For the past few weeks, my interaction with HoMA’s collection has been entirely digital. This has highlighted for me how much of our activity at the museum is usually focused on the artworks as physical objects. We spend our days measuring objects, checking their condition, making sure they are properly stored, photographing them, determining how they can best be shown, designing casework and mounts, carefully moving and installing them, adjusting the lighting, and monitoring the gallery environment while they are on display.

I miss this, and think many would agree that, as grateful as we are that HoMA can maintain an online presence in these unusual circumstances, the virtual museum will never replace the physical museum. One behind-the-scenes memory comes to mind in this regard, and it is of our teabowl by Hon’ami Kōetsu. A few years ago this bowl was the centerpiece of an exhibition, and I asked our Digital Imaging Specialist, Scott Kubo, to take new photographs for promotional materials. Scott is meticulous about getting the best image, and after working for a long time, he showed me several test shots. He was unsatisfied with all of them, because no matter what he did, the glaze was highly responsive to light, and there was a glow that, while beautiful in person, created hot spots in the photos. Finally, we decided to stitch several images together to create a photo with (gently enhanced) perfectly even light.

Scott’s photos are always thoughtful, but Kōetsu’s teabowl perhaps received extra attention. Indeed, Kōetsu holds a special place in the history of Japanese art, and it is remarkable how much he influenced what we consider to be a distinctly Japanese aesthetic today. Kōetsu came from a family of sword polishers, but he excelled in many media, including lacquer, calligraphy, graphic design, and of course, ceramics. He had an exceptional sensitivity for the inherent physical qualities of his materials, something that is of particular significance to teabowls. Kōetsu lived at a time when the tea ceremony was undergoing a radical transformation. Through the first part of the 16th century, drinking tea was an exclusive activity reserved for the elite (and for Buddhist monks, but that is another story). Tea had been introduced from China, and it was only fitting that it was consumed in expensive, imported Chinese ceramics that were conspicuous symbols of power. However, this century also saw changes in Japan’s economy that facilitated the spread of wealth and its trappings to a wider segment of the population. For example, merchants in the port city of Sakai, near Osaka, also began to practice the tea ceremony. Changes were at first gradual, but one Sakai tea master, Sen no Rikyū (1522–1591), gained the support of the most powerful military leader in Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598), and together they forever changed the Way of Tea.

Rikyū carefully selected the objects used in his tea ceremonies for the ways in which they would stimulate the senses. Rather than accept the established elite preference for hard, smooth imported Chinese porcelain, he considered softer, more textured locally produced earthenware to be superior, beginning a tradition of Raku ware in Kyoto that continues to this day. Rikyū’s concern for aesthetic perfection extended to every aspect of his life, resulting in one of my favorite stories. Rikyū supposedly had a garden of morning glories that became the envy of the town, until one day Hideyoshi announced that he would pay a visit to see the flowers at the moment when they were in fullest bloom. When he arrived, however, all of the flowers had been cut away. Enraged, Hideyoshi stormed into the temple to find Rikyū and punish him, only to come across one perfect blossom, exquisitely displayed inside.

Kōetsu was in the third generation of tea masters who continued Rikyū’s innovations. Unlike Rikyū, who relied on others to produce his bowls, Kōetsu actually made bowls himself, and sourced his clay locally. One can only imagine what it must have been like to hold this bowl in your hands, sense the (perfect) imperfections of its surface on your skin, admire the color harmony of bright green tea and soft red clay, and feel the warmth of the freshly whisked tea as you raised the bowl to your lips. All, perhaps, while gazing upon one perfect morning glory….

Of course, when the museum reopens, we won’t actually be able to offer you tea from Kōetsu’s bowl. Nevertheless, I am greatly looking forward to being once again in this treasured bowl’s presence, and watching the play of light—so troublesome to a photographer—on its surface, shifting and changing with a life of its own.

– Shawn Eichman, Curator of Asian Art

Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637)
Japan, 17th century
Glazed earthenware
Gift of Anna Rice Cooke, 1933