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A humble jar widely revered as an icon of Japanese tea culture has been acquired by the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art. The jar was purchased at an auction held by Christie’s in New York City Sept. 17. The jar, made in China during the late Southern Song or Yuan dynasty (13th or 14th century) and shipped to Japan as a container for a commercial product, developed a distinguished pedigree in the hands of influential tea connoisseurs, collectors and rulers who used it for storing precious tea and displayed it in their tearooms between the 15th and 20th centuries.
“This handsome jar has been admired and sought after by Japanese tea masters for half a millennium,” said James Ulak, deputy director of the Freer and Arthur M. Sackler galleries. “As the documentation shows, its surface has been admired and caressed by a who’s who of Japan’s cultural giants from the 15th century forward. It is extremely rare to find such a storied work on the market.”
Standing 41.8 centimeters tall with a mottled amber glaze, four lugs, a cylindrical neck and a rolled lip, the jar carries the name “Chigusa,” which translates to—depending on which Japanese characters are used—”abundance of varieties” or “abundance of plants.” The poetic name is an indication of the jar’s high status in 16th-century Japanese tea culture, in which valued Chinese objects were often imbued with elaborate significance through practices such as naming and adorning them with special accoutrements. The name has been useful to scholars in tracking the jar through the diaries and records of tea connoisseurs and collectors who observed it in use at various tea functions. One eyewitness, who saw the jar named Chigusa at a gathering in 1586, admired its large size and the reddish color of the clay and noted that it was a “meibutsu,” meaning “celebrated tea object.”
A great deal of the jar’s value derives from the remarkable accruement of documentation and artifacts that accompany it, including inscriptions, letters, ceremonial accessories and storage boxes that narrate a fascinating history of ownership and association with power over the centuries. Only a few hundred such jars with comparable documentation survive in Japan, and very few exist elsewhere.
“Stripped of its documentation, it would be a very modest jar, but the total package makes it an amazing aesthetic statement,” said Louise Cort, curator of ceramics. “This jar profoundly enhances the Freer’s collection of objects related to ‘chanoyu’ (the tea ceremony). It constitutes a pivotal point around which many threads of narrative might be constructed, enabling scholars to explore how an object’s meaning can change as it crosses cultural boundaries.”
The jar bears four ciphers written in lacquer on its base. The oldest is attributed to Noami (1397-1471), a painter and professional connoisseur for the Ashikaga shogun. This suggests the possibility, otherwise unrecorded, that the jar circulated among owners close to the Ashikaga government. The next oldest cipher is that of Torii Insetsu (1448-1517) an important tea connoisseur and collector in the international trading city of Sakai, known for innovative tea activity. The next owner to inscribe his cipher was another Sakai tea enthusiast, Ju Soho, who hosted a tea in the new year of 1573 for guests, including the esteemed tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-91). Another guest in attendance, Imai Sokyu (1520-93), described seeing the “large jar…Chigusa” for the first time and noted that it had been Insetsu’s jar. Several years later Sokyu recorded that he had seen the jar again, displayed by a new owner, merchant and city official Kondaya Tokurin, who by then had added his cipher. The base of the jar contains one additional mark, the character “sho,” meaning auspicious. The association of this mark has not yet been determined.
Other records place the jar at the center of Japanese political power at various points in its history. In addition to its earlier affiliation with the Ashikaga shogunate (1336-1573), the jar was employed in a series of gift exchanges aimed at establishing and maintaining alliances between the Tokugawa shoguns (1603-1867) and their political rivals. In 1706, the daimyo of the Kurume domain presented the jar to the fifth shogun, Tsunayoshi (1646-1709), together with a named sword, both from the possessions of his deceased father, as a pledge of his family’s continued loyalty. Thereafter it belonged to the Tokugawa government until its dissolution in 1868, when the jar entered the new art market in Japan.
From the mid-1800s through the early 20th century, it exemplified the modern tea-related collecting of prominent industrial families. The jar remained in private hands in Japan throughout the 20th century and was exhibited in major Japanese exhibitions related to tea culture in 1990 and 1995, leaving its adopted homeland only to come to the recent auction in New York.
Noted Japanese art historian Andrew Watsky of Princeton University congratulated the galleries on the acquisition. “With its trove of accompanying documents, boxes, silks and provenance, and its aesthetic qualities, Chigusa is an ensemble of Japanese art practices unlike any other in an American collection. It has traced a long journey, beginning in China and then to Japan, where many admired it for centuries. It is a great stroke of good fortune that Chigusa’s new home is the Freer: there it will join a long-standing collection of tea objects; visitors from around the world will see it in the galleries, and scholars will be able to study it under ideal conditions. I applaud the Freer for this important acquisition, and I look forward to many visits there to see Chigusa.”
The jar will be added to the collection of pre-modern Japanese ceramics in the Freer Gallery, which, together with the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, constitute the Smithsonian’s Asian art collections. Plans for public display will be announced in 2010.
The Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, except Dec. 25, and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other events, the public is welcome to visit asia.si.edu. For general Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 633-5285.