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The God of Glazes: A Centennial Retrospective of Ceramicist Miyagawa Kozan

Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, April 29 – July 31

Miyagawa Kozan, Brown-glazed vase with crab sculptural relief, 1881, ceramic, 14⅜ x 15⅝ x 7⅝ inches. TOKYO NATIONAL MUSEUM, TNM IMAGE ARCHIVES

Miyagawa Kozan, Brown-glazed vase with crab sculptural relief, 1881, ceramic, 14⅜ x 15⅝ x 7⅝ inches.

TOKYO NATIONAL MUSEUM, TNM IMAGE ARCHIVES

From the perspective of the Western art world’s current infatuation with ceramics, one might point to Japanese ceramicist Miyagawa Kozan (1842–1916) as a prophet. This centennial exhibition, comprising some 150 pieces, shows Kozan to have been both an accomplished, not to say obsessive, technician—an assistant once called him “the god of glazes”—and an artist of extraordinary imagination.

The span of Kozan’s working life corresponds almost exactly to that of Japan’s Meiji era (1868–1912), when the country was opened to the West after almost 250 years of self-imposed isolation. Born into a family of potters in Kyoto, Kozan moved at age 28 to the treaty port of Yokohama, a former fishing village that by 1870 was a burgeoning center for international trade. At the time, the Meiji government was paying special attention to the development of modern industry and encouraging the export of Japanese crafts, including ceramics, as a source of needed foreign currency. In his new workshop, Kozan began to produce ceramic wares suited to Western tastes, for export.

Kozan’s studio initially produced highly regarded versions of the brightly enameled and gilded Satsuma-style stoneware then popular in the West. The show includes numerous examples of Kozan’s work in this style, including delicate tea sets and gourd-shaped vases adorned with feathery pine trees and peonies. At some point in the mid-1870s, however, as the Western appetite for Satsuma ware faded, he embarked on the production of high-relief saikumono (handiwork objects), liberating his ceramics from the strictures of two-dimensional surface decoration. Pots and vases embellished with molded animals, plants, and rock formations depicted in astonishing detail, they were well suited to the West’s late-Victorian vogue for the ornate and the bizarre.

Although Kozan returned to modeled pieces throughout his life, the period during which he produced such works for export lasted only a few years. In 1882, faced with a declining export market, he turned his studio over to his heir, Hanzan, and began researching new techniques. By the late 1880s, once again ahead of international tastes, he was making the sleek porcelain vessels for which he is now best known—works that combined antique Chinese and Japanese styles with the latest European advances in glazing.

Curiously, as Clare Pollard points out in her seminal 2003 book, Master Potter of Meiji Japan: Makuzu Kozan (1842—1916) and His Workshop, much of Kozan’s late work appears to have been inspired by the japoniste Art Nouveau works of such Western potteries as Rookwood and Royal Copenhagen. A pot with a slightly raised pattern of hydrangeas, for example, might almost have been made by Rookwood. Brought together in the museum’s display cases, the measured march of minimalist forms in comforting hues brings to mind the canvases of Agnes Martin or the flower photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Miyagawa Kozan, Large incense burner with sculptural relief of ogres, a white dragon, and a hawk, ca. 1870–90, ceramic, height: 9⅝ inches. TETSUNDO TANABE COLLECTION, ON LOAN TO KANAGAWA PREFECTURAL MUSEUM OF CULTURAL HISTORY

Miyagawa Kozan, Large incense burner with sculptural relief of ogres, a white dragon, and a hawk, ca. 1870–90, ceramic, height: 9⅝ inches.

TETSUNDO TANABE COLLECTION, ON LOAN TO KANAGAWA PREFECTURAL MUSEUM OF CULTURAL HISTORY

At the present moment, however—at a time of increased interest in such European and American artists as Kozan’s near contemporary, Biloxi potter George E. Ohr, whose work was rediscovered in the 1970s; in 1960s ceramic artists like Ron Nagle and Ken Price; in outsider artist and ceramicist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein; and in contemporary artists working in clay like Kathy Butterly, Andrew Lord, and Arlene Shechet—it is Kozan’s more eccentric sculpted works that resonate.

In these pieces, vessels in effect become pedestals for miniature relief sculptures of birds and animals, plants and flowers. A large footed bowl from 1881, for example, features a pair of lively crabs entangled near its lip, their delicate modeling in contrast to the brutish facture of the bowl and the splash of greenish-black glaze over its otherwise unglazed surface.

Here, Kozan makes reference to the rough-hewn aesthetics of Japanese tea utensils—which his Yokohama factory also produced. Other works retain vestiges of Satsuma decorative style. Bands of gold enamel encircle the collar and foot of one vase, for instance, while across its belly twine decaying lotus plants rendered in high relief. In another, a hawk, sculpted almost in the round, flutters over an outcropping of rock, which itself melts into an ornamental frieze of stylized clouds and blossoms.

Kozan not only built up the surfaces of his pots, he also burrowed into them, forming little niches for a variety of creatures, both real and mythical. One pair of vases, adorned decorously top and bottom with Satsuma-style patterning, open out at their midsection to reveal rocky caves filled with bears. Here, culture is interrupted by nature, with little attempt to reconcile the two forces.

Kozan’s saikumono, though drawing on a long tradition in Japan of functional ceramics made to look like something else, also embody a particular Western fin de siècle sensibility. One of his masterpieces is a symmetrical lidded bowl held aloft by a pair of demons and crowned by a hawk gripping a white dragon in its talons. The bowl itself is conventional, its surface decoration a scalloped band of minute red, gold, and white curlicues. In contrast, the ogres splayed against its sides are half-formed, mud-colored monstrosities. The effect is not unlike the middle-class parlors populated with demons in the etchings of Belgian proto-surrealist James Ensor.

Works like this one seem unmoored geographically, and thus speak to our own era of complicated cultural loyalties. In their refusal to be concise, they speak to postmodern tastes, while their struggles between image, object, decoration, and derivation make them relevant to present-day sculptural dilemmas and concerns. Form forgets about function, while content and style battle it out.

From the viewpoint of high modernism, kitsch denies authentic experience in favor of melodramatic thrills. Today, with the blurring of high and low cultures permanently enshrined, Kozan’s works anticipate a plethora of high-end kitsch, from Lladró’s porcelain Ganeshas, available in India today, to Jeff Koons’s stainless-steel ballerinas and bunnies.

There is something of the Wunderkammer in these objects. The contents of the original 16th-century Wunderkammern were drawn primarily from the fields of natural history, geology, and archaeology, and these are the main subjects of Kozan’s tableaux as well. And, just as these cabinets of curiosities contained a mix of fiction and fact, fabricated and actual oddities, Kozan’s works also partake of fantasy, incorporating—at times in the same vessel—images of ogres and dragons, and lotuses, bears, and hawks. Like visionary Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, Kozan believed the only legitimate source was nature and one’s duty was to let it run wild.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 136 under the title “ ‘Miyagawa Kozan Retrospective.’ ”

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