The Sublime Art of Raku

The distinctive Japanese pottery style known as raku originated in Japan during the 16th century when the Japanese tea master, Sen no Rikyu wanted to make a hand-molded tea bowl for use in the chawan (tea ceremony). These tea bowls had a seal that bore the Chinese character for ‘raku’, which means ‘ease’ or ‘enjoyment’. The raku name and the ceramic style associated with has since been passed down to generations of Japanese potters. It also became influential in the rest of world as the quintessential expression of the wabi-sabi aesthetic that celebrates the beauty of imperfection and impermanence.

The Making of Raku

Raku chawan tea bowls are molded using the tezukune palms of the hand technique: clay is shaped into a dense, flat circle and built up by compressing between the palms. When dry enough, the rough and imperfect clay is trimmed with an iron or bamboo scraper and covered with an opaque glaze.

Unlike normal pottery firing, where the pieces cool down slowly in the kiln and are removed with gloves, Raku pots are fired for about eighteen hours, then removed while they are at their maximum temperature and put directly into water or allowed to cool in the open air. This is to expose them to the natural elements, thus entrusting the finishing process to nature. The finished bowls are simple and without ornament and are typically glazed either entirely in red or black to reflect the wabi sabi ideal of beauty in simplicity and sobriety.

A very early tea bowl with black glaze by Chojiro, late 16th century, Tokyo National Museum.

This is one of the earliest Raku tea bowls in existence. Raku tea bowls were initiated by the famous 16th century potter Tanaka Chojiro (1516–1592), the founder of the Raku family. Historical evidence shows that Chojiro manufactured ridge tiles for shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s palace in 1574. It is recorded that in 1584, Hideyoshi presented him with a seal inscribed with the character 楽, raku, meaning enjoyment, pleasure, happiness, contentment, comfort. “Raku” was then accepted as a new addition to Chojiro’s family name.

Black Raku tea bowl Aoyama by the third Raku master, Dōnyū. Important Cultural Property. 16th century. Collection of the Raku Museum, Kyoto.

For 450 years, the traditional techniques of Raku ware have been handed down within the clan. The designs of the first Raku masters were spare and reserved. Dōnyū, the third Raku master incorporated a modest amount of flair in his work while still in keeping with the overall sobriety of the wabi sabi aesthetic as can be seen in the above tea bowl in which he applied abstract images to the exterior that suggests the influence of the famed artist Hon’ami Kōetsu, a friend and mentor from whom he learned the spirit of invention.

Muichibutsu (Nothing), tea bowl with red glaze named by Chojiro, late 16th century, Collection of the Egawa Museum of Art.
Tea bowl with black glaze attributed to Chojiro, early 17th century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Raku tea bowl with black glaze attributed to Raku Sonyu V. Early 17th century, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Raku Sonyu V (1664-1716) was the fifth-generation head of the Kyoto-based Raku family. With its characteristic matte black glaze, this tea bowl is reminiscent of the work of Chojiro.

An 18th century tea bowl made of red earthenware with clear glaze by Raku Chonyu VII, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Raku Chonyu VII (1714-1770) was the seventh-generation leader of the Chonyu Raku family. The red color of this tea bowl evokes the earlier work of Chojiro. The color is not created by a red glaze; rather, the red hue comes from the actual color of the clay itself when iron in the clay becomes oxidized during firing.

Tea Bowl with black glaze by Kenzan Shochu, also known as Kyoto Kenzan II, active circa 1720–1760, Edo period, 18th century, Smithsonian Institute, US.
Tea bowl with crane and flowing water design, imitation of Kyoto Kenzan II, Meiji period, late 19th century, red clay; white slip, iron pigment under clear lead glaze, Smithsonian Institute, US.
Tea bowl made of earthenware with red and green glazes and decorations in gold. Attributed to Raku Tannyu X, 1795-1854, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Partly covered with colored glazes and incised with golden foliage, this earthenware tea bowl is a rare ornated example from the Edo period. It is believed to be the work of Raku Tannyu X, the 10th generation head of the family.

Continuing the Tradition: 20th Century Raku

Yachiyo, tea bowl with black glaze by Raku Seinyu XIII, 20th century. Photo by Masayuki Miyahara. Raku Museum, Kyoto.
Yokoku, tea bowl with black glaze named by Raku Kichizaemon XV, 1989, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.
Red raku chawan decorated with crane by Waraku Kawasaki (b. 1936), width: 12 cm, height: 8 cm. Private collection.

Waraku Kawasaki VII is a Kyoto potter and the seventh generation master of the Waraku kiln lineage. The Waraku family kiln has been producing beautiful Raku pieces since the latter part of the Edo period, and their tea wares are reputed to be some of the best on the market. Waraku bowls are unique because they are wheel-thrown as opposed to hand-built. Their organic appearance comes from the process of cutting and pinching. The kiln is now in its eighth generation and headed by Waraku Kawasaki VIII.

Another lovely Raku chawan by Waraku Kawasaki. This red chawan bears a gentle charisma and tasteful hand painting of a plum tree. The seal of the potter is stamped on the bottom.
Tea bowl with black glaze, 2012 by Raku Kichizaemon XV (b. 1949). Collection of National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.

Raku Kichizaemon (pictured below) is the director and chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Raku Museum in Kyoto and the fifteenth generation in his Raku family. He is a winner of numerous awards, including the Japan Ceramic Society’s Gold Prize and the French Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

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