Flower Basket with Handle and Special Color by Sakaguchi Sounsai

Sakaguchi Sounsai / 坂口宗雲斎
Flower Basket with Handle and Special Color
33 x 21.5 x 16 cm
13 x 8.5 x 6.3 in
Original box signed and sealed "Sounsai"
Original  lacquered water container

The few known baskets by Sakaguchi Sounsai are each, in their own way, remarkable for their creative exploration of the intrinsic beauty of bamboo. Apprenticed to Tanabe Chikuunsai I (1877-1937) at age 15, Sounsai became an independent artist at age 24, the same age as did his extraordinary mentor. It is said that even within Chikuunsai I’s remarkable circles, peopled by tea practitioners, poets, ceramicists, painters, musicians, and scholars of all kind, in short the creative cultural elite of Taisho Era Japan, Sounsai was considered as a natural artist. 


His talent and creativity, and by extension the status of bamboo art itself, was acknowledged before the entire nation in 1929, when one of his bamboo baskets was accepted into the Teiten, the premier national art exhibition of the time. A work by Yamamoto Chikuryusai I (soon known as Shoen) was also accepted; for the first time contemporary works of bamboo took their place alongside the other fine and decorative arts of the day. Sounsai was thus established as an artist and master within his medium. The Showa Emperor acquired one of his baskets on a visit to Osaka in 1932, and his works were accepted into the Teiten twice more, in 1932 and 1934. 


It is difficult, if possible at all, to separate the aesthetic and technical dimensions of bamboo basketry. Sounsai’s creativity must therefore also be considered an extension of his understanding of the material itself. His works are inevitably made of the highest quality material, worked exquisitely. This basket of smoked hobichiku is emblematic of the native Japanese style of basketry developed in the Osaka area. The ‘old masters’ Chikuunsai I, Chikubosai I, and Shoen, as well as Tanabe Chikuunsai II and perhaps one or two others, made impressive baskets in this style. See, for example, Chikuunsai I’s Flower Basket with Bamboo-root Handle, Plate 85, in Japanese Bamboo Baskets: Masterworks of Form and Texture (Cotsen Occasional Press 1999). Nevertheless, it is unlikely to find a freely-plaited basket of such wide and thick lengths of bamboo. The compact yet graceful undulations of these extremely robust lengths establish this basket as a benchmark in bamboo art.


The basket is composed through a randomly varying square plait (yotsume ami). The basket’s square base is formed by two groups of six lengths, each of which runs from rim to rim. The horizontal lengths rise slowly from base to rim, skipping over the verticals one or two at a time. Each horizontal circles the basket’s circumference about four times; their length is at least 3.5 meters, over 11 feet. This basic square pattern thus established is complexified by two additional verticals emerging from the rim at front and back, as well as by several lengths running at random angles across the body. The lengths composing the rim and handle must be slightly thinner than those below; even so their curving journeys into and out of the body are hard to fathom. The body of the basket is relatively open, even spacious, compared to its upper reaches, which become densely patterned underneath the rim.


So robust and rich in color, and yet graceful in line, the basket must be made from a well-seasoned hobichiku—long-smoked nemagaridake, a remarkably durable yet supple material. The dark color is certainly due to its long aging in the rafters of an old farm house, and yet, according to the inscription on the box, this natural color was supplemented with a natural dye, probably of plum tree bark, whose more delicate hues are visible in the lighter verticals on either side.


During the war Sounsai decamped to Kyoto, where he remained until his death. With a few notable exceptions, it is difficult to establish the dates of his works, but it seems likely that many were made before the war, as his Osaka-based cultural circle was not reestablished afterwards. Sounsai taught bamboo craft for several years at an occupational school, and mentored the next generation of bamboo artist, most notably Minoura Chikuho (b. 1934).


© 2020 by Eocene Arts