The Dreams of Itaya Hazan

Flower vase with underglaze design of phoenix and auspicious flowers (Hokosaiji) by Itaya Hazan (1872-1963), circa Taisho 12 (1923), height 26.5 cm, Idemitsu Museum of Arts

ITAYA HAZAN (1872-1963) was a pioneer of modern Japanese ceramics who was ahead of his time. Around World War I, Hazan began adopting the Western style of Art Nouveau, and integrated its elements into Japanese and Chinese ceramic forms. During the first quarter of the 20th century, he played a critical role in transforming Japanese ceramics – from a craft made by anonymous artisans – into a fine art worthy of newfound respect. Responding to ‘modern’ artistic trends that spanned the late Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-1926) and Showa (1926-1989) eras throughout his long professional life, he was one of the most representative ceramic artists of 20th-century Japan.

Today, the largest collection of Hazan’s work is probably found in the Idemitsu Museum of Arts in Tokyo, where 250 works have been assembled by founder Idemitsu Sazo (1885-1981). Growing up in the Meiji period, Sazo had witnessed Japanese treasures being sold off to Western collectors, and felt the need to support the traditional arts for future generations. He first encountered Hazan’s work in 1924 and began widening the scope of his collection from the late 1920s and early 1930s, to include them. ‘Until Hazan’s time, the Japanese potter was an anonymous artist-artisan. He was the first ceramic artist to break away from this long and entrenched tradition,’ says Yatsunami Hirokazu, Chief Curator at the Idemitsu. ‘By introducing individual craftsmanship and the division of labour, Hazan gave direction to the potter who did the shaping and forming. Only the final decoration of a piece of work was his. As a studio designer-potter, he raised the status of ceramics from an applied to a fine art.’

The Idemitsu is mounting a major retrospective to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Hazan’s death and seeks to re-evaluate his place in Japanese ceramic art. Hazan was a perfectionist who attempted to give every piece of his work an inner life, fusing skill with technique and strong aesthetic sense. To illustrate the entire process of creation from sketch to finished work, exhibition curator Kashiwagi Mari has lined up Hazan’s ceramics and his sketches, alongside the utensils and tools used for firing: ‘Among modern and contemporary Japanese ceramic artists, only Hazan attained the highest achievement in his art. To give an insight into the man and his work, we investigate his artistic development through the major influences that shaped his formative years.’

Hazan was a product of his times. Born Itaya Kashichi in Shimodate, Ibaraki prefecture,  he was the youngest of eight children of a soy sauce maker. It was four years into the Meiji Restoration, and a time of enormous social change. In the late 1850s, Japan had opened up to the West and was now anxious to present itself as a nation equal to any there. Meiji society was thus imbued with a modernising spirit. It spread from science and technology – and as it was keen to make its arts and crafts known to the outside world – eventually to art. Until this time, there was no distinct Japanese term for ‘fine’ and ‘applied’ art as they were understood in the West. However, its participation for the first time in the International Exhibition of 1867 forced their redefinition according to Western norms. The Meiji government meanwhile, had an ambivalent attitude towards its own artistic traditions. While desiring to modernise them, it was bent on their preservation and embarked on an education system to do so. In 1889, the founding of the Imperial Museum, now the Tokyo National Museum, was one of institutional attempts and that of the Tokyo Bijutsu Gakko, the Tokyo Fine Art School was another. When seventeen-year old Hazan headed for Tokyo to study sculpture, he was apprenticed under Takamura Koun (1852-1934), a renowned sculptor who modernised Edo period (1615-1868) woodcarving and taught at the school from 1889 until 1926. Koun fostered many talented sculptors of late Meiji and Taisho Japan and had a lasting influence on Hazan. The school’s principal, the renowned scholar and critic, Okakura Kakuzo (Tenshin) (1862-1913) who coined the phrase, ‘Asia is One’, also had an unquestioned respect for tradition from which modern, but quintessentially Japanese, forms might be created.

