The show features works in porcelain and stoneware made by the Kyoto-based studio of Seifu Yohei from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. These works by members of the Seifu family reflect the Kyoto ceramics culture, in the former capital of Japan. The artists’ engagement with Chinese forms and techniques showcased an alternative way to bring Japanese porcelain into the modern era at a time when Western cultures were leaving a major mark in Japan. The exhibition is the first in North America to comprehensively examine the studio’s output from the time of its founder, Seifu Yohei I (1801-1861), through that of its fourth-generation head, Seifu Yohei IV (1871-1951).

Just over 400 years ago, ceramists in Japan first successfully fired porcelain, and from the mid-1600s, Japan took advantage of a gap in the global porcelain trade left by the temporary exit of China from the market, following the demise of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and the maritime prohibitions of the early Qing dynasty (1644-1911), to secure orders for its porcelains in Europe. From the late 1800s, participation of Japanese ceramists in international expositions also became a forum for constructing national identity. While it has garnered less attention in exhibitions and publications outside Japan, there was a robust domestic market for Japanese porcelains as well, including vessels for use in sencha, or Chinese-style tea, gatherings.

Sefu Yohei III created elegant and delicate works that blended the best of Japanese and Chinese ceramics and won much acclaim in exhibitions in Japan and abroad, although his workshop was small and output was limited. Shinya Maezaki, in her essay in the accompanying catalogue, notes that ‘Yohei III’s lifetime coincided with enormous change in Japan. Ceramic production at the time took place in two areas: Awataguchi and Kiyomizu Gojozaka, located on opposite sides of the Gion district. Here they produced the ornate ceramics in gold and colours known as Kyoto Satsuma ware, much of which was exported to the West during the Meiji period.

However, by Yohei III’s day, the boundary between them had disappeared and the whole neighbourhood, which produced similar products, came to be known as Kiyomizu Gojozaka – and by the end of the 18th century both pottery and porcelains were being made in the district. The Kyoto ceramics industry flourished alongside the growing popularity of sencha, steeped green tea, which was made and consumed using porcelain utensils. The history of the Seifu family founded in Kiyomizu Gojozaka by Seifu Yohei I is closely linked to this industry and sencha utensils, including teapots, teacups, and other implements’. Maezaki continues noting that ‘since the founding of the Seifu Yohei lineage, the production of sencha utensils was a pillar of the family business’.

A highlight of this exhibition of Kyoto ceramics is a sake pourer with flowers (1893-1914) by Seifu Yohei III. Elaborately decorated with flower in overglaze enamels in several colours, this type of container is called a choshi. Yohei III referred to his works in multicolour overglaze enamels as ‘hundred flower brocades (hyakka nishiki). Since this sake pourer is unsigned, it may have been made for imperial family members to give as a gift.

Two small nyoi (ruyi in Chinese) moulded in clay on either side of the lid serve as the handle rests. To complete the design, the top of the nyoi staff resembles the curled cap of the reishi (stylised fungus). Such sceptres are imagined to be found in the hands of sages, Daoist immortals, or Buddhist deities and connote favourable circumstances.

A striking work by Yohei II is a water container with peonies (1900-1914), which is an accomplished combination of an all-over translucent coloured glazed with moulded and carved designs. The water container, mizusashi, has a design that takes into consideration the rounded shape and the seated position of the host and guests. Another sophisticated example of the ceramicist’s design and techniques can be seen in a bowl with numinous fungi and kirin (1893-1900). On the interior there is a painted mythical kirin (Chinese qilin) set against a mainly white background apart from a continuous coin pattern of red wash and green enamels – contrasting with the bold design of the exterior – of a dark blue glaze and an overlaid silver design of reishi (fungus) with incised lines for detail.

An object that is bound to catch the visitor’s eye is the more modern Kyoto ceramics work by Shinkai Kanzan (1912-2011). Born in Kyoto, he studied under his uncle Seifu Yohei IV, and later under Kiyomizu Rokubey VI. He graduated from Kyoto Art School and was awarded the Nitten Special Prize and the Minister of Education Prize. Member and director of the Nihon Shinkoren, and received the Japan Art Academy Award in 1980. In 1989, he was awarded the Kyoto Prefectural Cultural Order of Merit for his life-long endeavours and contribution to Japanese ceramics.

While the studio is known for the role of Seifu Yohei III (1851-1914), as an Imperial Household Artist (Teishitsu gigei’in), it has only recently received sustained scholarly attention. This is the first exhibition in North America to comprehensively examine the studio’s output from the time of its founder, Seifu Yohei I (1801-1861), through that of its fourth-generation head, Seifu Yohei IV (1871-1951). This rounded presentation of their creations is made possible through a gift of more than 100 individual and sets of works from the James and Christine Heusinger Collection, an assemblage acquired over the past three decades with the goal of representing the full range of forms and styles produced under the Seifu Yohei name and highlights the work of Seifu Yohei III (1851-1914), the first ceramist to be selected as an Imperial Household Artist, in 1893. The show and its catalogue also use the collection as a lens through which to analyse aspects of the modernisation of Japan and to consider the history of international trade.

This exhibition of Kyoto Ceramics runs until 10 March, 2024, Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, Catalogue available – Colours of Kyoto: The Seifu Yohei Ceramic Studio, which is funded in part with and award from the Japan Foundation 2023 Exhibitions Abroad Support Programme