JAPANESE BAMBOO BASKETS

Flower Basket with Handle and Special Color by Sakaguchi Sounsai

Sakaguchi Sounsai / 坂口宗雲斎
1899-1967
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. Even within Chikuunsai I’s remarkable social circles, peopled by tea practitioners, poets, ceramicists, painters, musicians, and scholars of all kind--in short the creative cultural elite of Taisho Era Japan--it is said that 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 bamboo, and always 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 Chikuryusai I, as well as Tanabe Chikuunsai II and perhaps one or two others, all 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, and so relatively stiff, 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 total 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 gathers together densely as it meets the rim.

 

So robust and rich in color, and yet so graceful in line, the basket must be made from a well-seasoned hobichiku—long-smoked nemagaridake, a remarkably durable material that, in the right hands, retains a surprising suppleness even over centuries. 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 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 that most were made before the war, as his Osaka-based cultural circle was not reestablished afterwards. Several of Sounsai's finest works from these earlier years are included in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (see #48 in Masters of Bamboo: Artistic Lineages in the Lloyd Cotsen Japanese Basket Collection, M. Rinne, editor), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#24 in Japanese Bamboo Art from New York: The Abbey Collection, Gifts to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; NHK publications). Afterwards Sounsai seems to have produced few baskets. He was an avid teacher, however, and was employed at an occupational school in nearby Hyogo for several years, and mentored the next generation of bamboo artist, most notably Minoura Chikuho (b. 1934).

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