When looking at early- to mid-17th century porcelain from Europe and Asia, it is easy to think the level of technical craft in Japan was far behind the Europeans or other Asian countries. There is a primitive quality to the early- and mid-16th century pieces out of the Arita kilns that, on first glance, suggests a lack of knowledge. A closer look at the Japanese esthetic shows something far different going on. Far from a lack of technical knowledge, it is the Japanese esthetic that is so different.
The level of abstractness in Japanese blue and white antique porcelain is impressive. The older the piece, the more abstract they seem to get.
The oldest work from the porcelain producing area of Japan, called Hizen until around 1867, show the greatest level of abstractness in the picture quality. It is notable that ware from this early period—called Shoki Imari1—was produced for the domestic Japanese market. As export trade developed, the type and style of underglaze painting changed to suit the tastes of the European market.
The ware made for the Japanese market embraces and really personifies the slippery qualities of Wabi Sabi2. The notion of Wabi Sabi is critical to understand when looking at anything Japanese—the earliest Shoki Imari no exception. The best definition I have come across is “That which is enough.” Not too much, but enough to suggest the point. This notion permeates Japan, the Japanese, and certainly the art in Japan. Not too much. A suggestion. A suggestion that is insufficient isn’t going to cut it. I think that is the magic. Enough clues but bits left out so as to let the viewer finish the story.
It is important to explore the concept of Wabi Sabi a little more to understand the bias towards having a high level of non-representation.
Wabi Sabi can be broken into its two component parts. Wabi, in a greatly simplified definition, means a work’s inward, subjective qualities. A way of thinking; the spiritual aspect of something. Sabi—again greatly simplified—deals with an object’s outward aspects, a more quantifiable angle to understanding something, the secular if you will. This breaking down of the term should in no way suggest the concept Wabi Sabi is easily broken apart and analyzed. Wabi Sabi permeates Japanese cultural. It is an appreciation of things incomplete, imperfect, modest, humble and unconventional. An example that can be seen almost anywhere is in Japanese houses. The outside walls are often sided with wood. The wood is left completely untreated, no paint or varnish. As the years progress and nature does her thing, the wood ages in a way that is considered extremely beautiful in the Japanese esthetic.
The items pictured come largely from Shoki Imari from the early to mid 16th century. They were made for the domestic market. Looking at export-bound work from the same period shows that the technical know how was there. Highly sought after today by collectors, it is rare to see pieces of this quality come to market. When they do they are very expensive.
One can only imagine the worry of the Dutch East Indies company, having had their porcelain supply disrupted by civil wars in China, realizing they would have to deal with the makers of this type of ware to supply the tastes of the European market. The Japanese adapted and changed the designs to fit the order, there by setting the stage for the porcelain ware that would come out of the Arita, Kutani and other kilns in the following years.
1 Sho = beginning, ki = period, Imari is the port name where most of the porcelain was shipped.
2 Wabi Sabi is a very difficult concept to define. If asking a Japanese person, the answer is almost invariably, “That is a difficult one.” My small definition is in no way complete. It is just a simple starting point to illustrate my point.
David Pike is a Worthologist who specializes in items from Japan
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