February 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have been re-reading Soetsu Yanagi’s ‘The Unknown Craftsman’ and I thoroughly recommend it whether you make things or not. It is a book about beauty and a book about a way of life. Yanagi founded the Japanese Folkcraft Museum and believed that the path to beauty lay in the folkcrafts, ‘unselfconsciously handmade and unsigned for the people by the people, cheaply and in quantity’. There is a fascinating essay at the back of the book where he ‘interviews’ himself on the subjects of folkcrafts vs artist craftsmen and folkcrafts vs industrial capitalism – e.g. “Q. Which contain greater beauty, folkcrafts or artist crafts? A. …The works of artist craftsmen are not primarily intended to be just good pots so much as to display the fine sensibility or strength of personality of the maker – the flavour of himself rather than the flavour of mankind, which crafts exude”.

According to Yanagi, this Tea-bowl is considered to be the finest in the world. It is called the Kizaemon Tea-bowl and there is a short chapter in his book devoted to why it is believed to be the most beautiful. This bowl had been prized for centuries passing between hands at great cost and was said to contain the ‘essence of tea’. Yet when Yanagi first saw it his ‘heart sank’; it was so ordinary, a common food bowl that a poor man would use everyday. And it is in this commonness, Yanagi goes on to explain, in this humility, innocence and modesty that its beauty it revealed.

“It is not made with thought to display effects of detail…It is not inspired by theories of beauty…There is nothing in it to justify inscribing it with the maker’s name. No optimistic ideals gave it birth…It is not the product of nervous excitement…It was created with a very simple purpose, so it shuns the world of brilliance and colour. Why should such a perfectly ordinary bowl be so beautiful? The beauty is an inevitable outcome of its ordinariness.”

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