Spouted sake pourer (katakuchi), wood and red lacquer of Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture, Edo period, 18th century

Asian Art Newspaper discovers the art of Mingei, traditional Japanese folk craft from the Montgomery Collection

Japanese mingei is loosely translated as arts of ordinary people, or folk-art but, lest this conjure images of macramé or amateur pottery, rest assured that Japanese mingei is in a far higher artistic realm altogether, covering a realm of extraordinary beautiful objects, delight to view or handle. Apart from a few metal objects, almost all were made of natural materials: wood, bamboo, clay or plant fibres easily available in rural Japan, and – with the user foremost in mind – they had to be practical, sturdy, and long-lasting.

Learning Their Craft

Their makers learned their craft from their seniors, watching and imitating, and even though their works were never made with artistic intent foremost in mind, they nevertheless reveal high aesthetic qualities that seem to reverberate with our modernist ideals of design, abstraction and pattern. It is a subtle beauty almost never seen in modern mass-produced goods, a beauty often improving with use and age: the fading of indigo-dyed rustic clothing, the wear and patina of wooden utensils, tea-stains in a crackled-glaze bowl. No ’isms, schools, or even names, their makers being unknown and forgotten, yet their mingei works reveal a warm comforting beauty that makes familiar daily-handled objects seem like old friends.

In the Japanese social hierarchy until the modern period, ordinary people  included all classes below the rank of samurai and consisted mainly of farmers, fishermen, craftsmen and merchants. Of these, farmers held a slightly higher status, responsible as they were for producing the nation’s food, while craftsmen and  traders ranked rather lower. During the Edo period (1603-1868) – the golden age of mingei – even though the class of one’s birth was immutable, farmers and merchants often achieved considerable commercial success, even to the stage of bankrolling high-ranking daimyo warlords. Likewise, celebrated artists could rise to mingle with wealthy aristocratic patrons, while the high-born such as Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1829) – a son of the lord of Himeji Castle – was able to choose, with rank intact, to become a famous painter.

Yanagi Soetsu (1887-1979)

For centuries, hand-made goods used by ordinary people were taken for granted, their profound aesthetic qualities unrecognised and considered unworthy of closer attention.  It was perhaps a reaction to the rapid industrialisation of Japan after the Meiji Restoration, and the availability of mass-produced goods, that the psychologist/philosopher Yanagi Soetsu (1887-1979) recognised the beauty of native crafts, coined the word mingei and promulgated his aesthetic ideals in a seminal book The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty (Kodansha International 1972).

In his book – considered essential reading by this writer for anyone with an interest in Japanese arts (along with The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo, In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki, and Zen and the Fine Arts by Shinichi Hisamatsu) – Yanagi proposed that real beauty was non-intellectual and came directly from the heart of the maker: Beauty is a kind of mystery, which is why it cannot be grasped adequately through the intellect. The part of it available to intellection lacks depth, he writes before going on to take a dig at art scholars and critics: Should we apply the adjective ‘good’ to such critics and art historians? How their writings on art are flooded with exaggerated and strained expressions. They use words too in remarkable numbers. They cannot suggest beauty without great heaps of adjectives.

He makes a good point that is certainly valid in Japan where visitors to museums or galleries rarely ask ‘what do you think of that?’ while looking at an artwork. If they comment at all it would be to describe how they feel. While hardly innocent of using large numbers of words himself, Yanagi was nevertheless instrumental in opening the eyes of both Japanese and foreigners to the hitherto unrecognised aesthetic qualities of rustic crafts, and a leading inspiration for artisans to keep their work alive in a world of the mass-produced.

Raku Bowls

Yanagi maintained that a certain power was invoked when craftsmen worked repetitively, for example making the same kind of rice-bowls day after day. A point was reached when the mind was no longer involved and the hands worked independently – probably at speed as deadlines had to be met. Citing the example of  Korean Ido bowls and those made by Japanese Raku potters, he explains that their difference is between things being born and things made.

The Raku bowls were made with deliberate effort, the Korean bowls were effortless products of daily living – and concludes that the Korean bowls were far better. Everyone who tries to create by painting  pictures or writing words knows only too well how failure can come from trying too hard; the dread white paper or blank canvas a merciless challenge.

Yanagi posits that good artists and craftsmen are well aware of this dilemma even though they are trapped by trying, and suggests that instead of following jiriki (salvation through one’s own efforts), success might be better attained by abandoning self-reliance and surrendering to a sort of ‘grace’ where the mind is not involved. He argues that when groups work together, a state of tariki, (salvation through group effort), is attained where achievement is far greater than the sum of its parts. Obviously, such thinking is much infused with Buddhist ideals, especially those of Zen, which have had such a profound influence on all aspects of Japanese culture for the past 700 years or so.

