Wind in the Pine Trees – Writings by Zen Buddhist Masters

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Since the 13th century writings by Zen Buddhist masters are called bokuseki 墨跡, “ink traces”. The two main aspects of the Zen Buddhist art of writing are expressed in the two Chinese characters: On the one hand, writing is a visible trace of language, that is able to remove meanings from any time-spatial distances. On the other hand, the ink, soaked in the writing ground, refers to the creative act of writing, whose process of movements can be “re-traced” in viewing the art work. According to Chinese art theory the second aspect is, moreover, also considered as a possibility to get an instant impression of the writer’s character and attitude. “Words are the sound of the mind and script is the picture of the mind”, says a quote by Han-time philosopher and poet Yang Xiong (53 b.c. – 18 a.c.), that reminded Chinese Author Guo Ruoxu in his 1080 published work on history and theory of art. Against this background, it was more or less self declared aim of Japanese Zen monks to visually express their serene mind that was liberated over years of meditation and to give this way proof of their “true self”. Due to one reason writing is sought to be one of the preferred instruments to do so: the ink-saturated brush detects seismographically the smallest change of the position of the hand, the pressure or movement and uncorrectably records even the slightest indecision on the writing ground. Thus, writing this way is less to be regarded as an artist’s free expression – and therefor also not to be mistaken as a type of “calligraphy” (the beautiful writing) – but more as a quasi-religious act.

The way of writing as a visual expression of the own inner self was particularly cultivated in the monasteries of the Rinzai school, what centered all modes of Chinese learning in Japan from the 13th to 16th century. Already the Chinese Zen master and founder of this Zen school Linji Yixuan (?–867) stressed the importance and efficiency of actively dynamic exercises as tools on the way to enlightenment. The Rinzai monasteries where thereby creating a context, which enabled the monks to make usage of poetries, painting and writing to legitimately express Buddhist insights. With the usage of writing also the transmission of textual knowledge was ensured as fragments and quotations from the rich canon of Zen Buddhist literature were reproduced as short aphorisms. These mostly own a deeper and often not obvious meaning on which the viewer is stimulated to reflect on. Beyond that, further meanings are often added through the pictorial qualities of the Chinese script and the painting qualities of writing with a brush. This way, most complex and multilayered artworks arise, which successfully detract from a clear categorization like a distinction between script and picture or between pictorial art and literature. As works of high formal and aesthetic standard as well as a medium of religious and epistemic contents, ink traces by Zen Buddhist masters enjoy high recognition since the 13th century not only within sacral circles.

On exhibit are eight works (including two circular ensô paintings) from the 20th century written by six different Zen masters of the Daitoku-ji temple, which can be viewed against this background of the 700-year old tradition described above.

Enjoy to discover further informations about each scroll and the meaning of their content on: http://www.galeriekommoss.com!


Buddha’s Hand – A Heian Period Sculpture’s Fragment

Hand fragment of a Heian periode colossal sculptureDuring my frequent strolls as a guide through the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin, I always find something new and interesting. This is partly due to the fact that only ten percent or so of the museum’s treasuries are on display. The objects are changed regularly in the exhibition areas. And so was this. A piece, I have never seen (or recognized?) before, suddenly attracted my attention: A wonderful Japanese hand fragment of a colossal buddhist statue from the Heian period (794–1185). The about 30 centimeter long item is depicting the right hand of a Buddha in the gesture of abhaya mudrā (“gesture of fearlessness”), which is presented quite popularly by several Buddha and Bodhisattva pictures as a posture of greeting and protection for those who are taking refuge in the way of Buddhism. The right arm raised, fingers pointing up and the flat palm facing towards the viewers standpoint, it is symbolizing as well the prevention from evil and is also a commonly depiction of Hindu deities.

However, someone might ask, why I claim this a Buddha’s hand, since it has a palm and five fingers like any common hand too? If you watch closely, one can identify a connection between the fingers (broken at the thumb, but obvious between small and ring finger). These ‘webs’ are referring to one of the 32 major “characteristics attributed to a Great Man” (Skt. mahāpuruṣa lakṣaṇa). They are listed and described in the Lakkhaṇa Sutta, thirtieth article of the Buddhist scripture Dīgha Nikāya (“Collection of Long Discourses”, one of three parts that compose the earliest and most complete buddhist literature, the Pali Canon). As quoted there at the sixth position, the toes and fingers of a Great Man are finely webbed. So this small detail, which at first glance appears to be a mere construction help for the dry lacquer made (Jap. kanshitsu-zukuri 乾漆造) and gilded hand, clearly indicates this fragment to be the hand of a Buddha.

