I love it when my seemingly random interests converge. I was indulging myself this morning with a quick read of Perfume Posse -- I think I've mentioned my fascination with the strange world of fragrance journalism -- and right there in the current post, tucked between paragraphs on new spring nail polish and eyelash-lengthening drugs, is a little gem about an exhibition on Japanese mended ceramics, at the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute. Author March has been writing periodically about wabi-sabi, the perfectly imperfect, and what could be more wabi-sabi than a beloved teacup, cracked after years of use?
The Japanese elevate everything to art and meditation, and repairing broken ceramics for the reverent tea ceremony is no exception. The ancient vessels in this exhibition are artfully remade with plant resin and powdered gold, in a craft called kintsugi, or golden joinery. From the Smithsonian research newsletter:
One shallow stoneware tea bowl in the exhibit dates from early-16th century Japan. For centuries, its owners spooned powdered green tea into this bowl, added hot water and swirled the contents with a bamboo whisk before passing the steaming beverage to an honored guest. Someone also dropped the bowl—more than once. Tracks of precious gold snake up its side, highlighting fissures in the ceramic where broken pieces of the bowl have been rejoined.
“It’s been repaired a number of times,” Freer Curator of Ceramics Louise Cort observes of the antique. Artisans who mended the bowl used lacquer—derived from the sap of a plant related to poison ivy—to glue the pieces back in place.
Finely powdered gold was then sprinkled onto the sticky lacquer seams, a purely Japanese technique known as kintsugi, or golden joinery, illuminating the repairs.
Tea-ceremony aesthetics often focused on the beauty in imperfection, Cort explains. “Even in tea bowls that were not repaired, people came to look for the slight idiosyncrasies, even flaws, in the glaze that made one bowl more interesting than another. The context of tea drinking created a moment of awareness of transiency, of the way in which all objects, like all human beings, exist in a fleeting way and are decaying.”
photo: Freer Gallery of Art
And this is from a review of the exhibition in the Washington Post:
Kintsugi adds a whole new level of aesthetic complexity to the vessels that it mends. A beautiful 14th-century vase from Longquan, China, glazed in translucent celadon with fronds and leaves in delicate relief -- just the kind of porcelain that shogun Yoshimasa is supposed to have sent out for repair -- started life as an example of pristine symmetry. Once it was broken and mended, however, that order was disrupted by bold zigs and zags of gold, along with a golden crescent where a piece of the original rim was replaced. Because the repairs are done with such immaculate craft, and in precious metal, it's hard to read them as a record of violence and damage. Instead, they take on the look of a deliberate incursion of radically free abstraction into an object that was made according to an utterly different system. It's like a tiny moment of free jazz played during a fugue by Bach.
The art of Japanese mended fabric, or boro, is probably familiar to most stitchers interested in global textile traditions, but this ceramic-repair art is new to me.
For most of us, any "pristine symmetry" in our lives is shattered these days. Artful repair is the name of the game. What a beautiful example the Japanese masters give us, once again. There is a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in.
The birds they sang at break of day
"Start again" I heard them say
Don't dwell on what has passed away
Or what is yet to be
You can add up the parts
But you won't have the sum
Strike up the march; there is no drum
Every heart to love will come
But like a refugee
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen, Anthem