Fashioning Tradition:
Japanese Tea Wares from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

January 19 - May 27, 2007

Fashioning Tradition:  Japanese Tea Wares from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries features objects associated with the tea ceremony, which has become a metaphor for Japanese culture and Japanese aesthetics both in Japan and the West.  The custom of drinking tea is traditionally said to have been imported to Japan from China during the 9th century, but did not become widespread until the 13th century when it was used by Zen monks to stay awake during meditation.  In the 15th and 16th centuries, tea masters combined the drinking of tea with the appreciation of works of art in a carefully choreographed setting, a practice that came to be known as sadō, or the way of tea.

The ritual preparation of tea requires a range of objects—works of painting or calligraphy to hang in the alcove of the tea room, vases for seasonal flower arrangements, iron kettles for boiling water, lacquer or ceramic containers for powdered tea, bamboo scoops, whisks and ladles, and, of primary importance, ceramic tea bowls.  This exhibition will include a number of these objects, dating from as early as the mid-8th century, which are valued both for their aesthetic value and as aids in spiritual and contemplative practice.  Highlights include three tea bowls by the fifth-generation Raku potter Sōnyū, a bowl by Chojirō, the first-generation Raku potter, and the only work of its type in this country; a letter by the tea master Sen no Rikyū, and a section of a tea diary by Matsudaira Fumai.

Samuel C. Morse—professor of fine arts at Amherst College and the Museum's curatorial consultant for Asian art—served as the guest curator for the exhibition and author of its accompanying catalogue. The show is the basis for a spring-semester course shared by Amherst and Smith Colleges and taught by Professor Morse and Professor Tom Rohlich of Smith.

“Students will be able to see two tea arrangements, known as toriawase,” says Morse, “one in the teahouse and one in front of a screen that skillfully creates the illusion of looking out through bamboo blinds to a garden setting.  Our intention is to get the students to make a toriawase of their own at the start of the semester and then revisit their toriawase at the end of the semester.  The availability of actual objects will be essential to this process.”

Loans to the exhibition have been made from private collections in New York and Cambridge as well as from the Art Complex Museum in Duxbury, Massachusetts. The Urasenke Foundation, New York, provided the tea house setting for the toriawase. The exhibition and its catalogue are supported by a generous grant from The Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston.