Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Japanese Tea Ceremony

Although the Japanese word for the tea ceremony, chanoyu, literally means “hot water for tea,” the practice involves much more than its name implies. Chanoyu is a ritualized, secular practice in which tea is consumed in a specialized space with codified procedures. The act of preparing and drinking matcha, the powdered green tea used in the ceremony, is a choreographed art requiring many years of study to master. The intimate setting of the tea room, which is usually only large enough to accommodate four or five people, is modeled on a hermit’s hut. In this space, often surrounded by a garden, the participants temporarily withdraw from the mundane world.

In the tea room, the emphasis is on the interaction between the host, guests, and tea utensils. The host will choose an assemblage of objects specific to that gathering and use those utensils to perform the tea preparations in front of the guests. Each tea gathering is a unique experience, so a particular assemblage of objects and people is never repeated. The guests are expected to abide by tea room etiquette with regard to the gestures used to drink the tea and the appreciation of the utensils. When presented with a bowl of tea, a guest will notice and reflect upon the warmth of the bowl and the color of the bright green matcha against the clay before he begins to drink (2002.447.28). The ceramics used in this context—tea bowls, water jars, flower vases, tea caddies, and so forth—are functional tools valued for their practicality as well as artworks admired for their aesthetic qualities. A key element in this practice is the host’s connoisseurship skills; the host acquires a collection of objects that conform to a shared aesthetic standard and selects which objects to use in a particular gathering.

The tea ceremony as it is known today emerged in the sixteenth century. It was an elite artistic pursuit that provided a forum for the rulers of Japan, the warrior elite, and wealthy merchants to forge and reinforce social ties. The first ceramic utensils appreciated in this context were ancient ceramics from China that had been handed down in Japan for generations (91.1.226). Imbued with the potency of age and the glamour of ancient Chinese civilization, which the Japanese had long revered as a source of culture, these objects were treasured in Japan. A shift occurred in the mid-sixteenth century, pioneered by influential tea masters such as Sen no Rikyū (1522–1591). These tea masters began to incorporate rustic ceramic vessels from Korea (1983.557.2) and Japan (25.215.47a,b), and found beauty in unrefined, natural, or imperfect forms. By the authority of their recognized connoisseurial abilities, the leading tea men of the time elevated these objects to the same level as the ancient Chinese treasures. This aesthetic, which celebrates austerity, spontaneity, and apparent artlessness, is known as wabi.

Many of the Japanese-made ceramics used in this ceremony are unglazed stonewares first intended as utilitarian vessels for farmers. Such wares were made at a variety of kilns, including Shigaraki (1975.268.428) and Bizen (25.215.47a,b). These sites produced vessels as early as the Heian period, long before the development of the tea ceremony or the wabi aesthetic. The different clay in each location resulted in specific colors and textures when the piece was fired. Shigaraki ware, for example, is characterized by a fiery orange color and a speckled, bumpy surface caused by the feldspar in the clay. Bizen ware, on the other hand, is known for its deep reddish to blackish brown color.

Since their purpose was not decorative, these vessels were not necessarily made with aesthetic considerations in mind. Large jars would usually be shaped using a method of coiling bands of clay, instead of the more precise potter’s wheel, often resulting in asymmetrical vessels. When fired in the kiln, ash would settle on the shoulders of jars, melt, and drip down the sides, resulting in natural ash glazes. Therefore, the ultimate appearance of these rustic pieces was unpredictable, shaped more by the forces of fire and the natural characteristics of the clay than by a careful hand. With these ceramics we can especially notice the role of tea practitioners in assigning value. Not every agricultural storage jar in Japan was deemed a work of art when the wabi aesthetic arrived. Rather, tea practitioners discovered certain objects and recognized specific qualities in the glaze, shape, and texture that they considered worthy of artistic merit. Each instance in which these “found objects” passed from one famous tea master to another contributed to their pedigree, further increasing their value.

