Widely known as Arita ware in Japan, after the place of its original production and Imari ware in Europe, after the town from where they were exported, Japanese porcelain represents some of the most beautifully decorated and internationally admired Japanese artistic creations of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Initially produced for domestic consumption in the economically burgeoning cities of the Edo period (1568–1868), Japanese porcelain soon attracted the attention of Dutch traders that lead to its export, popularity in the trading ports of Asia and admiration throughout the cultural centres of Europe.
High temperature fired stoneware had been produced in China since the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE) and advanced stoneware porcelain was made in China and Korea since the tenth century. Japan’s ceramics tradition, however, favoured the creation of earthenware vessels displaying a rustic wabi-sabi aesthetic, which embodied Japan’s close association with nature, the tea ceremony and Zen philosophy.
It was not until the early seventeenth century, however, that porcelain ware was produced in Japan when Korean ceramicists arrived on the southwestern island of Kyushu, and discovered kaolin stone, which was suitable for porcelain production. Due to influences from the Asian mainland, early Japanese porcelain imitated Korean wares of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897) and adopted motifs of Chinese Jingdezhen porcelain of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). First, the Japanese created blue and white porcelain known as sometsuke by applying a cobalt blue pigment under a transparent surface glaze. Within one or two generations they were adding enamel colours that featured yellow, red, purple and green in an overglazed firing technique known as iroe (colour picture). Then in the ostentatious taste of the Japanese aristocracy additional gold enamel highlights were applied to create magnificently decorated pieces known as kinran-de, a word that originates from Japanese brocade fabric woven from colourful silks and gold- or silver-leafed paper threads.
Intricately decorated kinran-de Japanese Imari porcelain forms the nucleus of an important collection of 130 pieces that was acquired with funds generously donated by Mrs Pauline Gandel in 2018. One of the highlights of this collection is Large plate with cherry blossom, wisteria and Oiran with nightingale, 1688–1704, which features two of Japan’s most popular flowers: the cherry blossom (sakura) and wisteria (fuji). The posture of the two high ranking courtesans known as oiran reference early woodblock prints by artists such as Hishikawa Moronobu, which were widely distributed at the time. The oiran have their hair in the style of the Genroku era (1688–1704) and wear long-sleeved kimono (furisode) that designate their unmarried status. One woman is depicted dancing with a fan and the other carrying a nightingale. Throughout Japanese history the beauty of nightingale’s song is celebrated in literature and art as evoking a mood of the arrival of spring. Around the rim of the bowl are large petal shapes featuring peonies symbolising wealth and good fortune and chrysanthemums, the imperial flower of Japan, represent good health and long life. The centre of the plate features a cherry blossom branch in full bloom. Cherry blossom motifs are exclusive to Japanese porcelain ware and can be distinguished from plum blossom designs found on Chinese porcelain and other Japanese porcelain by the distinctive inverted ends of the flower petals.
Wayne Crothers, Senior Curator, Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria