Kawai Kanjiro

b. 1890 Shimane Prefecture
d. 1967 Kyoto
Active in Kyoto

Kawai Kanjiro, one of the most beloved of all figures in Japanese ceramics, was a joyful, expansive spirit affectionately known by his familiar name into old age. A virtuoso with natural glazes and bold innovator of form, at 23 years of age he was considered to be among the best ceramicists of Japan, where ceramic arts have pride-of-place among all artistic media. He was nominated—along with Hamada Shoji (1894-1978), Tomimoto Kenkichi (1886-1963), Ishiguro Munemaru (1893-1968), and Arakawa Toyozo (1894-1985)—as a Living National Treasure in 1955, the first year the designation was created. Kawai declined this most coveted accolade despite the considerable wealth it was certain to bring, eschewing all formal affiliations throughout his career save that of artist in lifelong search of beauty.

Early Years
Born in 1890 into a family of Shinto shrine carpenters, Kawai Kanjiro was drawn to clay from his youth. As a boy he often visited the workshop of a local potter of everyday wares to observe its busy activity, perhaps charmed by the immediacy of production that so contrasts the formal principles of shrine construction. Recognizing Kawai’s sensitivity and careful intelligence, an uncle suggested that he study art at Tokyo Industrial High School (later University), and in 1910 he decided to leave remote Shimane Prefecture in order to do so. Hamada Shoji would enter the same program a year later. As the sole students of ceramics in their class, and moreover with artistic ambitions far beyond the required curriculum of chemistry, calculus and other laboratory sciences, the two quickly were friends and colleagues. Together they sought encounters and sources of inspiration throughout Tokyo, including in 1911 a curiously understated exhibition in Akasaka by the Englishman Bernard Leach (1887-1979), whom they would visit shortly thereafter at his home in Ueno.

After graduating from the Industrial High School, Kawai accepted an unpaid position at the Kyoto Ceramic Testing Institute. The position did not fulfill his creative aspirations but it did allow him opportunity for intensive empirical study of glazes and firing conditions. Hamada followed Kawai to Kyoto in 1916 and the two plunged into study—they are said to have conducted more than 10,000 experiments on glazes in their two years together—while also drawing deeply from Kyoto’s incomparable living cultural history. These were years of poverty, but full of work and overflowing with life energy. Later Hamada remembered their hardship and dedication fondly, stating that “visiting Buddhist temples in Kyoto was our daily nourishment” (Leach 1975:94). They sought counsel from the slightly elder Tomimoto Kenkichi who lived and worked in solitary elegance in nearby Nara. They visited the bookstores and galleries of Osaka and Kyoto, in which they would imbibe volumes of classical Chinese and Korean ceramics. Thus the two were largely self-directed rather than understudies to an established master, combining a rigorous new scientific training with a sincere, eclectic, and deeply personal absorption of the wider cultures surrounding ceramic art.

Kawai in particular was moved to reproduce the classical forms and glazes of the master works he viewed mostly in books (though they were usually illustrated in black and white; only occasionally were full-color works available for viewing by any means). He was remarkably successful in this practice—he was drawn to the rich shinsha (copper red) color of Sung and Yuan wares—and his works quickly attracted the attention of local collectors and curators. They also brought him a wealthy benefactor from whom in 1920 he received the former kiln of Shimizu Rokubei IV (1848-1920) in Gojozaka, long the central district for ceramic arts in Kyoto. In 1921, and for several years thereafter, Kawai’s works were exhibited at the Takashimaya department stores in Tokyo and Osaka where they received great critical acclaim, with a single notable exception. Kawai could have proceeded along this path to a prestigious career but that was not to be. In another few years he grew dissatisfied with reproducing even the most esteemed works of ceramic art and instead sought his own voice. By 1926 Kawai faced crisis and his kiln fell cold.

