The term wabisabi has been popping up a lot lately in writings devoted to traditional Japanese art forms. You come across it in recent books about Japanese gardens, Japanese craft-arts, magazine features, and academic journal articles. "Wabi" is that which is young, new, and fresh; "sabi" is older, wiser, more experienced. Each is incomplete without the other. Taken together, wabisabi is the beauty of things imperfect, the beauty of things modest and humble. The word is the Japanese equivalent of the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection (and is as shunned by Japanese artists today just as Greek ideals are rare to be found in the galleries of the West). Western literature has a similar word, "clinamen", the act of deliberately breaking a stylistic rule to enhance the beauty of an otherwise perfect whole.
Wabisabi is drawn from Zen Buddhism. The first Japanese devoted to wabisabi as a artstyle-cum-lifestyle were tea masters, priests, and monks who practiced Zen. Zen emphasizes direct, intuitive insight into transcendental truth beyond all intellectual conception. (The Buddha Gotama of roughly a millennium before may well have been appalled by such a divergence from his simple message of salvation through the Eightfold Noble Path of mental and moral behavior, but that╣s another story.) Wabisabi focuses on the importance of transcending one's ways of looking and thinking about things and even one's existence. The spiritual message of wabisabi is that all things are impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete. Its material expression holds high the values of natural process, irregularity, intimacy, absence of pretension, earthiness, and simplicity. In the tea ceremony, wabisabi is not the ceremony or its implements, wabisabi is the empty black raku cup still present after everyone departs, the speck of dust left hovering in the air after the charcoal's heat has stopped rising.
Today, say "stoneware" to anyone fond of traditional Japanese culture and most will respond "raku". Indeed, those loosely-shapen dark wonders of the low-fire kiln are the supercondensed span of an entire culture in an object you can hold. Yet in an almost artless preoccupation with doing just the opposite, two traditions expressing the same qualities of wabisabi using entirely materials and effect came into existence and rapidly became popular: Shino and Oribe ware. Both originated during Japan's artistic renaissance of the late sixteenth century (which interestingly was coterminous with the European Renaissance beyond Italy, and just as tumultuous).
The tea ceremony's origins came in a gentler time, the Muromachi. It was as if wabisabi hung in the air after a peaceful zephyr, in the same way that war is in the air when come the winds of change. Though several theories claim to be the actual inspiration, the era is more definite. A 1932 chronicle relates, "In the first month of 1574, Kagemitsu, third son of Kageharu of the thirteenth generation after the first Seto potter Kato Kagemasa, moved to Akatsu. By virtue of a tea jar that he presented to Lord Oda Nobunaga, the latter formally recognized him as a retainer. Kakemitsu subsequently left Seto and moved to Kujiri, in Mino, in 1583. There...he continued working as a potter."
To diehard raku buffs, Shino ware must have seemed a bit overadorned, fussy perhaps. There are geometrics, abstracts, and representations of familiar fare such as birds, grasses, plus the occasional poem such as:
The inner essence
The authors convey all this with a mix of the poet and the historian. Here is an extended passage that carries the aroma of the whole text:
Of the fence of deutzia flowers
In a mountain village:
The feeling of treading a road
Covered with freshly fallen snow.
"To me [Shino ware's] charm lies in the feel of its surface and the mellow luster that accords so well with that surface. And there is the straightforward beauty of the pictures decorating Shino ware. The overall effect is intoxicating.
The above is but the glaze. To get the pot you must get the book. Be sure to look at pictures two and three on page 54: This seemingly unassuming Shino teabowl is considered the finest teabowl in existence.
"Shino pictures are drawn with lively lines depicting the everyday scenery surrounding the pottersőthe bridges over the streams at Kuguri, a cypress fence and dew-covered path leading to its brushwood gate, a grove of trees in flower, the trees and grasses just outside the window, even the mountain road they traveled day after day.
Such was the aesthetic of the Momoyama period in general. But the single tree, the few blades of grass these artists sketched are somehow pleasing because the designs pulse with life, the brushwork is clean and bold.
"The white of Shino can be compared to the first snow of the season, or to the last traces of the winter snow, which the warm spring winds are erasing as the bush warbler's first song rings out. Shino's white surface is soft like a mother's breast; it brings back memories of childhood.
"Shino white is tidiness itself. And on that white the potters painted designs with an iron glaze made of oni-ita, a red clay rich in iron and manganese and abundant in the Seto region. The effect of flame in the kiln added distinctive fire marks. Shino is an elusive ware, capable of infinite transformations.
"The Shino potters thickly applied their glaze, which they made by carefully grinding feldspar and refining it in water. To this they added their own secret proportion of ash. Then, after offering sake and prayers to the gods of the kiln, and ritually scattering salt to purify the area, they entrusted their pieces to the fire.
"Shino ware is the spirit of tea, the essence of pottery. It is the result of the flames of the kiln:
In the depths of the heart
From which pottery springs
Flows a crystal clear stream
Reflecting nearby mountains.
-- Rosanjin Kitaoji
Alas, or perhaps huzzah, styles last not long. The next innovation in Japanese teaware can be directly traced to a single man, Furuta Oribe, and as changes in teacups go, his was a doozy.
Japan in Oribe's time was a chessboard of warlords incessantly raiding each other for fun and profit (it's an interesting speculation why so little of this spirit found its was into the competitive-mindedness of Japanese enterprises today vis-Ó-vis the wabisabi-challenged American ones). Oribe, among other things, also was a distinguished general. His tastes ran to the "robust, generous, vigorous, and distorted in shape." He introduced these qualities to the entire tea ceremony -- most notably by making it part of a dinner event with a large number of others, all lubricated as much by sakÚ as by tea. Hence Oribe commissioned not only teaware but serving and dining dishes, sakÚ ware, unusual geometrics, and heavy, dripping glazes the tea ceremony's predecessors would have deemed ghastly. This was not very Zen. On the other hand, Oribe's shaking up the establishment led directly to a great flowering of ceramics. Eventually more subtle tastes tamed down the founder's style -- a process that can be seen vividly in the many illustrations of Oribe ware -- and Oribe╣s great-great-great grandchildren's great grandchildren still being made today.
Alas, this review is all too brief. To sum the book in PR blurb terms, Classic Stoneware of Japan: Shino and Oribe is a comprehensive visual survey and text explication of the two traditions' glazes, processes, shapes, and decoration. You come away with a clear idea of the essence of these wares and with half an eye you can come to expertly recognize either. The detail is exhaustive given its scant forty-two pages of text. Potters will celebrate it. Everyone else will learn from it. No one is likely to forget it.