The Kizaemon Tea Bowl, Korea, 16th Century
(used for Japanese Tea Ceremony). From:
Plate 1. The Unknown Craftsman by Soetsu Yanagi.
There is one image I have looked at maybe one hundred times. A simple utilitarian ceramic bowl made in Korea in the 16th century. How could it have so stunned me?
In the hierarchy of arts, ceramics is at the top of my list, hands down, particularly roughly-hewn pieces, made primarily for function and without pretense, or perhaps at the whim of a Zen priest flinging ink glaze upon clay in the practice of calligraphy.
The Kizaemon Ido tea bowl is said to have been created as a disposable rice bowl, to be stacked up and used, until finally discarded casually. It is now a Japanese National Treasure, a bowl that in its essence is the quintessential vessel of the tea ceremony. Louise Cort, Curator for Ceramics, Freer and Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian, was kind enough to solve a mystery for me: where is does this bowl reside today? Dr. Cort informed me that the bowl is housed in a Daitokuji subtemple in Kyoto.
I first saw this photo in a collection of essays by the late Soetsu Yanagi, founder of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum. In The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty, Yanagi wrote about his privileged moment when he was allowed to see this rarely-shown treasure:
“This single Tea-bowl is considered to be the finest in the world. When I saw it, my heart fell. … So simple, no more ordinary thing could be imagined. …The clay had been dug from the hill at the back of the house; the glaze was made with the ash from the hearth; the potter’s wheel had been irregular. The shape revealed no particular thought: it was one of many. The work had been fast; the turning was rough, done with dirty hands; the throwing slipshod; the glaze had run over the foot. … The kiln was a wretched affair; the firing careless. Sand had stuck to the pot. … Made for a purpose, made to do work. Sold to be used in everyday life. …”
When I last visited my 92-year-old artist father, I was struck by the beauty of his painting cup, a common ordinary plastic cup he has used since 1969. As I held it, the Kizaemon bowl came to mind. Paint drips from over the decades created a glazed patina, and I asked him about it.
“I have two treasures,” he said, “two cups your mother gave me as she lay dying in the hospital, cheap little plastic cups the hospital served custard in. This is the first one. Your mother thought I might find a use for them in painting. “Well, Dad, what happened to the other cup?” I asked. He sat back and smiled oh-so-slightly. The other I have saved as a backup.”
What an inherited beauty. After all these years, the little plastic cup on my father’s paint desk remains intact, effusive in its functional beauty, a lasting link of love.