The legacy of traditional arts and crafts in Japan had always been rooted upon family ownership—skills and techniques handed down from generation to generation. Consequently, in the world of ancient Japanese pottery, artisans were not noted by their individual names, but by the school of pottery they belonged to, such as Shigaraki, Seto-yaki, Imari-yaki, Kutani-yaki, and so on. However, one distinct Japanese artist and potter broke this lineage of tradition—a son of a wealthy textile merchant who was not raised in a potter’s family, yet largely influenced by his own passion for calligraphy, crafts, painting, and his renowned brother Ogata Korin’s exquisite talent, and who found his own poetic interpretation of form and color in ceramics.

Ogata Shinsei (1663-1743), fondly known as Ogata Kenzan (“northwest mountains”) succeeded in living his own name both as a persona and as a brand, and has been considered as one of Japan’s most significant and highly admired ceramic artists. Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo proudly celebrates Ogata Kenzan’s artistic tradition in The Maestro of Conception: Kenzan is Here, running until the 20th of July. Displaying an impressive collection of over 130 works, the exhibition traces the life and work achievements of Kenzan from his young and reclusive days near the Ninnaji Temple in Kyoto in 1689 to his revolution of color and relocation to Edo (old Tokyo) in 1731.

The brilliancy of Kenzan’s style lies in his excellent synthesis of painting and poetry—a unique approach that opens up a deeper curiosity around his objects, as though they relate hidden stories. His series of Square dishes with seasonal motifs based on Fujiwara Teika’s poems in the twelve months (1702 to 18th century) best exemplifies the Kenzan mode. Because he was trained to draw before he studied pottery, Kenzan was a true master of decoration. He was also known for his tea bowls with waka poetry inscriptions around them, as seen in Tea bowl with landscape designs in underglazed iron oxide (18th century). Kenzan used Chinese-inspired images of tiny village huts before a scenic background of mountains, plain sky and thinly silhouetted birds, depicting clear representations of Chinese art influences.

When Kenzan transferred his kiln to central Kyoto in 1712, mass production of vessels urged him to explore vivid colors. Vibrant tints of red, blue, green, yellow, orange, brown and purple shone in his bowls, plates, jars, cups and other kaiseki (sophisticated Japanese cuisine) tableware—among his admired pieces which were the covered boxes said to be derived from forms of baskets and lacquerware. The popularity of his craft overflowed and paved the trend towards what would soon be recognized as Kenzan-yaki or Kenzan-ware.

Fifty years after Kenzan’s death in 1963, an unknown breed of potters continued to work under the Kenzan tradition, reliving the master’s conception of eternal beauty and elegance in painting, calligraphy and poetry through ceramic art.

With gratitude to Suntory Museum of Art, Tokyo