The Freer Gallery is the home of the Asian art museum arm of the Smithsonian Institute, in Washington, D.C. They recently had an exhibit titled “Tea for Everyone: Japanese Popular Ceramics for Tea Drinking.” The goal of this exhibit has been to put a different face on the ceramic art of tea. With this exhibit, the Freer Gallery has taken the prosaic and lifted it to new heights.
The path of the early history of tea in Japan is not much different than that of China. It began with Zen monks bringing tea back from China and using it for their own enhancements for their practice of meditation as well as an accompaniment to spiritual and philosophical discussions. Beginning, as it did, with the intellectual class of priests, it obviously found it’s way to the Imperial and noble classes in Japan. As the style and rituals of tea practice evolved in Japan, specific tools and ceramic vessels were created for this purpose. As tea and tea practice were confined to the intelligentsia and nobility of Japan early on, so too were the most beautiful ceramic pots and bowls created by Japan’s top artisans. Much of what has been exhibited around the world to depict the style and beauty of the ceramic pots and bowls created for Japanese tea ceremonies and rituals has been the highest quality pieces from world class artisans. The Freer Gallery has taken a different path.
The exhibit Tea for Everyone just about says it all. The Freer Gallery decided to look at the period in Japan’s history after tea became more popularized and made available to the masses. It was during this time that everyone, from farmers to townspeople, was becoming enamored with tea and all of its rituals. As a result, tea became steeped in the culture of everyday life as it gradually became a staple for the common person. This led to farms and local provinces creating their own shared kilns so the people could create simple and modest pots, cups, bowls and storage containers with which to use and share their tea.
These pieces depict the simple beauty that can be found in the modest, hand made ceramics of the people. The bowls that were made from which to drink matcha and used for ceremonies, also often doubled as rice bowls. The pots and cups were created for drinking their everyday sencha tea. This style of rustic simple beauty became a major Japanese aesthetic known as Wabi-sabi.
This exhibit is a perfect example of how we can find beauty in the simplest and most mundane of forms. Classic zisha pots are also a good example of this. My favorite ones are the pots that have smooth, classic lines with no adornments. This is why I find tea practice so alluring and enriching. It is the everyday simplicity of forms and actions that one engages in with tea that act as reminders of the richness and beauty of life that we often don’t see or pay attention to. Making tea helps us to be more present and aware of our surroundings and the natural beauty of everyday life.
All photos credit of the Freer Gallery.