Exhibit puts potter Hamada's works in perspective
BY LOUIS TEMPLADO STAFF WRITER
Inside the Hamada Shoji Style exhibition at the Shiodome Museum in Tokyo's Shimbashi district. (Louis Templado)Hamada's pottery is known for its reassuring warmth (Louis Templado)A display of the everyday ware that Hamada himself liked to use. (Louis Templado)
The Great East Japan Earthquake left many shards in the pottery town of Mashiko, Tochigi Prefecture. To those who know their pottery, the shock was that many of those shattered works were originally crafted by the hands of Shoji Hamada.
Arguably Japan's most famous potter, Hamada (1894-1978) almost single-handedly turned the once mundane village of utilitarian wares where he settled into a hotspot for Japan's mingei folk-art movement of the 1920s and '30s.
"Hamada Shoji Style," currently at the Shiodome Museum in Tokyo's Shimbashi district, takes a look at the potter's rarefied lifestyle in the rural town. Given how the quake smashed several of the potter's best known pieces kept in Mashiko, as well as knocked over his kiln, the exhibition brings with it a certain sense of reassurance.
"We received several calls asking if the show was going to go on," says Mieko Iwai, curator of the exhibition that continues until Sept. 25. "Hamada to this day has lots of admirers, and they were relieved when the answer was 'yes.' "
Remarkably, none of the 141 pieces she had chosen for the exhibition was damaged.
With items ranging from designer chairs (from a 17th century Windsor to a Charles Eames' 1950s icon) to English cravats, a wool derby and a herringbone suit of portly proportions, Hamada Shoji Style is no simple display of Hamada's rustically styled pottery?although that is here in spades. It's also an examination of the phenomenon that was Hamada, how he came to pottery and the Mashiko community he transformed.
Hamada was one of the champions of the mingei movement started by Yanagi Soetsu that sought to celebrate the beauty of locally made, anonymous articles used by the general populace. Yet Hamada himself was a sophisticate whose road to fame began in Britain. His first pottery exhibition in 1923 was held in London and was completely sold out. After returning to Japan, he spent time in Kyoto and Okinawa before choosing Mashiko as the place to transplant the ideas behind Britain's Arts and Crafts Movement to Japanese soil.
Although the West saw in him the archetypical Japanese potter, Hamada was a man of eclectic tastes. His banquets at Mashiko were lavish with meat, which the big man liked to wash down with Wilkinson sparkling carbonated water imported from Britain.
"Hamada never had a period where he suffered for his art," explains Iwai. "But he did have a hard time when he returned from Britain and settled in Mashiko. To people there, he was an outsider, an interloper, and it took some time until they accepted him."
Most striking about the exhibition is how Hamada's mingei folk-inspired works harmonize so well with his accumulation of Western items?especially the well-worn Eames chair, which was cutting-edge for its time. It's as if each of his works has been imbued with a bit of the potter's own mutability.
"There may be people who don't appreciate his work, but there was almost no one who didn't like the man himself," Iwai says.
To detractors, he was a big-name artist--designated a Living National Treasure in 1955--and the furthest thing from the anonymous craftsmen whose style he emulated. Still, few could fault his gentle, magnanimous ways.
"He gathered together what he liked. But he also took care of those around him," Iwai says. "His works are exceptional because they really reveal his character. More than anything, they are very reassuring."