Birth of Mingei
Hamada Shoji, meanwhile, had gone in 1920 to England with Bernard Leach to establish a kiln in Cornwall. Interestingly, though Leach was a poetic draftsman, he was relatively new to potting and knew very little about the practices that lay behind it: where in the landscape to look for clay, what available materials might make good glazes, or how to build and fire a kiln. Thanks to his studies in Tokyo and Kyoto and his efforts with Kawai, Hamada did know of these things and thus was instrumental in selecting St. Ives as a suitable site. The young Hamada was a bit of a curiosity in early 1920s rural England. He understood English well enough and was fascinated by the lives and lifestyles of the many local people who received him there, but he tended not to speak much. He was content to make his personal observations and to work in support of the elder Leach, but he should rightly be considered along with Leach as a co-founder of the St. Ives pottery and the rich tradition of studio pottery descended from it.

Hamada returned to Japan in March 1924, just a few months after the devastating Tokyo earthquake and fire. He went directly to Kyoto, where he found his friend the philosopher-aesthete Yanagi Soetsu (1899-1961) decamped from Tokyo. Yanagi and Kawai each knew the work of the other but had avoided meeting in Kyoto—Yanagi’s published review of Kawai’s work criticized it as imitative and lacking individual vision and these words cut the sensitive Kawai too deeply. Hamada, energized from his time at St. Ives and travels through the Mediterranean en route to Japan, and who was staying with Kawai in Kyoto, one evening invited both to view his new collection of antique English slipware ceramics. This proved to be a critical moment in the lives of the three men and indeed in the course of 20th century Japanese arts.

Viewing the lively English pottery so expressive of rural English homes, hearths and public houses—the slipware technique was then unknown in Japan—Yanagi and Kawai set their differences and inhibitions aside and together with Hamada began a deep appreciation of, and enchantment with, the hidden beauty of everyday objects. The three also began to theorize the production of this lesser acknowledged art, celebrating the nearly subconscious processes that they believed were its fundamental source (Yanagi’s perspectives were informed by his earlier conversations with Bernard Leach about the English Arts and Crafts Movement). After just one evening Kawai, Hamada and Yanagi became fast friends as well as the essential proponents of mingei arts (or “folk craft”) in Japan. They traveled throughout Japan and East Asia collecting ceramics and other folk craft, and conducted rigorous field studies of kiln construction and techniques in Japan. The most immediate fruit of their ideas was the founding of the Mingei movement in 1924 and, in 1936, establishment of the excellent Museum of Folk Art in Tokyo. As director of the Mingei Museum and de facto intellectual leader of the movement, Yanagi became a significant public intellectual, publishing his views frequently in the Mingei journal and popular newspapers, as well as in the form of numerous monographs. His national influence certainly was reflected in the designation of several of his close associates, excellent artists and members of the Mingei Association, such as Munakata Shiko (1903-1975) and Serizawa Keisuke (1895-1984) as Living National Treasures.

  Free again
  Work which does not seek beauty,
  Beauty which follows work.
  -Kawai Kanjiro

For Kawai, the encounter over English slipware also had great personal significance. He entered a period of intense study and contemplation, of travel and writing, in which he developed a new sense of the significance of nature, landscape and community as both subject and source of inspiration. Invigorated by the ideas of beauty and quality expressed through simple materials, skilled hands, and purity of workmanship, Kawai returned to his studio after three years’ absence. He turned away from the synthetic glazes and finely processed clay he had so convincingly utilized in his earliest years, and instead embraced the ever-indeterminate range and depth of natural materials available in nearby landscapes. His work was immediately praised again at the highest levels—in June of 1929 he exhibited for the sixth time at Takashimaya and two of his works were accepted into the prestigious Teiten exhibition—but he no longer sought approval from any established institution, school, or tradition. Instead, Kawai embarked on a singular journey that would bring his ceramic art, writing, poetry, work habits, friendships, lifestyle and family life into a single balance.

(Part 2 forthcoming)

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