The exhibition “Toucher le Feu” (“Touch Fire”) at the Musée Guimet rights an age-old wrong: historically, Japanese women were banned from making ceramics. They were not allowed to use a potter’s wheel or “touch the fire” of the kilns. As a result, the skills that were passed down from generation to generation were denied to them.
One early exception to the general rule was a famous poet, the Buddhist nun Otagaki Rengetsu of Kyoto, who lived from 1791 to 1875. One of the most creative people of her day, she not only deflected the ban by modeling clay without a wheel and inscribing her poems on her pieces but also managed to live independently by selling them. Beginning when she was nearly 60, she made tens of thousands of pieces. She was also a martial-arts master, a calligrapher and a painter. Some of her touchingly rough tea and sake services are on show in the exhibition, along with an ink drawing of a tea set and a poem.
Later, little by little, during the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-26) eras, women began to be admitted to pottery workshops and allowed to study art at universities in Kyoto and Tokyo in the 1940s and ’50s.
The bright side of the constraints is that the new generation of women ceramists was able to leapfrog over all those generations of tradition when they finally began to make pottery. In general, they preferred to make nonfunctional items, as espoused by the Sodeisha group, which was moving away from traditional ceramics and from Mingei, the Japanese arts and crafts movement.
The results can be seen in this small, beautiful exhibition of the work of some of the women pioneers of Japanese ceramics, with their often abstract or nature-inspired sculptures.
Hattori Makiko (b. 1984) has contributed an extremely intricate 2019 piece in stoneware and porcelain. She uses a technique of fastidiously applying ribbons of porcelain to the basic form, in this case, a bulbous rounded cone with an indentation in the top surrounding a mysterious black hole. The curators compare its elaborate surface to Action Painting.
Next to it is a piece with a smooth surface that is astonishing in a completely different way: Fukumoto Fuku’s 2017 “Nuage” (“Cloud”), a pair made up of four separate pieces in biscuit porcelain. On top of two simple vases of different types are more eccentric pieces, one of which looks like a flying saucer and the other like a misshapen bowl with jagged edges. Born in 1973, Fukumoto, considered one of the most important of the second generation of women ceramists, studied under Akiyama Yo (b. 1953), a member of the Sodeisha movement.
Smooth and textured surfaces coexist in Hosono Hitomi’s “Fougères (Zenmai),” dated 2016, with its glowing interior lined with gold leaf and its detailed, fern-themed porcelain exterior. Each frond was made separately and assembled later in this work by an artist whose inspirations are both Japanese and European.
No two of the pieces shown here are alike or even really resemble each other, but they are all stunning. I would like to describe all of them, but I will mention only two others here. One is Tanaka Yu’s trompe-l’œil box (pictured at the top of this page) wrapped in brilliant-yellow cloth that isn’t cloth at all but stoneware with a matte glaze (I stared and stared and still couldn’t believe it wasn’t fabric).
The other is Hoshino Kayoko’s “Cut-out – Ring 18-2” (2018) in Shigaraki stoneware with traces of ash, a sort of meticulously patterned Möbius loop.
Compare these pieces with a small group of traditional Japanese ceramics on display (purchased by Émile Guimet, whose collection founded the basis for the Musée Guimet), and you will see just how radical the contemporary works by women in this show really are. Don’t miss it.Favorite