With its elegantly and delicately detailed finger position, the hand is giving a glimpse of the former, entire figure’s peace and harmony. Even if it is true, that Buddha has reached parinirvāṇa, the final deathless state, and abandoned his earthly body, it seems here, he left us self-sacrificially a trace leading to enlightment.


The Colours of Bizen – Sake Flasks and Cups

After presenting a selection of Japanese tea ceremony utensils in the Opening Exhibition, the Spring Exhibition 2013 is focusing on another kind of serving a guest: the art of drinking sake.
Japanese rice wine is associated with rather companionable and informal gatherings. The chronicle Nihon shoki 日本書紀 from 720 records a banquet arranged at court in the year 485, where noblemen and women were drinking rice wine from cups floating on a river and composing verses. Until today the custom of pouring drinks for each other has further been preserved to pay attention and show respect. As „beverage of gods”, sake also has  its fixed place within festive ceremonies, for example as kagami-biraki 鏡開き – a ceremony that is performed at celebratory events in which the lid of a sake barrel made of sugi-wood is opened with a wooden mallet and the sake is served to everyone present.

In a more intimate circle sake is usually served in smaller containers such as the flasks shown in the display above. The current exhibition aims to present the colourful variety of Bizen ware – an unglazed stoneware directly affected by the kiln’s fire. Bizen ware is named after the former name of the province where the material for this type of pottery was won. The heart of today’s Bizen tradition is located at Inbe City of Okayama Prefecture. Around this region the clay is dug out from a layer located several meters deep beneath rice paddies. It is characterized by relatively high percentage of iron (>3%) and much organic material. Base on this and due to its characteristics as unglazed pottery, Bizen ware objects must be fired very carefully in a long lasting process that consumes an enormous amount of pine wood. Only the experienced potter’s knowledge of firing type, the kind of wood used, the kiln’s atmosphere, temperature and air’s circulation within the kiln chamber can bear the highly admired spectacular results of the combined natural beauty of fire and earth. It is the great secret of each potter, whose styles are most often very distinguishable despite their collective tradition. The attraction of each single piece evolves mainly from the firing process; a beauty that also particularly arises by reason of somewhat accidental and unexpected influences and forces. Due to these circumstances Japanese pottery artists frequently try to take the backseat using the Japanese term of yōhen 窯変 (lit. „kiln mutation“). Here, the attention is shifted from a more or less conscious individual freedom of the artist’s creativity process to a rather unconscious and to the dependency to nature subordinated way of crafting magnificent works of art.

Various Sake FlasksThe more intentionally exercisable forms of decoration developed altogether during the heyday of Bizen tradition in Japan’s Momoyama period (1573–1615) and come in different shapes: „rice cake“ (botamochi  牡丹餅) descibes open areas on the surface created by covering the pottery’s body with a chunk of rice cake-like clay. Ash glazes range from sesame-like, yellowish sprinkled areas (goma 胡麻) to variegated yellow, green and brownish ash drifts, generated by the regulation of air circulation in the kiln by using logs (sangiri 棧切り). By throwing ash directly on the objects (a technic misleadingly also called  sangiri), shiny grey molten areas on the surface are created. Stunning colour changes of the unglazed parts are caused by strong changes of the firing temperature and the so-called “fire cords” (hidasuki 緋襷) – burning straw cords fixed to the item causing red line marks.

The whole colour spectrum of Bizen type ceramics (as seen above) is ranging between bright orange, yellow, green, the entire variety of earthy brown tones, a shiny greenish or blueish grey and even black on some modern pieces. Furthermore, the textures show a wide range from unglazed, sandy clay, metallic glitter, all over covering ash glaze, rust-like crust, or splashes. Despite being small in size, sake flasks and cups shown in the current exhibition, bear a whole landscape (keshiki 景色) on their surface that invites the viewer’s eyes to have a walk through.
With this incomparable palette of colours and textures, Bizen ware has achieved its outstanding reputation within the Japanese pottery world and its distinctive characteristics of an unglazed stoneware which has been rediscovered, developed and preserved until today.


Kōgō 香合 (var. 香盒) – Incense Case

Kōgō are small lidded containers for storing incense. Another japanese name is kōbako 香箱 („incense box“). During the japanese tea ceremony the kōgō is brought into the tea room on a tablet when preparing the charcoal (sumitemae 炭手前). The incense is then placed near the charcoal and the container decoratively positioned on a shelf. In a shorter variant of the sumitemae the kōgō is just placed decoratively in the decoration niche of the waiting room (machiai 待合) on a small cloth, the so-called kobukusa 古帛紗, or a special mat made of several layers of paper (kamikamashiki 紙釜敷) for charming the guests eyes.

