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Seasons: Tea

September 3, 2011–June 24, 2012
Freer Gallery of Art

A dozen examples from the Freer’s collection exemplify how tea utensils embody changes in weather. The host of a tea event in Japan selects a water jar, tea bowls, and other vessels both to intensify the season’s essential quality—the chill of winter, the heat of summer—and to offer a contrasting and comforting sense of warmth or coolness. Unglazed stoneware ceramics are associated with winter; ceramics bearing pale glazes or made from light-colored stoneware or white porcelain clay are welcome in summer. In a letter written around the year 1500, the monk and tea master Murata Juko (1422–1502) drew a comparison between the emotional response to the bleak landscape of late autumn or winter and to the dry, dark, stone-encrusted appearance of unglazed ceramics from the kilns of Shigaraki and Bizen. Attributing emotional qualities to the materials of utensils introduced a new depth of nonverbal communication in the tea room. This new mode of aesthetic perception, known as wabi, became codified in the Edo period (1615–1868). Potters responded to the ongoing appreciation for unglazed stoneware by manipulating their clays and glazes to evoke classic Bizen and Shigaraki wares, though in more refined forms. Similarly, they used pale-toned stoneware clay or coatings of white slip to approximate the appearance of Chinese cobalt-decorated porcelain, while maintaining a more rustic edge. The resulting utensils embody an engaging tension between contrasting ideals of wabi and refinement.

This exhibition is part of the series Seasons.

detail from Owl in moonlight on blooming cherry tree

Iga ware tea bowl. Learn more ».