par des missionnaires jésuites, which gave a detailed account of the porcelain production he had witnessed in China. Before long, porcelain factories were established in Germany, France, Italy and England, and this led to a decreased international demand for Japanese Imari ware. However, the ever-expanding metropolises of Edo (Tokyo), Osaka and Nagoya, as well as regional centres, maintained the domestic demand for Imari ware produced for a Japanese sensibility. Technical developments meant that plates, dishes and other wares gradually increased in size, and with the expansion of international trade to Europe, the United States and beyond during the nineteenth century a new monumental style of porcelain began to be created. Appealing to the tastes of Europeans as well those of a newly internationally conscious Japanese public, these large-scale pieces took centre stage at international exhibitions throughout Europe, the United States and Australia during the second half of the nineteenth century.
In the recently acquired NGV collection there are leading examples of large plates and an enormous vase that highlight this new style of porcelain, with the largest and most elaborate piece being Large plate with sages, dragons and carp, late Edo – early Meiji period, 1830–1890. The increased use of gold, densely detailed patterns and appearance of popularised Asian symbols like dragons, phoenixes and lion dogs, as well as ornamental figurines of a kimono-clad woman, children performing the lion dog dance and the Zen subject of a boy playing the flute riding an ox, all represent the European perceptions of the ‘Far East’ and Japan responding to the new era of globalisation. This highly decorative and large-scale style of Imari ware can be viewed as the final creative development of historical Imari. Although the porcelain-producing kilns and ceramic studios around Arita in south-west Japan remain active to this day, the majority of porcelain ware produced simply replicates the traditions established 400 years ago.
The term wabi sabi is often used in relation to objects with a rustic appearance. Wabi is the aesthetic of beauty found in imperfection, and sabi is a love for the old and worn. The aesthetic underpins Japanese culture to a significant degree and plays a fundamental role in the philosophy of the tea ceremony, Zen Buddhism and Shinto nature worship.
There is speculation that the Koreans who came to Japan were from the areas controlled by the Japanese during these six years and that they moved to Japan at the end of the military engagement to avoid retribution.
Ri Sampei later took the Japanese name of Kanagae Sanbei.
Goro Shimura, The story of Imari, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 2008, p. 10.
Hugo Munsterberg, The ceramic art of Japan, Charles E. Tuttle, Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, 1964, p. 136.
Wanli wucai is also known in French as famille verte. Wucai means ‘five enamels’ or ‘five colour ware’, but in reality is mostly three enamels (red, green and yellow) within outlines in blackish dry cobalt, along with an underglaze blue, and the white of the porcelain body. Together these elements make up the five colours.
The process of producing polychrome porcelain in China generally involved two firings: one at a temperature of over 1250 degrees Celsius for the blue and white underglaze design, and a second at under 1250 degrees Celsius for the overglazed enamel colours. In Japan it was felt that a tree stay firing process gave a better result. This involved an extra initial high temperature firing for only the base shape and then the two stages for the underglaze blue and overglazed enamels.
Hizen is the Edo-period name for the region currently known as Saga prefecture.
Toshihide Kurita & Emiko Taguchi, Koimari kinran shu sakuhin meihin sen, Soujusha Art Publishing, Tokyo, 2017.
William R. Sargent, Treasures of Chinese Export Ceramics from the Peabody Essex Museum, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2012, p. 85.
Manchu is the ethic group that made up the Qing conquerors of China. Its conquest and related rebellions are regarded to have started in 1618 and ended in 1683.