Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A daimyo reveals the artist within

     Cognizant of the cultural capital that accrued from such endeavors, many of Japan's warrior-rulers engaged in artistic activities. It has been noted that chanoyu (tea practice) appealed to elite warriors for this practical reason, among others that may have been more personally motivated. And while tea men from every social class traditionally carved bamboo teascoops both for their own use and, occasionally, to present as gifts to others, it's still quite unusual to see high-ranking warriors turn their hands to more arduous crafts. 

    That is what makes this exquisite lacquerware picnic set so special, since it was created by the powerful daimyo and well-known tea man Hosokawa Sansai (1563-1645). The eggplant motif for the sake flask is a auspicious one, as the Japanese word for eggplant, nasu, makes a phonetic allusion to a homophone verb which means "to succeed". I had the pleasure of examining this piece up close in 2009 at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum's "Lords of the Samurai" exhibit. The sake flask is accompanied by a food container (at bottom) and an ingenious sake cup made from the eggplant's "leaf".  Its execution shows that Sansai was not a casual artist. Lacquerwork is a painstaking process, requiring time-consuming processes of applying, curing, polishing, and reapplying the lacquer -- itself a very tricky medium. It's not clear to me if this piece would have ever made an appearance in a tearoom -- it's more suited to elegant outings in the countryside -- but it offers mute testament to how important artistic endeavor was to leading Tokugawa statesmen. 

A larger view of the photo can be seen at this link
An interesting article on auspicious motifs in Japanese textiles may also interest some readers.


  1. Very interesting object! Are there documents indication the daimyo actually made the piece by himself? Other pieces by him in existence? Did he sign this? It seems highly unlikely to me that he made this all by himself. I would have thought that he may have closely supervised a craftsman he commissioned to make the form and possibly even apply the layers of lacquer. It seems like such a sophisticated shape that an amateur could not do this. It was not unusual for people who served as designers to put their names on finished products even though they did not make the object themselves. Later in the 17th century, potter Ogata Kenzan served as kiln master and painted his wares, but the pots themselves were fabricated and then fired by specialists he supervised. Around the same time the Buddhist priest Hozan Tankai, whose name appears on Buddhist sculptures, is now thought to have overseen production of the sculptures that were made by Kyoto sculptor Shimizu (or Kiyomizu) Ryukei.

  2. Hi Pat, I've been checking on this attribution this morning, but can't find any record of hakogaki or anything else to support it other than the fact that curators at Japan's Miho Museum, the Smithsonian, and the San Francisco Asian Art Museum have all identified this piece as Sansai's production (or, in one case "attributed to Hosokawa Tadaoki") in the respective catalogs from those exhibitions over the past several years.

    I'd like to check and see if it was among the items shown at the Kyoto National Museum too last year, but I'm at home today and that catalog is in my campus office, so I will have to follow up later. You raise a salient point, though -- how do we verify production in lieu of an inscription of some kind?

    It's suggestive, though hardly conclusive, that I haven't been able to locate any other pieces of lacquerware attributed to Sansai, though we do have several bamboo items (chashaku and flower vases) for which box inscriptions in his own calligraphy attest to their production by his own hands.

    1. On a side note, Googling this piece produces many Japanese blog entries detailing its display at museums around Japan, where it appears to be invariably labeled as "三斎作” -- not that this proves anything!