Apollo Magazine (UK)

Collectors’ Focus The Art of Mingei Emma Crichton-Miller

This philosophi­cally driven folk-art movement has seen a decline in fortunes from its heights in the 1980s, but as collectors respond to the beauty of imperfecti­on a resurgence might be in view


On November , Phillips, in associatio­n with Maak, staged ‘The Art of Fire: Selections from the Dr John P. Driscoll Collection’. The auction saw many astonishin­g prices for British studio ceramics. Perhaps the most remarkable, however, was the price of , achieved for a charger with Tree of Life design of c. by Bernard Leach ( – ) – a world record for the artist. The dish dates from the early years of the Leach Pottery, establishe­d in St Ives, Cornwall – but it also anticipate­s the Japanese Mingei Movement, in which Leach (who had spent time in Tokyo) would come to play an important role. The sale was all the more remarkable given that, as London-based dealer Joanna Bird suggests, ‘Leach’s market has dropped apart from his fish vases’. Here, a new internatio­nal audience responded to this outstandin­g piece by bidding it way beyond the estimate of , – , .

The Mingei Movement, announced in by the Japanese philosophe­r and writer Soetsu Yanagi ( – ), was less an art movement than a declaratio­n of aesthetic and moral values. Inspired by ideas drawn from William Morris and his studies in Eastern and Western philosophy, Yanagi had developed an interest in Korean and Japanese folk art. By , he had articulate­d, in collaborat­ion with the potters Kenkichi Tomimoto ( – ), Shoji Hamada ( – ; Fig. ) and Kawai Kanjiro ( – ), a philosophy of folk craft that they named mingei, or ‘art of the common people’.

The professed aims of the Mingei Movement were to collect and document the folk arts of the past and to encourage the creation in the present of functional, handmade objects that were simple, beautiful, and reflected the

region of their making. These were to be left unsigned in a spirit of selfless humility, and, though produced in series, made with little regard for financial gain. They were to be differenti­ated both from mass-produced objects and from objects crafted for the courtly elite.

In addition to Bernard Leach, enthusiast­ic collaborat­ors in this idealistic endeavour were the textile artist Keisuke Serizawa ( – ), the woodwork and lacquer artist Tatsuaki Kuroda ( – ), and the woodblock print artist Shiko Munakata ( – ). Yanagi proselytis­ed through his writings and the magazine Kōgei, establishe­d in ; in , he establishe­d the Japan Folk Craft Museum (Nihon Mingeikan), to display his exceptiona­l collection of antique Japanese, Korean and Okinawan craft objects. Japan’s defeat in the Second World War brought sweeping cultural changes, but the effect upon the Mingei Movement was mitigated by the Japanese government’s instigatio­n of Living National Treasures in , which helped to protect the status of artist-craftsmen.

Today, the collectors’ market divides broadly into three. The first category is of objects dating to before the th century, identified for their particular aesthetic and spiritual qualities and collected during the critical period of the s and ’ s. Examples include a carved wooden sculpture of a standing Kannon by the prolific Edo-period Buddhist sculptor, Enku ( – ), up for sale at Christie’s New York on March in the Japanese and Korean Art sale (est. , –

, ), or the Korean blue-and-white porcelain jar with a tiger and mythical lion, dating to the th century (Joseon dynasty), which sold for , at Christie’s New York in April (est. , – , ; Fig. ). These gain value if they can be associated directly with Yanagi’s circle. The second category is the work of artists directly linked with Yanagi, while the third is the work of artists who have been inspired by the Mingei Movement; the latter includes the lacquer specialist Tohru Matsuzaki (born ), whose work is available through Ippodo Gallery (prices from , – , ), as well as figures such as Richard Batterham ( – ), who, after a stint at the Leach pottery, dedicated himself to producing thrown domestic stoneware pottery of the highest quality.

Takaaki Murakami, Head of the Japanese and Korean Art Department at Christie’s New York, says, ‘An array of Mingei categories can be found in Christie’s sales. Modern pots appear to have a higher exposure in the market. Bamboo works, sculptures and textiles are among the others that frequently turn up.’ He mentions Munakata, one of whose signed prints, Ubari no saku (Upali), from the series The ten great disciples of the Buddha ( ), sold for , (est. , – , ) from the Gail and John Liebes Collection in April . Among named th century artists, Murakami suggests, the most sought after are Hamada, Kawai and Serizawa; he cites the sale in June

of a stoneware bottle vase by Kawai, decorated with concentric cobalt and red bands, which achieved , against an estimate of , – , . For all these named artists, contradict­ory to the true principles of Mingei, an authentica­ted signature or storage box adds significan­tly to the value. Jon Adjetey, a specialist in the Japanese Department at Sotheby’s London, which reopened three years ago, comments that collectors are seeking the most characteri­stic works of these artists: ‘So, bottles with the sugar cane motif for Hamada, slipware for Bernard Leach.’ There are serious collectors, he asserts, in America, Germany, Switzerlan­d and Japan.

Philippe Boudin, of Galerie Mingei in Paris, has become a specialist in bamboo baskets (Fig. ). While he sells contempora­ry work that indisputab­ly falls into the category of ‘fine art’ – including that of Tanabe Chikuunsai IV – Boudin also points to older bamboo masters who at times were inspired by Mingei ideas, such as Iizuka Rokansai ( – ) who made use of traditiona­l techniques for creating humble fishing baskets. The difference in value, however, is enormous: an unsigned Mingei basket can be had for , . A fine Rokansai sells for , . Boudin points to enthusiasm among interior designers: ‘Iconic Mingei items have this wabi sabi aesthetic.’ They celebrate the beauty of imperfecti­on, as in nature.

Ben Williams, a ceramics specialist and consultant to the Driscoll sale, suggests that, notwithsta­nding the Leach charger, there is less interest in Mingei works at the top level at auction, where ‘the whole structure of the contempora­ry art market with its emphasis on individual names and unique works cuts across Mingei principles’. But Williams also confirms that there has been a revival of interest in this wabi sabi aesthetic. This can be seen in the sale at Parisian auction house Cornette de Saint Cyr in October titled ‘Design Wabi-sabi, Brutalisme et Primitivis­me’. That there is continued interest in Japan is reflected in the busy schedule of Mainichi and other auction houses, and the exhibition currently running at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, titled ‘ Years of Mingei: The Folk Craft Movement’. In keeping with the Phillips-Maak result, Suffolkbas­ed Art consultant James Rawlin suggests that there is new interest among collectors of modern British art, who respond especially to the work of Shimaoka Tatsuzo ( – ), a pupil of Hamada, and the pottery of William Plumptre, who trained in Japan. ‘The craftsmans­hip is wonderful,’ Rawlin says.

 ?? ?? 1.
Jar, 19th century, Korea, porcelain, ht 42.5cm. Christie’s New York, $965,000
1. Jar, 19th century, Korea, porcelain, ht 42.5cm. Christie’s New York, $965,000
 ?? ?? 3. Hanging basket, c. 1925–37, Tanabe Chikuunsai I (1877–1937), bamboo, ht 54cm. Galerie Mingei Japanese Arts (price on applicatio­n)
3. Hanging basket, c. 1925–37, Tanabe Chikuunsai I (1877–1937), bamboo, ht 54cm. Galerie Mingei Japanese Arts (price on applicatio­n)
 ?? ?? 2. Bottle vase, Shoji Hamada (1894–1978), stoneware, ht 19.8cm. J&J Rawlin, £1,950
2. Bottle vase, Shoji Hamada (1894–1978), stoneware, ht 19.8cm. J&J Rawlin, £1,950

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom