The more I learn about Japanese art, the more I’m struck with the anti-intuitive and anachronistic concept that the most modern and avant-garde creations are often the oldest. Whether in lacquerware, ceramics or textiles, I’m constantly amazed by the unbridled creativity of artists and craftsmen of ages past. It’s as if I’m looking into a time machine: peering back 400 years, I see the future. A perfect example of this can be seen when comparing different ages of the bold, playful and abstract style of Oribe.
Oribe is a visual style named after the late-16th-century tea master Furuta Oribe (1544-1615). It’s most often seen in pottery, but extends to textiles and paintings. Oribe was not an actual potter, but (like many other influential figures in Japan’s art history) something akin to an art director or designer. He embodied the spirit of wabi tea so completely that he was able to give it form in a truly new and unique vision. I can only imagine the shock and excitement generated when his boldly formed, often intentionally distorted chawan (tea bowl), decorated with green and brown glazes and abstract designs, appeared on the tea ceremony scene in Kyoto. The motifs, taken from nature or other decorative patterns such as textiles, were ground-breaking in their bold informality. Casting aside Korean and Chinese influences, they were also entirely Japanese. It must have been this recognition of a new Japanese aesthetic that caused tea devotees to cherish oribe ware. Its ability to capture something of the artistic and spiritual soul of Japan quickly spread throughout the country, and its mass popularity continues to this day.
And here is where the turning back of the clock comes in. Latter potters often copied the form, but not the spirit, of the tea master’s style, and thus lack the wild imagination and unbridled, almost out-of-control charm of the Momoyama-era (1573-1615) pieces. Later pieces institutionalized the glazes, form and painted motifs to an extent that they were little more than formulaic copies. And yet, even as late as the second half of the 19th century, the designs look modern to the Western eye, as seen in the humble square kozara pictured to the right. To me, the bold and playful abstract patterns look like something out of mid-20th century America.
Oribe is still wildly popular today, and is considered a classic style of Japanese aesthetics. You won’t find oribe ware in China, Korea or other parts of Asia. At its worst, it is merely a formulaic pattern of brown on copper-green glaze. At its best, it captures the spirit of wabi tea as if the Momoyama era was alive in an alternate universe. One of our favorite potters is Shigeru Koyama, of Nagano. When I spotted the magnificent pitcher in the window of a Kyoto gallery shown here, I assumed it was from the 16th century. I was surprised to enter the gallery and find the artist very much alive. Koyama-san confirmed that indeed, he works in the spirit of Momoyama-era oribe, and from his prolific and excellent show, I would say he’s quite successful.
It isn’t just the inherently Japanese aesthetic that makes oribe ware so loved; it also happens to look great with food. The soft contours and quiet, natural colors provide a natural setting for sashimi, vegetables, pickles or stews, and can be used in any season, though I particularly like using oribe in fall and winter. To the touch they are of the earth; sturdy, yet not overly heavy, and comfortable to hold. The feel of an oribe chawan is often masculine and oversized, fitting comfortably in large hands.
Prices very considerably, from ¥100 yen to ¥100 million, but you can still find relatively affordable antique oribe dishes, as well as a vast array of reasonably priced modern dishes for every day use. In both antiques and contemporary ware, look for rich, deep green glazes (made of copper) that often pool into bright blue tones, hand-formed (but not intentionally sloppy) asymmetry and confidently painted bold motifs. A 300-year-old antique is often less expensive than a similar piece created by a famous contemporary potter.
A sub-genre, kuro (black) oribe, as seen in the tea bowl her (at top and bottom), is highly prized. Where regular oribe might recall ferns growing on a moss-covered roof, kuro oribe is the realm of the temple. Due to its lack of color, kuro oribe must win on painting and form alone, and the painting is most often minimal and of a completely abstract nature. Often seen in tea bowls, their zen aesthetic is extremely difficult to master. Looking at a truly great kuro oribe piece should be like seeing a koan in space; zen come to life.
We have a limited supply of oribe pieces in our online gallery, Mizuya.
For more information, see the exhibition catalogue of the Metropolitan Museum’s 1994 show Turning Point: Oribe and the Arts of 16th Century Japan, and Robert Yellin’s review of the show.