In Japan today, there is still a pursuit of excellence and in some cases, an almost obsessive over-refinement of what would otherwise be considered mundane. Whether or not the ideals of jiriki or tariki are employed is perhaps debatable but there is no doubt that the hand-made is alive and well today in Japan, and exhibitions of superb crafts: ceramics, lacquerware, textiles, glassware, ironware and japanese bamboo works can be seen year-round in galleries and department stores all over the country – as always with the current season in mind.

Some craftsmen of Japanese mange rise to élite status with fame and fortune following, their works expensive and therefore hardly qualifying as mingei objects for common use. Obviously all that glisters is not gold, but one soon learns, like a fly, ‘to polish one’s eyes’ as the Japanese say, and a little persistent rummaging around the mountains of pots in the major kiln centres, or flea markets everywhere, can uncover remarkable treasures.

Jeffrey Montgomery’s Collection of Japanese Mingei

For over half a century, this special beauty of Japanese mingei has caught the eye of the Swiss collector, Jeffrey Montgomery, and this coming Autumn will see a major exhibition of his treasures at the Museo Vincenzo Vela in Southern Switzerland between Como and Lugano. I first met Jeffrey one evening in 1990 after I had been asked by a dinner companion to see an exhibition of Japanese mingei at the new Mario Botta-designed San Gottardo Bank building in Lugano.

Having just driven over the mountains from Lake Maggiore on a hot summer afternoon, the cool refreshments of an Italian restaurant were far more in mind than art and I have to confess that I was somewhat less than enthusiastic. Fortunately, social obligation prevailed and I was rewarded by seeing a wholly-unexpected selection of Japanese antique artworks of a quality that I had only seen previously in Japan at the Tokyo Mingeikan and the Kurashiki Mingeikan, while also meeting their owner, Jeffrey Montgomery.

Since that auspicious encounter, a close friendship has developed with Jeffrey and his wife Mariangela, as well as an increasing involvement with the growth of the collection over the past quarter of a century or so in sourcing new acquisitions, exhibiting and writing. The Montgomery Collection today totals some 765 items including over 300 ceramics, 142 textiles, and 135 sculptures of masks and images of Shintō deities, together with numerous lacquerware objects, paintings and traditional household furnishings.

So how was such a collection formed in Switzerland? Jeffrey tells how he first studied Italian language in Perugia and Florence before moving his residence to Lugano in 1969. After working briefly for a company trading in watches, he established a shop in a mediaeval building in the old town to sell objects that appealed to his own sense of design and artistic merit. He bought ceramics and other applied arts from craftsmen all over Europe and, from time-to-time in the course of his searches, came across Japanese antiques then appearing on the market from old families that had lived in Japan during the Meiji period and pre-war years.

Many Old Pieces in the Collection

Many of these that he still owns are of a quality rarely seen today even in Japan, and some are unique. Particularly the expressive, carved-wood wolves tentatively dated to the Muromachi period appear to be one-of-a-kind, as to my knowledge no other examples can be found in any museum or publication. His Okinawan lacquer works are also especially rare, found in collections that had been in the West since long before WWII, and so spared the terrible destruction in those once-idyllic islands. Jeffrey says that while he sold European crafts in his shop he could not bear parting with the mingei he found, and that is how the collection started. After a year or two he found that study and hunting for new objects left little time for business and so closed his shop to pursue collecting full-time.

Whereas Jeffrey had previously gathered Japanese mingei just for his own enjoyment – a passion that continues today – the aforementioned exhibition at the San Gottardo Bank led to an international awareness of the collection. Since that time, various specialised parts of the collection have been subjects of more than thirty exhibitions to date at museums and other venues such as the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Museum Bellerive in Zürich, the Musée des Arts Asiatiques in Nice, and the Japan Society Gallery in New York.

In all these international venues, the exhibitions have been well-attended by the public and favourably reviewed by the press. In addition, the collection has been publicised in numerous books and catalogues associated with these exhibitions and, with essays by noted scholars, provide some of the best reference works available in European languages. Now, the Montgomery Collection is widely acknowledged as the finest assemblage of mingei outside Japan.

Japanese Mingei and the Perception of a Western Viewer

It is interesting to wonder just what it is about Japanese mingei that captures the perception of a Western viewer, particularly as many of the objects are peculiar to an almost-vanished, traditional Japanese life-style, largely unfamiliar to Europeans or Americans. Surely the answer is that taught by Yanagi, that these crafts speak directly from the heart of their creator to that of the viewer, with neither impediment of language nor those intellectual conundrums that leave people shaking their heads at so many contemporary art exhibitions. It is easy to see the beauty of forms and textures and understand that these are things that would be very pleasant and satisfying to live with. Jeffrey well recognised this ineffable beauty and used his connoisseurship and knowledge to acquire outstanding objects in Europe and America at a time when there was little interest or competition from other buyers. At the Museo Vicenzo Vela we will be fortunate to see masterpieces of those unknown craftsmen.

Masterpieces of Everyday Japan, from 13 October to 1 March 2020, at Museo Vincenzo Vela, museo-vela.ch