Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The “Powdery” Matsudaira at the Hatakeyama

Many Tea ware experts and Tea connoisseurs consider the “Powdery” Matsudaira to be one of the most important chawan in the world.  A descendent or descendents of the old Matsudaira Japanese samurai clan own this bowl.  It is possible that it was passed down through that clan for generations.  The bowl is housed at the Hatakeyama Memorial Museum of Fine Art, a small, very serene and beautiful museum. The emphasis of the collection is on art relating to the tea ceremony and profound aesthetics of "tea taste".  Chinese, Korean and Japanese works are represented.  Designed entirely by the founder Issey Hatakeyama, the museum retains an atmosphere of traditional taste.  A simple tea ceremony room looks over a small garden where the beauty of the passing seasons can be appreciated.
To many Tea ware artist and connoisseurs, the “Powdery” Matsudaira, like the Kizaemon, embodies the ‘essence of tea’.  From the moment it was formed on a humble wheel, to the quick dipping into slip ‘tum bung’ that left an accidental bare mark revealing the clay body - in a “tealeaf-like” pattern, to the accidental drip across that mark made when the potter lifted the bowl to keep the excess slip on the bowl, this was destined to be a great bowl.  Tiny specks of natural stone peeked through the slip at the peak of the firing.  This slip, like that on many old tum bung buncheong pieces, was more than strictly a “slip”.  It was a slip glaze fusing slightly and sealing the body.  More than likely it was also ‘single fired’, without the benefit of bisque firing.  This chawan is beautiful, capturing many moments of the forming, ‘glazing’ and firing process.  The inner and outer powers have become one in this amazing chawan.
But, was this bowl as “accidental” as I suggest?  Many article have been written about this bowl in both Japanese and Korean.  Some of those articles discuss the tea ware master who, with careful dipping, placed a tealeaf pattern on the side of the bowl.  They wonder how such a man conceived of this plan and marvel at his foresight and skill.  Are they correct?  Was this bowl preconceived?
Each person may look at the same object but perceive it differently. I remember visiting a major North American museum some years ago.  I was in the Egyptian section and was admiring a small pre-dynastic (probably Badarian Period) stone or stick polished ceramic jar that was red on the bottom and black on the top.  The label explained that the two-color effect was a result of firing the pot twice.  I have read the same thing in art history books.  But from a potter’s perspective they are wrong.  The work was simply fired upside down in a ‘pit” type firing.  The black is a result of deep ashes caused by the burning of large amounts of small twigs and hay like material used in the firing.  The ashes covered the lowest portion of the piece causing reduction and carbon to penetrate the clay while the top (actually the bottom of the finished piece) became re-oxidized and remained red.  The author, who was probably an archeologist or museum curator, wrote that it took two firings from their own perspective.  They were not a potter and perceived it differently.  Were they wrong?  We can’t be certain, as we were not there, but it is not logical that a ceramic piece made around 4500 BCE by humble common people who just wanted to make a jar – not a work of art – would go to the trouble and long labor of firing it twice. 
In a like manner, it is not logical that a humble, poor potter making several hundred rice bowls a day would take the time from their routine and select a bowl then dip it so carefully as to create a “tealeaf-like” pattern on the side.  From my perspective the bowl is more beautiful because they did not do that.  This bowl, now the “Powdery” Matsudaira, was the result of approaching one’s work with mot shim no mind.  He worked with a mind devoid of contrivances or interruptions to the flow of the work. 
That is the problem with my tea ware work, with many tea ware artist’s work.  It is nearly impossible to approach it with mot sim.  We read too much – even write too much (as I am probably doing now) and it gets in our heads and mulls around and we try to come up with techniques and contrivances that will give our chawan the right look.  So I remain, unabashedly searching for a natural way of being with myself and with clay in the hope that Tea ware not just tea ware will happen on my watch.

