I confess. For a long time, I firmly believed that function was incompatible with or contrary to the pursuit of “pure art.” In other words, the real meaning in art was blocked by secondary objectives such as functionality and practicality. This led me to underestimate fields that I considered second-rate (I blush), such as architecture, ceramics, and textile work, as opposed to pure music, literature, and painting. I did. However, through experience and extensive knowledge of art history, I have long abandoned that notion. Today, as a recovering “purist,” I can say that deep meaning and profound beauty can often be found in what I previously dismissed as “folk art.” A new exhibition proves that. Japan, Form and Function: The Montgomery Collectioncurrently on display at the Crowe Asian Art Museum in Dallas.
For this fascinating exhibition, curated by the young Swiss scholar Luigi Zeni, the museum’s entire gallery space has been dedicated to various aspects of Japan’s glorious history of craftsmanship, from the Neolithic period to the folk art movement of the 20th century. It was devoted to exhibiting over 240 items from the period. . This includes stone tools, pottery, and porcelain, as well as woodwork, bronzeware, and painted textiles. The show features works from around Japan, with a focus on Rokukogama, or Rokko kilns, a term coined by artist Fujio Koyama to characterize the island’s most iconic ceramic centers. . These items represent part of Jeffrey’s Montgomery art collection (the largest collection of Japanese folk art outside of Japan), but more importantly, they represent part of Jeffrey’s Japanese handicraft collection, which began in the 1950s. It’s a testament to his long-standing love for his job.
The gallery on the first floor exhibits lacquered cabinets, sword stands, portable sake bottles with Okinawan flower patterns, and plates, bowls, and urns from the Kyushu region that date back to the 17th century.th up to 19th century. As you move through the gallery, you can observe unique decorative patterns such as pine branches, grass, and butterflies. Or there are abstract, comb-like designs achieved through glaze-drawing techniques.
You can’t view this exhibit without thinking about wabi-sabi, a Japanese aesthetic centered on embracing imperfection and transience in art. The idea is that imperfections in an object can become beautiful and even emphasize the beauty of the entire composition. The painting on many of these objects is both rustic and sophisticated. Irregularities and asymmetries are traces of the human hand, and the uncertain nature of ceramic firing appears on the object’s surface. To understand these characteristics, you need to look closely. Smoothness and perfection are not human things. Absolute symmetry is a Platonic concept that is never actually found in nature.
Mannequins have no skin, and mechanically reproduced tools have no heart. But here, despite the functionality and the limitations set by the collective workshops that produced these works, no objects are the same. Just as small flaws in a beautiful human face (hence the name beauty marks) emphasize harmony, so slight distortions, barely perceptible asymmetries or irregular stains on the glazing are important for these bottles. , bowls and plates even more sublime.
Beauty does not exist in the eye of the beholder
The first time I visited this exhibition, I was lucky enough to join a tour led by the exhibition’s curator, Luigi P. Zeni, who also included Jeffrey Montgomery. Zeni spoke eloquently about important concepts regarding the philosophy and history behind Japanese handicrafts and explained some of the exhibits. Most of them were co-created centuries ago by anonymous masters.
Upstairs, in a wonderfully decorated gallery, we found ourselves contemplating a giant storage jar (Stabo) fairly irregular shape from 12th AD century. I asked while Zeni explained some technical aspects of the firing process and glazing techniques known at the time. “As someone trained in Western art history, this work reminds me of medieval European paintings and sculptures.” Artists were still learning new techniques at this time, and could that explain the irregularity and awkward shape of this vase?” Montgomery stood behind him, holding his cane. He said this while leaning back. “Well, for Japanese people, there is no concept of “better” or “worse” in art, of good or bad technology, or of progress as we understand it.”
Although difficult to understand, the answer matched what I found in Soetsu Yanagi’s book. unknown craftsman, a classic text on the tenets of the folk art movement. Yanagi says that the duality between perfection and imperfection belongs to the concept of Greek aesthetics. It’s a platonic distinction that we take for granted in the Western tradition. In the Zen Buddhist approach, true and eternal beauty exists in a dimension above these dichotomies and categories that feel simply too intellectual for Eastern sensibilities. And we must abandon thinking in terms of “good” and “bad” art, perfection and imperfection, beauty and ugliness. For Zen Buddhists, the key to fulfillment in art (and life) is not technical superiority or creative genius, but detachment.