Although kōgō are quite small objects they enjoy a great attention through connoisseurs. Like most others tea utensils kōgō too are distinguished according to their origin. But this mostly gives more a mere orientation about the origin of the technic instead about the origin of the art piece itself. On the one hand there are the chinese pieces (karamono 唐物). They include those objects made of black and red carved lacquer, lacquer ware with mother-of-pearl inlay, blue painted porcelain (sometsuke 染付け) or the three-colored Jiao-zhi ware (kōchi-yaki 交趾焼き, from a today’s region of Vietnam). On the other hand there are the Japanese pieces (wamono 和物), like Japanese pottery, lacquer ware associated with Japanese technics like gold painting (maki-e 蒔絵) or lacquers with a foundation of Japanese paper (ikkanbari 一閑張り) as well as kōgō made of different woods, also gourd et al.

Furthermore the material dictates the usage of the kōgō depending on the season. Since different incense is used in summer and winter and – according to that – a different container. Kōgō are then also distinguishable from those used only in summer, when a portable brazier is used (furoyō kōgō 風炉用香合), and those used only in winter, when a sunken fire-place is used (royō kōgō 炉用香合). In summer kōgō made of lacquer or wood go along light aromatic woods. But in winter you will find predominantly pottery kōgō. This is due to the usage of nerikō 練香 in the colder season – an incense made of essential oils like musk or agar wood mixed to a paste with honey or sugar. In order to avoid the material absorbing the scent when using nerikō it is common to use a camellia leave to cover the inside of the kōgō. Shell, metal or even ivory made items can generally be used for both seasons, but they are mainly found in the preparing room (mizuya 水屋) for storing the incense.

For delivering insight into the tremendous number of types and variants of the modelled kōgō, the Katamono kōgō ichiran 形物香合一覧 („Chart of kōgō models“) was published as woodblock print in 1855. This paper lists some 230 various designs ranging from a lot chinese examples (215 in total), some lacquer works (3), the most representative japanese pottery works (7) and a few more. The funny thing is, that the listing is arranged in the manner of a traditional sumō-banzuke 相撲番付 – a ranking for popular japanese sumo wrestling.


Opening Exhibition – Autumn 2012

 

The Japanese tea ceremony is possibly one of the world’s most elaborate ways of welcoming a guest. The four principles formulated by Sen no Rikyū 千利休 (1522-1591) for the ‘way of the tea’ in the words wakei seijaku 和敬清寂 could also be regarded as appropriate criteria for an art gallery:

harmony (wa 和), between guest and host and in the selection of art works;
respect (kei 敬), for humans and expressed within the attentive handling of the objects;
purity (sei 清), meant as cleanliness and order, but within the heart too, in the sense of sincerity;
calmness (jaku 寂), which should be understood here as contemplative viewing of the art works and the resulting insight and serenity.

Against this background, the gallery’s opening exhibition is bringing together a small number of carefully selected tea utensils. Among the exhibition’s highlights is a tea bowl by Shigaraki potter Ueda Juhō 上田寿方, who is much-admired and prized for his enthusiasm in following and preserving the traditions of Shigaraki pottery, an excellent incense case (kōgo 香合) by the twice Nitten awardee and later juror, Taniguchi Ryōzō 谷口良三 as well as a rare Bizen pottery tea caddy (chaire 茶入) by Masamune Moriyasu 正宗杜康.

But central to the idea of this exhibition is a single lacquer work by Yamazaki Geishū 山崎迎舟, the father of the well-respected lacquer master Yamazaki Mushū 山崎夢舟. The black flat tea caddy (hira-natsume 平棗) is coated with silver powder on the inside. The top is decorated with a festive maki-e ornamental knot, joining together three differently-patterned ribbons. These patterns are the very positive symbols of paulownia (empress tree), chrysanthemum, cherry blossoms, maple leaves and stylized branches of pine tree, as well as turtle shell and waves.

The depiction of a festive ornamental knot shall reflect on the occasion of our gallery’s opening exhibition the wish for a good long-lasting relationship for the future.

For further informations visit our exhibition on galeriekommoss.com


Hakogaki 箱書 (or Kakitsuke 書付) – Box Inscription

Some words are to be made about hakogaki, a box inscription, since it is also distinguishable from an artist’s personal inscription on the tomobako.

