Putting No Price on the Beautiful
Story by Robert Yellin
Article Appeared Originally in:
The Japan Times Sept. 9, 2000
If all the pottery that I live with and use suddenly disappeared from my home, I would find myself quite blue. Those pieces, in their silent voices, spark my imagination and encourage me to live each day with grace and style; they are good friends. Someday I know I will have to part with them; that is inevitable, so I think of myself as just their caretaker until it is time for them to float along the river of time into another's hands.
That was also the way that Shirasu Masako (1910-1998) must have thought. She was one of the great collectors and writers on Japanese art in the 20th century. A retrospective exhibition of her life is on now at the magnificent Miho Museum in Shigaraki, Shiga Prefecture.
For Shirasu, living with good art was "as necessary as breathing," and she offered prayers and thanks to her favorite works, in particular a creamy white Korean jar that she said had given her "50 years of dreams."
Objects have the power to shape individuals in a very subtle way -- or, then again, at times in a blatantly superficial way when all one is concerned about is brand names and appearances. Shirasu never fell into such a trap. She collected works that spoke to her heart, and she lived with some truly wonderful pottery, as well as Buddhist images, lacquer, prints, paintings, scrolls and textiles.
Growing up in a very privileged family, it would have been easy for Shirasu to fall in with a posh crowd who spent money freely without regard to taste. Instead she found mentors on antiques, especially pottery, particularly Hideo Kobayashi (1902-1983) and Jiro Aoyama (1901-1979). These two gentlemen shaped her attitude toward seeing and purchasing antiques.
It wasn't always an easy relationship. One day Kobayashi chastized Shirasu for not knowing the value of some antiques he was showing her, shouting, "Fool, are you the sort who buys antiques without knowing their value?!"
With this verbal kick she set out to learn the value of things. If one only looks upon antiques from a standpoint of cost it is difficult to create a fine collection, though certainly no collector can casually brush money aside. I agree with Shirasu when she writes, "No price can be placed on the beautiful."
Yet ugly mistakes must be made and she also took in this earful: "Those who cannot buy a forgery are those that really don't understand antiques." Kobayashi also taught Shirasu about the power of silence in order to listen and learn about the deep beauty of objects.
Aoyama was considered the most astute connoisseur of the day and a gifted writer and book designer as well. He also loved to give names to pottery (Japanese tradition is to give poetic or whimsical names to individual pieces such as tea bowls or tea caddies) and in the exhibition is a wonderful Korean Yi Dynasty kohiki tokkuri ("white powder" sake flask) that he comically dubbed "Tanuki no Kintama (Badger's Balls)" in lewd reference to the tanuki that stands in front of many drinking establishments -- tanuki are believed to love sake.
Aoyama was against the fashion for Chinese ceramics at that time and criticized Shirasu for once wanting a sansai (three-colored ware) piece. "Ancient Chinese ceramics can be understood just by looking at them," was his analysis; he thought that the beauty of a piece is only understood slowly through use. He had a strong leaning toward understated Korean wares and Karatsu pottery. He taught her not to get caught up in discussions of beauty; that would only cloud the eye.
"Beauty is something possessed by spirits," Aoyama remarked to Shirasu. "Beauty per se is nothing more than a dream wafting through the air. There are, however, beautiful things. Those who spout slander from aesthetic stands on beauty are all crazy. They cannot see a thing."
I often mention in talks to people or in this column that developing an eye is essential. It's easy to fill one's head with facts on this or that, but true understanding needs no words. It's all in the ability to communicate with an object.
The current exhibition has some truly wonderful pots that show the perceptive eye of Shirasu. Many are common folk wares that were used by the populace of the Edo Period. Mugiwara-de (wheatstraw-striped) rice bowls and spouted bowls were a favorite of hers; the simple lines were, in her words, "relatively hard to draw."
She also loved the shape of late Heian Period tsubo (jars) and one of her favorites, a rounded Tokoname jar with rivulets of natural ash glaze which was used to bury used sutras, is on display. A quaint Shigaraki tabi makura (traveler's pillow) vase from the Muromachi Period made Shirasu feel that it had all of Japanese culture hidden within its walls. In that dark silence of the inner sanctum of a jar or vase is a space that does indeed contain much mystery.
There are some intriguing pieces that have been assembled from shards of different works soldered together with gold in a technique called yobitsugi (grafting). Certain tea masters even broke bowls on purpose and using yobitsugi built a whole new bowl full of their own personality. Shirasu was deeply interested in this aesthetic, and wrote a critical work, "Yobitsugi no Bunka."
Recently there has been quite a Shirasu Masako boom, with articles in various magazines and her books being read by all generations. Indeed, it is important for each period in history to have a "seeing eye" that directs people to discover what beauty is and how it can be found in the most obvious places. Shirasu was that eye for a time, and this exhibition offers a chance to test your eye against hers; it's one way to learn how to truly see.
I've touched only on the pottery side of this exhibition, but there are magnificent items in other genres. The noh masks are particularly noteworthy: Shirasu is said to have been the first woman ever to dance on a noh stage.
"The World of Masako Shirasu," until Dec. 15, 2000, at Miho Museum in Shigaraki, Shiga Prefecture. Admission 1,000 yen, 800 yen for students. Closed Mondays and Oct. 10. For more information see the Miho Museum Web site at: www.miho. or.jp or phone (0748) 82-3411.
For those of you who can't get to the exhibition but would like to see the contents, a book-magazine has been published by Heibonsha detailing the exhibition and introducing Shirasu's life and work. "Shirasu Masako no Sekai (The World of Shirasu Masako)" is available in bookstores. It includes excerpts from her writings translated into English, along with English photo captions.
by Robert Yellin
for The Japan Times
Sept. 9, 2000, (C) All rights reserved