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Unconventional Ideas of Clay and Fire

Ceramics shop in Hagi

A ceramics shop in Hagi, Japan. All photographs by the author unless otherwise noted

While on a trip to Japan this summer (our third visit to the country), my wife and I spent a few days in the small western city of Hagi (萩市), known for its central role in the Meiji Restoration, its well-preserved traditional homes, and as the source of the renowned pottery called Hagi ware (萩焼, Hagi-yaki). We developed an appreciation for Japanese ceramics during our first trip to Japan, and, since then, we make an effort to visit well-known pottery centers each time we go.

Shigaraki stoneware

Left: Katsumata Chieko (Japanese, born 1950). 黄青色花瓶 (Yellow and blue vase), 1996. Japan, Heisei period (1989–present). Shigaraki stoneware, H. 8 5/8 in. (21.9 cm), W. 8 5/8 in. (21.9 cm), D. 8 5/8 in. (21.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Halsey and Alice North, 2015 (2015.442.7). Right: Katsumata Chieko (Japanese, born 1950). サンゴ (Coral sculpture), 1998. Japan, Heisei period (1989–present). Shigaraki stoneware, H. 8 5/8 in. (21.9 cm), W. 11 in. (27.9 cm), D. 9 in. (22.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Halsey and Alice North, in honor of Monika Bincsik, 2015 (2015.442.6)

As a result, one of my new favorite spots in The Met galleries is the north end of gallery 202, the balcony gallery overlooking the Great Hall devoted to ceramics from the Department of Asian Art. Earlier this year Halsey and Alice North, collectors and connoisseurs of ceramic art—contemporary Japanese ceramics, in particular—made a donation to Watson Library of research materials to accompany their gift of actual ceramics to the Asian Art department, some of which are on view in gallery 202.

Honoo Geijutsu

Issues 1–125 of 炎芸術 (Honoo Geijutsu, "Ceramic Art and Craftwork"). Tōkyō: Abe Shuppan, Shōwa 57– [1982–]. Watson Library copy: Gift of Halsey and Alice North. Photo by Holly Phillips

Their library gift includes hundreds of books and journal volumes on 19th- and 20th-century Japanese ceramics. Our Chinese, Japanese, and Korean ("CJK" in library-speak) librarians, Min Xu and Luxuan Liu, led a team to process and catalog this collection, completing their work in September. Min, Luxuan, and our Japanese volunteers added 557 volumes to the collections of Watson Library (405), the Asian Art Library (151), and Nolen Library (1).

Naturally, a strength of the North gift is its coverage of important scholarly works on Japanese ceramics. These books cover many aspects of the field, from potters' marks to tea-ceremony equipment to individual artists and, rather poetically, "unconventional ideas of clay and fire." A particularly valuable piece of the gift is a complete set of issues 1–125 (1983–2016) of the technical ceramics journal 炎芸術 (Honoo Geijutsu, "Ceramic Art and Craftwork").

ceramic plate piece

Left: Framed version of the ceramic plate piece Water Is . . . (detail), included in 八木一夫作品集 : 陶板付特裝本 (Yagi Kazuo sakuhinshū: tōban tsuki tokusōbon, "The Collected Works of Yagi Kazuo: Special Edition with Ceramic Plate"). Tōkyō: Kōdansha, 1980. Watson Library copy: Gift of Halsey and Alice North. Right: Detail of the medallion-sized version of Water Is . . ., attached to the cover of 八木一夫作品集 (Yagi Kazuo sakuhinshū, "The Collected Works of Yagi Kazuo"). Tōkyō: Kyūryūdō, 1969. Watson Library copy: Gift of Halsey and Alice North

One unconventional idea of publishing is 八木一夫作品集 : 陶板付特裝本 (Yagi Kazuo sakuhinshū: tōban tsuki tokusōbon, "The Collected Works of Yagi Kazuo: Special Edition with Ceramic Plate"), a commemorative limited-edition boxed set (our copy is number 168 of 300) including a catalogue of the 1980 exhibition and a restrike of Yagi Kazuo's ceramic sculpture Water Is . . . in a Plexiglass frame, suitable for hanging on the wall. Interestingly the limited edition of Yagi Kazuo sakuhinshū published in 1969 includes an even smaller version of Water Is . . ., as a ceramic medallion fastened to the cover and embossed with the work's signature triangle, square, and circle.

Ceramic Art and Craftwork

Issues 87 (2006, left) and 113 (2013, right) of 炎芸術 (Honoo Geijutsu, "Ceramic Art and Craftwork"). Tōkyō: Abe Shuppan, Shōwa 57– [1982–]. Watson Library copy: Gift of Halsey and Alice North

Circling back to our trip this summer, I was pleased to find that Honoo Geijutsu features Hagi and its pottery in several issues. Issue 87 (2006, above left) is devoted to the work of the Hagi-based Living National Treasure 十一代 三輪休雪 Miwa Kyūsetsu XI (1910–2012). Seven years later, issue 113 (2013, above right) focused on recent innovations at the Hagi-yaki and Miwa kilns, and mourned the passing of Kyūsetsu XI in the previous year.

pottery shop, Hagi, Japan

Tea cups in a pottery shop in Hagi, Japan

We are grateful that Halsey and Alice North elected to support their donation of Japanese ceramics with a gift of related research materials. In addition to supplying scholarly context to the objects they've given to The Met, these books and journals will open untold avenues of investigation and study to future scholars. I'm looking forward to using them more myself in order to find out more about the ceramics centers I'll visit on future trips to Japan!

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