Hakogaki is a term usually used to signify the inscription on the surface or on the backside of the lid of the storing boxes (not to be mistaken with a box bearing an artist inscription, what is then a so called →tomobako). It provides informations about the content, style of the object, name of the item and the artists name. The as hakogaki described inscriptions are executed by officials, such as Daimyō (liege lords), or by people involved in the tea ceremony world (chajin 茶人) or other masters (crafts etc.). The first group high in rank writes on the surface of the lid. Members associated with the latter write on the back side. In the case of a surface inscription there will not be any signature or an abbreviation (kaō 花押) on the same side. Inscriptions are generally made in black ink, but also writings done in lacquer or even gold lacquer (maki-e 蒔絵) are possible. Sometimes there is a paper with additional informations fixed on the box surface (harigami 張紙).

Example of a harigami saying: Shigaraki Tea Cup (Yûnomi) by Takahashi Rakusai

Originally the hakogaki was an inscription on an items box of the person owning or even commissioning it. Quite often those persons who regarded themselves just as layman, asked a master or a person from the tea ceremony for a suitable inscription. For this reason the hakogaki differs from a so called kiwamesho 極書, an appraisal and/or evaluation through a connoisseur. The hakogaki is more an expression of personal appreciation.

A good example can be given with the story of naming a famous red raku teabowl from Chōjirō’s 長次郎 (?-1589) hand through the well-known tea master Sen no Rikyū 千利休 (1522-1591). As it is told, once on the gathering of a tea ceremony Rikyū humorously wanted to make his guests believe, that the tea bowl he used was just shipped from Ōsaka with the earliest boat only for this occasion. Since then the bowl was named hayabune 早船 (“Early boat”) and this very day the Hakogaki written by Rikyū himself inside the storing box gives prove of the tea bowl’s name.


Tomobako 共箱 – Accompanying Boxes

Tomobako for a Tea Caddy by Masamune Moriyasu

Rarely is light shed on one of the most important topic when handling japanese arts and crafts – even if it is one of the first things you will get hold of for sure! Thus I’d like to explain at the beginning the new logo of Gallery Kommoss which refers to the crosswise knotted ribbon of the tomobako 共箱. Tomobako is the name for the wooden boxes in which Japanese artworks, ranging from paintings, over small sculptures till ceramics, porcelains and lacquer works – just to say some – are stored. They consist of a wooden body and a lid holded together by a woven or braided ribbon. 

The boxes are usually made of either two basic materials: one is cedar wood (lat. Cryptomeria japonica, jap. sugi ) and another is paulownia wood (lat. Paulownia tomentosa, jap. kiri ). Far more seldom but also coming across sometimes are boxes made of materials like chestnut (tochinoki ), mulberry (kuwa ), rosewood (shitan 紫檀), ebony (kokutan 黒檀) or ironwood (tagayasan 鉄刀木).

Cedar (l.) and Paulownia Wood (r.)

Especially kiri wood is recognized for its several advantageous characteristics. It is lightweight and for that also relatively break-proof, it has plain wood almost free from knotholes and transports no humidity. The lid should close tightly to protect the content from atmospherical influences. Sensitive items like works of paper benefit from this protections against too extreme deviations of air humidity in the moist Japanese climate.

Shihōsan-buta

Example of a kabusebuta

The lid can be separated in two main construction types: the slid lid or “covering” lid (kabusebuta 覆蓋) and the “inserting lid (okibuta 置蓋). Okibuta can be further devided into lids which are flat (hirabuta 平蓋) and lids with a frame construction beneath fitting neatly inside the box’s mouth (sanbuta 桟蓋). This frame of sanbuta consists of either four wooden strips (shihōsan-buta 四方桟) or only two strips (nihōsan-buta 二方桟蓋). 

Sanada-himo

To hold the box and the lid closely together a string is used, which is knotted above the lid in a slip knot (himokake 紐掛け). It was once round, but since the beginning Edo Period (1603-1868) a flat cotton string (sanada-himo 真田) is most common. If you ever wanted to learn how to knot the string in a proper way, following link is giving a good guidance: http://story.turuta.jp/himokake/himokake.html

Himokake

Collecting Japanese art works it is very important to have them within the original according to size and requirements of the objects individually manufactured wooden boxes (tomo = together). Not only to know them safely stored when they are not in exhibit but for reference reasons as well. These boxes recognize some importance since they bear informations about the item stored inside from the artists hand itself. Like questions of style, type, name, date and his signature. For that reason the tomobako is also as an object of evidence of great importance. Every student for Japanese art history knows the often told story of a western museum registrar who had thrown all the boxes he just thought to be packing material away and losses this way a lot of value.

But note that this kind of artist’s proof on the tomobako is common at least since the Meiji period (1868-1912) and is not to be mistaken with a hakogaki – an inscription on the box of the owner or an admiring person.


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