Shortly after tea practitioners began to take an interest in the utilitarian vessels from sites like Shigaraki and Bizen, these kilns began changing their approach to ceramic production. They introduced new shapes into their repertoire that were specifically designed for use in the tea ceremony. Rather than placing objects in the kiln and letting the natural processes work unhindered, these potters began to predict the effects within the kiln in order to achieve the characteristics of glaze and shape that conformed to the aesthetic standard of the tea community. This was aided by the fact that the technology for making and firing ceramic vessels improved in the early seventeenth century, allowing potters more control over their work than ever before.

Furthermore, the establishment of the tea ceremony also led to the creation of new types of wares, such as Raku, Shino, and Oribe. Raku ware is particularly prized in the tea community. Most often in the form of tea bowls, these lightweight glazed earthenwares were molded by hand rather than thrown on a potter’s wheel (17.118.74). This difficult technique requires a high level of skill in order to produce bowls with thin walls of even thickness. Handmade bowls are also thought to better reflect the spirit of the maker than something thrown on a wheel. As opposed to agrarian vessels that were created by unknown potters, this type of ceramic puts more emphasis on the creator’s role in the process. Although many tea practitioners made their own Raku ware, the style has come to be most closely linked with the Raku family of potters, which traces its lineage to the time of the early tea master Sen no Rikyū, and still produces tea bowls today.

Shino and Oribe wares emerged slightly later than Raku, both produced at kilns in Mino province. Oribe ware was named for Furuta Oribe (1543/44–1615), a tea master and disciple of Rikyû, alluding to his well-known preference for warped or seemingly flawed wares. Glazed in eye-catching colors such as copper green, and molded into iconoclastic forms, Oribe ware is easily recognizable (1975.268.443). The flamboyant decoration indicates a shift in style at the time, and reminds us of the constant quest by tea practitioners to find new assemblages to intrigue and surprise their guests. Furuta did not directly oversee the production of these ceramics, but the style developed during the time he lived, in his native province of Mino, and was influenced by his taste in tea vessels. Shino ware, also favored by Furuta, is identifiable by the milky white glaze typically applied to the surface, and it is the first variety of Japanese pottery to which pictorial designs are applied. These designs were simple motifs from the natural world done with an unrestrained hand, coinciding with the wabi sensibility (1975.268.436).

Although tea wares were highly valued, it was not until the time of two great innovators, Nonomura Ninsei (active ca. 1646–94) and Ogata Kenzan (1663–1743), that potters began to sign their work. Ninsei was the first potter to do so. His work primarily consists in lavish tea jars and incense containers. His bold style of bright enamel designs was far removed from the humility of wabi, though his works were also highly regarded as tea utensils. In fact, his wares were popularized by the tea master Kanamori Sōwa (1584–1656) (29.100.668). His skill is evident in his less decorated pieces as well; a feeling of control and refinement is apparent in all his work (36.120.559a–f).

Ogata Kenzan also worked in Kyoto and inherited the techniques of Nonomura Ninsei, but his style differed greatly (29.100.614a,b). He seems to treat his ceramic works as paintings that simply happen to employ clay for the ground instead of silk or paper. Kenzan was the brother of the famous painter Ogata Kōrin (1658-1716), with whom he often collaborated. The brothers came from a wealthy background where the arts of painting, calligraphy, and poetry were part of their education. Unlike Ninsei, Kenzan did not train for many years as a potter, but rather approached ceramics as an amateur with an eye for design. The novel ceramic wares of Kenzan and Ninsei became the basis for a ceramic style associated with Kyoto.

Although the notion of wabi is useful in helping us to understand the high value placed on certain wares that may have gone unnoticed in other contexts, ceramics used in the tea ceremony came in a variety of styles. From sleek, dark Chinese tea bowls, to rough, unglazed Shigaraki jars, to the brilliantly enameled incense containers of Ninsei, a spirit of eclecticism can be found in the tea room. In fact, the contrast between these ceramics serves to highlight the unique beauty of each.