For the Japanese, the tea ceremony is an ancient ritual that brings people together in a shared experience–aesthetic, spiritual and social. At the heart of that ceremony is the tea bowl, and none are more highly prized than those made over 15 generations of the Raku family. An exhibition of their work spanning four and a half centuries is on display in the Pavilion for Japanese Art at LACMA through June 7, and it’s a must-see for every lover of craft and beauty.
Robert T. Singer, LACMA’s Curator of Japanese Art, has been planning this exhibition for the past 35 years in collaboration with the Raku Museum in Japan and the active involvement of Mr. Raku XV. The story begins with a potter named Chōjirō, who met the tea master Sen no Rikyū around 1582 and began making chunky tea bowls in a style that was then regarded as daringly new. Warlord Toyotomi Hideoshi was sufficiently impressed to confer the name Raku (joyfulness) on Chōjirō, who passed the honorific and the craft to his son. Since then, the family has occasionally adopted an heir when a son showed insufficient skill, but—astonishingly—the creative genes have generally been passed from father to son. Raku XV has played daring variations on tradition, whereas his son, the 34-year-old Sōkichi, prefers to work within the rigorous aesthetic of his distant ancestors.
The tea ceremony fuses the rustic and the refined. It is at once earthy and elaborately choreographed, and one has to turn a Raku bowl in one’s hands and sip the frothy green liquid to to appreciate the spell they cast on connoisseurs. Displayed on cushions in the soft light of the Japanese Pavilion, one can admire them for their subtleties of form, texture and dark tones. A video illustrates the creative process of shaping, glazing and firing the porous clay, with the son working the bellows for hours at a time. Most of the bowls are triumphs of minimalism but they are joined by stylized and naturalistic animals, and scrolls by artists of the relevant period. —Michael Webb
Above, from left: Tarobo by Chōjirō, Yachiyo by Seinyū, and Juei by Kakunyū