This humble looking tea bowl, which will be on view this summer in the Lords of the Samurai exhibition, is attributed to Raku Chojiro (died 1589) the first generation of Japan’s most famous family of ceramic artists represented today by Raku Kichizaemon (born 1949) the 15th generation in the lineage. “Raku” carries multiple meanings. It is the name of one of Japan’s most prestigious artistic families, founded by the artist who made this teabowl; and it describes teabowls fired in small kilns by generations of the Raku family. Potters around the world today use “raku” to describe a type of low-temperature firing that was inspired by Japanese Raku but which has morphed into something completely different, untethered to Japanese tradition.
Little is known about Chojiro. Popular stories about his biography say his family originated from Korean tilemakers but the official Raku family website says that:
Chojiro is thought to have been a son of Ameya of Chinese origin. He founded Raku ware under the guidance of Sen no Rikyu who established chanoyu, the tea ceremony, exclusively making red and black tea bowls …. The form achieved in his tea bowls is a manifestation of spirituality, reflecting most directly the ideals of wabi advocated by Sen no Rikyu as much as the philosophy of Zen, Buddhism and Taoism. Chojiro, through his negation of movement, decoration and variation of form, went beyond the boundaries of individualistic expression and elevated the tea bowl into a spiritual abstraction and an intensified presence.
Morgan Pitelka in his book Handmade Culture: raku potters, patrons, and tea practitioners in Japan argues that the received history of this artist and his partnership with Sen Rikyu was a “product of political and economic struggles among competing tea schools more than a century later.” Irregardless of any questions about Raku’s origins in the 1500s, these hand-built teabowls continue to occupy an important place in the world of tea.
Raku bowls are best appreciated with multiple senses–notably touch and sight. Some black Raku bowls have been likened to a stone worn away by millenia of water erosion, and yet, they may be relatively light and soft to touch. We will have to imagine how this tea bowl feels on our lips as we sip tea from it, since only trained art installers will be permitted to touch this bowl. Even they will be wearing white gloves–Rikyu is laughing his head off from beyond the grave, and thinking to himself “just sit, drink tea.”
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