After graduating in 1894, Hazan taught sculpture at the Ishikawa School for the Industrial Arts in Kanazawa and was fascinated by Kutani ware. When the school closed in 1898, he started studying the ceramic traditions of China as applied in Japan. One of his earliest sketchbooks preserved at the Idemitsu is Twelve Shapes of Ancient Ceramics (1898). The others include Random Notes on Ceramic Production, Notes on Glazes and Notes for Mixing Glazes, which describe glaze components, their ratios and compositions and indicate they were more than a passing phase. In 1903, Hazan moved to Tokyo, to the Tabata Bunshi-mura, ‘Tabata Artists and Writers Village’ in presentday Itabashi ward and began to use his artistic name, ‘Hazan’. The following year he built his kiln and hired his first assistant, the potter Fukami Sanjiro. Fukami left for China in 1910, and was replaced by Genda Ichimatsu who worked for Hazan until his death in 1963 preceded the latter’s.

Soon the advent of the Taisho era, also known as the Taisho democracy, heralded Japan’s ‘modern age’. It gave rise to new social freedoms  a temporary phenomenon – where artistic and literary ferment was matched by the growth of a new consumer culture. The country was also experiencing the age of seimei shugi, ‘homage to life’, whose representation in its manifold forms became a dominant theme in art – particularly painting and sculpture – and in literature. In 1910, the great Japanese novelist, Natsume Soseki caused a sensation when his novel Sorekara, ‘And Then’ was published, because it advocated self-fulfilment against living according to society’s rules.

To Hazan, the village, a gathering of shared ideals, was a constant source of inspiration. It attracted avant-garde painters who dabbled in the Western style including Kosugi Hoan, the French-educated, post-Impressionist painter Yamamoto Kanae, and sculptors such as Yoshida Saburo, a student of Koun who was influenced by Rodin, the focus of enormous interest at this time. The famous novelist, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, after whom the prestigious Akutagawa Prize is named, also lived there briefly, followed by the poet Muro Saisei and other like-minded individuals.

In this setting, Hazan attempted to exploit the many possibilities of the ceramic form. Apart from Chinese and Japanese models, he engaged in the study of early 20th-century European artistic trends. He tried to ‘marry’ the techniques of East and West, by assimilating them to create new styles.  Hazan never travelled outside of Japan. He was said to have been introduced to Art Nouveau by the book, Plants and their Transformation into Design (1896) edited by Eugene Grasset and by foreign art journals, The Studio and Keramik Studio. Ironically, Japonism, which had inspired Art Nouveau in Europe in the first place, now returned full circle to its roots, affirming nature as the basis of ‘life’ and of all artistic expression.

Relief carved decoration formed the substance of Hazan’s early works. One of his most representative objects is an onion-shaped vase with colours painted directly, to stain the ceramic surface. ‘Its sculptural quality betrays Hazan’s training,’ says Ms Kashiwagi.  ‘Designed with the play of light and shadow on the shape in mind, he integrated the onion into the object’s form. This was a step towards his later works, when three-dimensional sculpture gave way to two-dimensional shallow relief on the ceramic surface.’ On another early yellow vase, Hazan reinterpreted hibiscus-type flowers into a series of textured sacred trees. He then progressed to a constructive multi-layer carving method, witnessed on a vase ‘layered’ with structured hemp-palm leaves.

From the beginning, Hazan was fascinated by light. He was obsessed by its diffusion on ceramic forms and led to two important contributions, saiji and hokosaiji which are uniquely his. Saiji is technically a form of underglazing, when a ‘matt glaze’ is used to create a surface layer which appears as if coated with a semi-transparent film. The matt glaze contributed brilliant colours, for which Hazan received early accolades. At his first exhibition, a group show at the Japan Art Association in 1906, his saiji vase with underglaze design of incised flowers won first prize. Another saiji vase boasting opaque blue animal silhouettes subsequently took the top prize in the 1911 Nationwide Ceramics Exhibition.