This may be unpleasant to the Western mind. So how do we choose objects to display? How do we collect and appreciate something without distinguishing between good and bad? What are the selection criteria? Isn’t the contradiction too great? Now, as you may know, contradiction is a characteristic of mystical Eastern thought. This is what is written in the Dao Te Ching:
If you want to be whole, make yourself parts. If you want to be straight, stay crooked. If you want to be full, empty yourself.If you want to be reborn, you have to die.
This exhibition challenges us to embrace contradictions. However, “good” and “bad” are not the only ideas that Japanese artistic tradition avoids. Concepts such as “substance” and “originality” are central to Western art history. We think of the lives of artists and artistic movements as heroic stories with beginnings, apotheosis, and periods of decadence. First there was ancient sculpture, then classical sculpture, and finally Greek sculpture from the Hellenistic period. We speak in terms of the Early Renaissance and the High Renaissance, and lament the excesses of the Baroque and Rococo.
This vision does not fit into Eastern ideas about art production. According to Soetsu Yanagi, the beauty of Japanese crafts is not a transcendental achievement. Rather, it is based on abandoning the desire for transcendence. The anonymous craftsman is not trying to touch the essence of things, but rather is embedded in the here and now. In the East, true creative freedom is not understood as freedom of expression or the affirmation of individuality. True freedom consists in completely freeing oneself from individuality.
Paradoxically, the reason that crafts in the Japanese tradition can claim such success is that they rely heavily on tradition and rules, freeing the artisan’s hands from transcendent influences. , because it frees them from the obstacles to heroic deeds. impulse. Artists created objects of beauty that are not the opposite of ugliness, but a manifestation of independence from desire.
Although denying individuality, the works, such as sake vessels, convey the hand and heart of an unknown craftsman.Ship crash) Tokkuri from the Momoyama period (sake bottle) with gold repair (Kintsugi) A work that gives you a sense of the innocence and adultness of the Muromachi period.
Minge means “people’s art,” but it is also the name of a revival movement and a fluid style of ceramic art. It’s also a way of thinking about art. It was born as a reaction to Japan’s opening to the West in the 19th century.th The wave of cheap manufactured goods that hit the country by the first half of the 20th centuryth century.
Yanagi and other artist collectors tried to define Minge, but not in an analytical way. Instead, they sought to capture the spirit of handmade items made for everyday rituals by anonymous masters. They opposed the conformity of mechanically reproduced objects and sought to recover the “aura” of selfless artisans and women from Japan’s old workshops and kilns.
There is another contradiction here. Folk art artists such as Yanagi, Rosanjin, Shimaoka, and Leach began to create wonderful ceramic works that were contemporary, concrete, and unique, while aiming for timeless, traditional beauty.
As I’m here at Crow, enjoying the gentle ecstasy this show provides, I can’t help but admire the contrast between Eastern and Western ways of life.on one side therefore (Being in the present moment) And on the other hand, metaphysics (beyond the moment). But in the end, regardless of our origins, it is not just the material meanings that make us unable to resist our love for beautiful things, but the meanings imbued in them by the human hands of our earthly ancestors. It’s from. On the second floor, you can admire the Buddha statues, flower sculptures, and animal sculptures such as cats. I was impressed and moved by the beautiful banners depicting the Battle of Imjin River. So are the robes and small statues of birds, rabbits, and bears placed at the end of the show. The duality of East and West is, after all, as superficial as the duality of intellect and instinct, or the duality of left and right.
Finally, I have a second confession. As I leave the exhibition, the question of beauty bothers me.When asked why these objects are beautiful, I have to answer: When St. Augustine was asked about the question of time, he said:I know what it is, but when asked I don’t know.For example, Is Giotto’s Arena Chapel beautiful?Or the Neolithic rock paintings of Chauvet Cave or Beethoven’s No. 5.thor even Michelangelo’s david —Is it really beautiful? Or did the aura of greatness of those works of art precede and unduly influence my love for them? Or are these questions not important at all? The charm of the ordinary plates, bottles, and kettles that give me goosebumps in this exhibition is less a visceral reaction to the objects than a folk art movement. I wonder if it has something to do with the solemn expressions and philosophical theories surrounding it. Of beauty?
I can’t answer these questions, but I tell myself that the visual pleasure is real for the time being, and more importantly, I should enjoy the opportunity to ask them first. In the heart of Dallas, he has a vivid opportunity to enjoy this kind of mystery, at least until the spring of 2024. Don’t miss it if you’re in the city.
Japan, Form and Function: The Montgomery Collection It is exhibited at Crow Asia Museum at the University of Texas at Dallas Until April 14, 2024