WILLIAMSTOWN - Through July 2013, The Harrison Gallery will exhibit a collection of Japanese pottery representing three generations of artists and spanning nearly 80 years. The pieces reflect philosophical and stylistic elements of the Japanese Mingei movement that began in the early 1920s.
Mingei, which is an abbreviation for minshu-teki kogei, or "crafts of the people," is an aesthetic philosophy that emphasizes the beauty of everyday objects.
Invented by a small group of Japanese artists and intellectuals in the 1920s, it is a harkening back to the time before the industrial revolution, when teapots and other household objects in Japan were made by hand, often in large quantity and by anonymous craftspeople.
The sixty or so pieces included in the exhibit are on loan from the Pucker Gallery in Boston.
Over the years, the Pucker Gallery has developed a relationship with several well-known Mingei potters living in the village of Mashiko, about an hour north of Tokyo, where most of the pieces in the exhibit were created.
"The Pucker Gallery’s collection is extraordinary," said Jo Ellen Harrison, owner of the Harrison Gallery, who lived in Boston for 20 years and apprenticed with Bernard Pucker, the gallery’s owner, before coming to Williamstown.
"They have Korean potters, American potters, Welsh potters. This [show] tells the story of the Mingei.
Shoji Hamada, one of the founders of Mingei, whose work is included in the show, was a close friend of Bernard Leach, an influential British potter and art teacher, who grew up in Shanghai and spent much of his life in Japan.
In 1921, Leach invited Hamada to St. Ives in England to join him in creating pottery using techniques similar to those of the common potters whose work Leach and Hamada both admired. They built their own kiln and Hamada spent two years at St. Ives, striving for his ideal synthesis of beauty and function.
When Hamada finally returned to Japan, he moved to the village of Mashiko, where potters had lived for thousands of years, and where the local clay was ideal for ceramics.
Over the years, with Hamada leading the way, Mashiko developed into a community of more than 350 potters, mostly working in the Mingei style. With its many shops and kilns, Mashiko has become a popular destination for pottery collectors around the world.
What the Mingei artists take from the ideal of the ‘unknown craftsman,’ Pucker said, is "the admiration and respect for those things that were both functional and had a beauty Š if you look at the work itself, it also has an almost rustic quality to it - an earthy quality Š the beauty derived from the fact that they also had a function."
The show at Harrison includes one piece by Shoji Hamada; works by his son, Shinsaku Hamada, who is now 83 years old; and his grandson, Tomoo Hamada, who is 44. The work of one of Shoji Hamada’s students, Tatsuzo Shimaoka, will also be included, as well as the work of one of Shimaoka’s students, Ken Matsuzaki.
"There’ll be the three generations, but in terms of artistic tradition, not only familial tradition," Pucker said.
Pucker explained that families of potters in Japan normally focus on "creating works for the Japanese tea ceremony," and that some families’ involvement in pottery goes back thirteen generations.
The tea ceremony became popular in Japan in the 1500s and includes elements of many eastern religions. The process of brewing, serving and tasting the tea is intended to be a practice in mindfulness and mutual respect.
In Japan, said Harrison, "There’s that whole element of the sacred in everyday processes. The tea ceremony would be the best example Š where making tea is almost a spiritual practice." When Mingei potters create their work, she said, they "understand that it’s going to be something that’s in this revered process."
To honor and preserve their contribution to Japanese culture, the Japanese government designated Shoji Hamada and Shimaoka as Living National Treasures, the highest form of recognition for artists or groups of artists in Japan. During their lives, each artist received an annual stipend to continue working and teaching.
Similar themes and techniques can be traced through the work of all of the potters in the show, Harrison said.
The use of wood-fired kilns, for example, contributes to the rustic quality of the work, since wood-firing is a much less predicable method than gas-firing. Some artists also incorporate fluting, or shallow grooves on the surface of their work, by pressing rope or other everyday materials into the clay, and they create patterns by using wax, which repels the glaze and leaves bare spots on the final work.
Most of the pieces in the show are modest-looking, with subdued, earthy colors and slightly asymmetrical shapes - revealing the influence not only of folk art but of naturalism.
The work of some of the younger artists in the show is more experimental and complex. Tomoo Hamada, for example, incorporates elaborate three-dimensional features, including window-like cutouts, and combines multiple colors and glazes. "So he’s kind of pushing the envelope," Harrison said.
Pucker pointed out that being a Mingei potter does not depend on following a specific set of techniques. Many of the pieces in the show were made in conventional gas-fired kilns, he said, but still retain the Mingei character. "So it’s not determined by the technique, it’s more determined by the intention and the quality of the creator of the work."
One thing that becomes clear when comparing the styles of these different artists is that the boundaries of their tradition are not so easy to define.
Hamada and the other early Mingei artists sought a return to an earlier mode of craft working, characterized not by individual aspirations, but by the regions and communities in which the workers lived. Mingei has nevertheless developed in a culture that values the artist - above all else - as an individual.
Within that context, it seems Mingei came to be defined not by particular styles or methods, but by the lifestyles and intentions of the artists themselves.
"The basic underlying mantra of the mingei movement Š was you cannot create a beautiful pot unless you yourself are a beautiful person," Pucker said. "And although it sounds somewhat simplistic or naïve, the reality is that each of the men that we’ve worked with who are part of that tradition really have behaved in their inner personal life with a great sense of integrity and focus."
"So there’s a sense of abstracting from the anonymous creator of a work to themselves," he said, "and that abstraction has to do with how one lives their life, not whether or not they sell something or don’t sell something, but do they do the work they do with a sense of purpose and integrity. And I think that is what informs and combines the two - both the unknown craftsman work and these particular potters."
As a historical and artistic record, "Points of Connection" offers an uncommon look at the development of the Mingei style from within it’s core community, and presents evidence for how the movement has been transmitted from parent to child, teacher to student, and from east to west.