"Pinch, pinch, pinch,
A bowl appears.
The fire is red hot."
(Anonymous inscription on a Meiji period Raku chawan)
I have a friend who is very interested in the Raku-yaki works of Raku Kichizaemon XV. Talking with him about Kichizaemon, it is abundantly clear about his passion for this work and got me thinking more about modern Raku, which simply means "enjoyment" in Japanese. Over the years, I have participated in the modern Western approximation of Raku a number of times, even seeing the late Paul Soldner make and fire Raku along the way. In a series of trips to Japan, we visited the Raku Museum in Kyoto a number of times and that really opened my eyes to the true nature and process of Raku from the late Momoyama-jidai to the present. Though spread out over centuries, there is an identifiable thread that links these works and makes them instantly recognizable as Raku.
I have seen a number of really great historic and modern Raku works, including the works of Hon’ami Koetsu, Raku Chojiro, Raku Kichizaemon XIV and XV and the diversity among these works though large is all tied together in what appears to be a simple set of guidelines concerning the pottery and its prescribed use in Cha(no)yu. While examining the Raku pieces on display, which also included an exhibition of chawan by Kichizaemon XV, there are a number of characteristics that are seen throughout the work, that identifiable thread. This always makes me think back on one of the first Japanese pottery books (in English) I ever read; JAPANESE POTTERY (1971) by Soame Jenyns.
To paraphrase from his book with a few of my personal thoughts and additions, Jenyns quotes pottery expert Imaizumi Yosaku, on the five points or basis to judge good Raku chawan. Though broad and vague, the actual teaching of these points is as involved as tea itself. These criterion are as downplayed as Sen (no) Rikyu’s (1522-1591) take on tea, which is one of the great over simplifications; “The art of tea way consists simply of boiling water, preparing tea and drinking it.”
1) The Mouth; the mouth should be a fitting "conclusion" of the form and terminate in a way that it is comfortable to the mouth and at the same time aids to cut the stream of the tea. If the mouth is too prominent, it can take away from the form and overall appearance. The surface of the lip should not be too rough to the lip of the user.
2) The shape of the teapool; the mikomi most be just appropriate and concave enough to accommodate the whisking of the tea and not so obvious that it detracts from the interior form and the overall form by distorting the base and kodai. The pool should also be smooth as to not cause any damage to the whisk and be free of any pocks or blisters which can trap the dry tea.
3) The shape of the base; the base of the bowl should be accommodating to the hand, just smooth enough to be comfortable, but rough enough to create a transition from the bowl form to the foot. The base should also create a foot that keeps the bowl steady.
4) The finish of the base; the finish should again be very comfortable to the hand, and be addressed so as to be “sculpted” in a way that it complements the form and appears natural and uncontrived.
5) The place where the tea whisk rests; this detail is usually missed among many chawan makers, there must be a conceived and well integrated “place” where the maker understands and sees the chasen resting against the wall and lip of the chawan. This spot must by very natural but obvious to chajin and collectors when looking at the bowl.
Masatoshi Okochi, another expert, adds two additional criterion when judging Raku chawan;
6) Glaze and color; the glaze must be fired to the right temperature and is allowed to run down and create a rolling landscape or visual to the bowl, this detail is best when it is suggestive or evokes a naturalistic appearance. The color of the glaze must “blend” into the glaze and support and compliment the form. The color must also take into account the balance between the glaze color and variations in whisked tea. The depth and richness of the best glazes are not easy to describe, but once seen, they are never forgotten.
7) Sugata; The form must asks to be handled, picked up and set down and imparts a steady stance when it is at rest and in use from the preparation of tea, to whisking to the actual act of drinking the tea. The posture of the bowl is staged by how the base and form interact.
Like the utter simplicity of Sen (no) Rikyu's explanation of tea ceremony, the guidelines and rules concerning the Raku chawan and chadogu is rather simplified and seems like nothing more than common sense. As you examine the number of great Raku chawan though, the subtleties and complexities of their manufacture is written in their form and varying attributes. In seeing a vast number of Raku chawan it is clear that many potters have not mastered the art of this style of work and that there is much more to these simple Raku chawan than a bowl pinched from a small ball of clay.
Illustrated is a lusterous Kuro-raku chawan by Konishi Heinai II (b.1928) of the Taikogama. This chawan has a luscious black citron style surface and the form is broad and very solid in appearance. It rests on a narrow, hand tooled foot and the entire chawan is covered in the rich black Raku glaze. Konishi studied and was later adopted by his uncle Konishi Heinai I and also went on to study with Kawakita Handeishi (1878-1963) and though adept at a variety of styles, he is best known for his chadogu in Raku and Iga-yaki. This fine chawan shows the careful thoughtfulness of Konishi's understanding of Raku from the lyrical roving lip and excellent choice of the tong mark placement.