Review: Raku: Cosmos in a Teabowl

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1 Kurogama firing in progress at the Raku workshop. Photo: Raku Kichizaemon XV.

The historic exhibition, “Raku: Cosmos in a Tea Bowl,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (www.lacma.org) in Los Angeles, California, consists of nearly 100 objects made by 15 generations of the Raku family. More than half of the ceramic objects in the exhibition are teabowls. The remainder consists of objects used in the Japanese tea ceremony: incense containers, food utensils, and water jars.

The exhibition’s title refers to the refinement of spiritual meaning involved in the tea ceremony and its implements. Cosmos in a Tea Bowl expresses multiple realities—an aesthetic representing a cosmic order, the rituals of the tea ceremony, the mood evoked by use of these objects, the mental state of the bowls’ creators and the cultural and religious meaning of the bowls. As the 15th Raku master, Raku Kichizaemon wrote in 2015, the teabowl interior is “a universe held in the palms.” Understanding the uniquely Japanese aesthetic of wabi is essential to developing an appreciation of these objects. Wabi honors emptiness, natural simplicity, and imperfection; in Japanese Buddhism, understanding these principles is considered the first step to satori, or enlightenment.


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2 Raku Atsundo (XVI) forming a teabowl. Photo: Raku Kichizaemon XV. 1–2 Courtesy of the Raku Museum.

The raku ware in the exhibition is the work of a family whose patriarch, a 16th-century Kyoto potter named Tanaka Chōjirō, was given the name Raku by the warrior-statesman Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The word raku means enjoyment, comfort, or ease and is derived from Jurakudai, the name of Hideyoshi’s palace in Kyoto. Chōjirō came to be influenced by Sen no Rikyū who was then the tea master for Hideyoshi. Their relationship occurred at the time when the wabi aesthetic was radically reshaping the Way of Tea, the Japanese tea ceremony.

The most important feature of a Raku teabowl is the fact that it’s handbuilt. At a time when wheel-thrown vessels were standard, the Raku family followed wabi practice and rejected the use of the wheel throwing or coil building. The only hand-shaped tea-ceremony ceramics of the 16th century were those of the Raku family.

The Raku family’s ware is molded using the palms of the hand; clay is pressed out into a thick, flat circle and built up by compressing between the palms. While creating the bowls, the position of the potter’s hands around the bowl duplicates that of the tea drinker. When dry enough, the clay is trimmed with an iron or bamboo scraper. The shape is trimmed inside and out, the foot carved, and the lip refined so that it is constricted. Their personal trimming and glazing techniques can identify each of the fifteen Raku masters. Each master also marked their objects with a personal seal.

Japanese raku bears no relationship to the raku technique as used in the West. The firings are low temperature (approximately 900–1200°F (482–649°C)), no cones or pyrometers are used, and the kiln is charcoal-fueled. The black bowls are fired individually in a narrow kiln within a saggar, buried under burning charcoal; the red bowls, four or so at a time, are fired in a larger kiln fueled externally.

All the firings are brief, the vessel is removed before it vitrifies too much and is then quickly cooled in the open air. The black glazes are made from pulverized river stones, the red glazes use low-temperature-fired frit mixed with feldspar and silica. The firing produces bowls with characteristics crucial to the tea ceremony; a “soft-fired” unique bowl that holds warmth.


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3 Donyu (Raku III), Aoyama teabowl, 4½ in. (12 cm) in height, black raku ware, glaze, 17th century. Raku Museum Registered Important Art Object. Photo: Takashi Hatakeyama. 4 Chojiro (Raku I), Shirasagi teabowl, 3¾ in. (10 cm) in height, red raku ware, glaze, 16th century. Courtesy of the Urasenke Foundation. Photo: Masayuki Miyahara. 5 Kichizaemon (Raku XV), Seiran yakinuki-type tea caddy, 4¼ in. (11 cm) in height, raku ware, glaze, 2009. Photo: Takashi Hatakeyama.

The bowls are stunning in their total lack of ornamentation. They reject any category that could be described by the words beautiful or well made. A viewer unaware of the aesthetics or techniques that gave rise to the objects may find the teabowls awkward, almost primitive both in form and surface. In terms of the wabi aesthetic, the bowls embody simplicity and directness. They don’t duplicate anything found in nature but seek to capture the essence of nature.

Chōjirō’s 16th-century teabowl named Shirasagi (White Egret), an example of red raku ware, is the essence of wabi, unassuming, lacking sophistication and symmetry, almost abject in its crudeness. In terms of the tea ceremony as well as his interpretation of wabi, all of Chōjirō’s cups were avant garde for their time. The characteristics his work embodies have been utilized by the subsequent fourteen generations—all their teabowls retain marks of fingertips and trimming, all have inward facing lips, relaxed bellies, and small, rounded-off feet.


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6 Kichizaemon (Raku XV), Shun’un no Ukande I yakinuki-type teabowl, 6¼ in. (16 cm) in diameter, black raku ware, glaze, 2003. Photo: Takashi Hatakeyama. 7 Kichizaemon (Raku XV), Fugen flower vase, 13¾ in. (35 cm) in height, raku ware, 2009. 5–7 Courtesy of the Raku Museum.

The fifteenth Raku master, Raku Kichizaemon, has been a powerful re-interpreter of his family’s tradition. He is the author of the exhibition’s catalog: Raku, A Legacy of Japanese Tea Ceramics, published by the Raku Museum in Kyoto, Japan. Kichizaemon’s work is dark, subtly monochromatic, and deeply philosophical. His particular contribution to his family’s legacy can be seen in his powerful use of trimming. His work is extremely planar, each facet of his bowls and vases precisely angled and accentuated by the warm, earthy, black glaze he has developed. Kichizaemon’s work effortlessly embodies the wabi philosophy in terms of how he deals with the concept of beauty; as scarcity, expressive suggestion, accident, chance, ruin, and what he refers to as “tilted” or “torn” beauty. He describes what he does as taking “rejection of design to its absolute limit, fixing its gaze on the far yonder.” He asks the question, never more important than it is now, ”is art really equivalent to beauty?”

the author Kathleen Whitney is a sculptor and writer living in Los Angeles, California.

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