However, Hazan did not perfect the saiji technique until around 1913. It is witnessed on an exceptional vase with a deep blue shoulder crowned by a wreath of underglaze laurel leaves, shallowly carved on the surface. The laurels were highly symbolic; they had been designed to commemorate Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, which signalled its rise as an Asian power. The laurel leaves were delicately painted in brown gradations on the vase, its deep blue background a stunning contrast to the dazzling white – a trick Hazan learned from Royal Copenhagen.

When he was 39, Hazan began experimenting with hokosaiji, another underglazing technique, that produced an opaque ceramic surface. First, brush-painted colours were thickly applied to penetrate the ceramic body to its inner surface. Then, an opaque crystal-type glaze covered the object’s surface, so that it seemed wrapped by a very finely veiled layer. Hazan’s hokosaiji creations were striking. They deal almost exclusively with plant life which preceded and was then endorsed by the age of ‘homage to life’. His sketchbook, Design Samples of Flowers and Fruits (1895-1950s), which he referred to from time to time, testifies to a lifelong fascination with the lily, narcissus, magnolia, peony and camellia, as well as the peach, persimmon, grape and loquat.

Hazan loved colour and used it dramatically. His colour schemes derived from red, blue, green, orange, black and brown were aimed at creating depth and movement. An early hokosaiji attempt uses individual tulip stalks, a western flower, arranged in a rhythmic pattern on white. Another vase was shallowly carved with a phoenix flapping its wings, as it cavorts on a densely patterned floral background. Perhaps it is his amaryllis flower that has an immediate, expressive power. Two dramatic blossoms on a leafy stalk, their petals painted in life-like detail fill one side of a vase, but surface on the other as two unopened buds on an empty white space.

By the Taisho period, Hazan’s work was already highly acclaimed. They were presented at the Noten, a major exhibition of Japanese design and applied arts sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce in 1913 which focused on their commercial viability. Hazan was unhappy with this arrangement and subsequently withdrew from exhibitions altogether. By founding the Kanto Totokai, ‘Society of Eastern Potters’ of like-minded individuals in 1925, he took a major role in positioning ceramics as a fine art. It induced the Teiten, ‘Imperial Art Academy’ organised in the European ‘salon’ manner to accept ceramics alongside painting and sculpture two years later.

Working mainly on hakuji, ‘white porcelain’, seiji, ‘celadon’ and enamelled porcelain, Hazan returned the classical Chinese tradition in the 1930’s. His white porcelain came in many hues, ‘ice flower glaze’, ‘matt white porcelain’ and ‘frosty glaze’ were represented on smaller forms. The auspicious peach was part of his repertoire again and again. Traditional tea ware shapes were produced intermittently throughout his career, even during the difficult war years and after. A tea bowl of red and purple glaze of 1944 is probably the finest of that tradition.

Hazan was not without critics. They described his work as ‘nothing but of superficial beauty’. One said, ‘Here is a man who though excessively skilled, was not content with mere stoic expression.’ ‘I cannot but feel the lack of creativity in his content. Neither the form nor the shape is fresh,’ said another. ‘Everything is patterned, but the motifs are only there for decoration. They are very cold,’ remarked a third. But he went on from strength to strength. In 1934, Hazan was awarded the title of teishitsu gigeiin, ‘Artist approved by the Imperial Household’ that commended outstanding artists and craftsmen based on character and skill. He was also the first ceramic artist to receive the Order of Cultural Merit in 1953, the highest honour given to any artist in Japan. True to form, Hazan refused the invitation to be Japan’s Living National Treasure seven years later. A creative artist, and not the custodian of ancient tradition, he felt wholly unsuited to it. He went on working until his last breath. Hazan’s last work, a tea bowl decorated with an unopened camellia bud – a symbol of newborn life and in homage to it –  was created at the age of 91.

YVONNE TAN

The Dreams of Itaya Hazan: The Bliss of Japanese Modern Ceramics is at the Idemitsu Museum of Arts,1-1 Marunouchi 3-Chome, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0005 until 23 March, www.idemitsu.co.jp