It has been said that the highest form of flattery is imitation.  If this is true then the “Powdery” Matsudaira has probably received more flattery than any other chawan.  Large numbers of Korean and Japanese tea ware artists make their version of this chawan – each searching for the right look.  It happens so often that it is easy to find examples of it in many exhibit catalogues on tea ware.  Not only do they make copies of the “Powdery” Matsudaira but select their copy of it as the example of their work that they want to print in the catalogue.
Are they wrong to make this imitative work?  My first and quickest answer is, “Yes.  One should never imitate if one is an artist.”  But the old potters who created the tea bowls that were adopted by the Japanese and elevated to the status of chawan were not ‘artists’.  At best they were jangin masters, and their work was ‘folk art’ if art at all - but not an ‘artist’.  Many of them would say, as one told me, ”Creativity is illusive.”  There is not the pretense of being a Tea ware ‘artist’.  “I am just a potter.”  They tell me.  In the West we have developed an unwarranted aversion to those who ‘make things’ the non-artists.  We artists look down on them and point to the innovative creative work we produce in comparison.  But at the same time we admire Yanagi’s mingae movement in Japan and rush to learn origami.  Mingae is folk art and pottery is part of that movement.  It was also originally inspired by Korean folk art collected and admired by Soetsu Yanagi since he was a boy.  So, in my opinion we should not rush to judge.  If a potter’s version of the “Powdery” Matsudaira is a ‘sure seller’, why not make it?  After all, there is no illusion by these potters that they will go down in history as some wonderful super potter without whom the world of pottery would crumble.  They simply want to make work, and hope that someone likes it well enough to buy it.  Hamada Shoji once told us that the reason he became a potter, as opposed to a painter, was because even his bad work would sell.  What an astonishing comment.
I can’t leave this posting without showing some versions of the “Powdery” Matsudaira.  Don’t be so quick to judge.  Also don’t compare these with the beautiful aged and often used Matsudaira or with each other.  They are not the same object and must be viewed with ‘new eyes’. 

What would a master of the Way of Tea say?
They saw; before all else, they saw.  They were able to see.  Ancient Mysteries flew from this well-spring of seeing.
Everyone looks at things, but people do not perceive in the same manner.  Some are able to penetrate into the depth of things, but most see only the surface, and objects are usually categorized as right or wrong.  To misapprehend is no better than not to notice.  Though everyone says he sees things, how few can see things as they are.  Among these few are found the early masters of the Way of Tea.  They had deep seeing eyes.  They could comprehend intuitively.  And with this penetration, they saw truth.  Soetsu Yanagi The Unknown Craftsman translated by Bernard Leach.

I have revisited this bowl with what I think is startling information about it.  Please visit that post to explore this bowl further. Visit it.

Click here to go to the next post.


  1. Arthur, you should be congratulated for your presentation of both of your blogs to introduce and discuss the world of Korean tea and teaware. The way you have presented this bowl and the Kizaemon Ido allows for many kinds of responses which is in keeping with the Zen Mind which is so intimate to the Japanese and Korean Way. It brings to mind the great Ch'an Master Huang Po whose main advice to questioners of 'The Way' was to refrain from conceptual thinking and the never ending dualities and dilemmas that accompany it. What might Huang Po's reaction have been to a lover of tea and teaware who brought him this now priceless bowl? I could easily see him taking it and smashing it against the ground and using the reaction of the owner of the bowl to show him something about his attachments and his lack of understanding of the true nature of Zen.

    So, if we take up the advice of Huang Po while viewing these bowls, without our conceptual minds, what is it that would be viewed and who would be doing the viewing?

    In the same vein, if the potter approaches the clay without his conceptual mind, is there any concern about creating or being creative? I think we need to lose ourselves and end the search for identity. I want to see those pots from the hands of such a one!

  2. Jeff,
    I greatly appreciate your comments and am honored that someone of your knowledge and experience is reading and responding to my blogs.
    The conceptual mind and direct intuition are so intertwined that they often merge. The trick is to attempt to separate them – even for a moment. Is direct unencumbered intuitive ‘seeing’ possible? Difficult, yes impossible, no. The great Ch’an, Seon or Zen masters of the Way of Tea did it.
    With knowledge, and all the concepts one forms by having that knowledge, does not come either the ability to ‘see’ or the ability to ‘do’. And it is possible to both ‘see’ and ‘do’ without ‘knowing’. We have seen the pots from such potters. The more difficult task is to see the pots from one who can do that in a contemporary society – alas.
    One more quiet note, my attempt to conceal my identity on these blogs, by using my artist name Cho Hak, has again been tarnished. I attempt anonymity on my blogs as they are not about me but about the work. My identity is unimportant

  3. This is a beautiful blog with useful and pleasing information. As a new potter I have a hard time with sizing the tea bowls I am trying to make. I am using a shrink ruler when I throw, but sometime it is still hard to see the finished bowl in it's fired size.

    I have been making a white slip, and after reading your this post, I am going to dip some of my bowls in it. I am wondering if there is something I can add to my slip to make it glaze like after firing? I am using cone 10 clay body and slip and the firing is gas reduction.

    Thanks for your beautiful blog!!!


  4. Hi Angela,
    Thank you for your kind remarks and your comments. I decided to create a post for addressing them as they raise important issues.