Raku: A Traditional Contemporary Art Form

At the opening of “The Cosmos in a Tea Bowl: Transmitting a Secret Art Across Generations of the Raku Family” at The National Museum of Modern Art, in Kyoto, the current head of the Raku family, Kichizaemon XV (b. 1949), explained that the event would be “an unprecedented and once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of such a grand scale” that it would include important works by Raku founder Chojiro (date of birth unknown-1589) and Honami Koetsu (1558-1637), the artist who inspired the founding of the Rimpa school — pieces that are rarely exhibited together in public.

Raku-yaki (Raku ware) mostly comprises tea bowls and utensils for chanoyu (tea ceremony) and was first produced in Kyoto by the Raku family during the 16th century. Chojiro began making unique tea bowls — which were each hand molded — at the request of Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), the great tea master who advocated wabi-cha, a wabi-style tea ceremony influenced by Zen Buddhist-inspired concept of finding the beauty in simplicity and imperfection.

Rikyu was then the head of tea masters under the patronage of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), and the tea master’s wabi aesthetic was in stark contrast to that of Hideyoshi, who built the ostentatious Jurakudai, a residence near the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and a portable Golden Tea Room to impress the emperor.

“Raku ware remains as vital as ever today, 450 years after its foundation,” says Matsubara. “The spirit of its tradition lies in each generation’s creative engagement with his own contemporary era. Each generation is an individual artist with his own style — it’s as if the 450 years of Raku history is a single entity of vibrant contemporary art.

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