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The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics

In Japan, when prized ceramics, especially those associated with chanoyu (the tea ceremony), were broken or damaged, they would be mended using lacquer that was often further embellished with gold or silver. Such repairs can have inherent artistic value, while imparting prestige to a vessel and its owner. This exhibition, drawn from a private European collection, features tea bowls and other tea-related vessels that provide insight into a uniquely Japanese approach to connoisseurship and appreciation for imperfect beauty.

The aesthetic ideals that evolved in the culture of tea are described by the poetic terms wabi and sabi, applied to chanoyu by early tea masters Takeno Joo (1502–1555) and Sen no Rikyu (1522–1591). Difficult to translate into English, wabi connotes poverty and humility, while sabi suggests seclusion, aging, patina, and decay. Together, wabi and sabi celebrate the quiet beauty to be found in whatever is humble, simple, and impermanent. Sen no Rikyu encouraged the mending of tea utensils, saying, “It is good for the utensils of a small room to be lacking. . . . tea jars that have been repaired with lacquer become all the more fit for use.” Mending in a way that calls attention to the brokenness of an object became an expression of the Zen spirit of mushin (“no mind”)—nonattachment and the acceptance of given circumstances. It also offered a kind of rebirth to an object, transforming its appearance and imbuing it with greater honor than it might have enjoyed in its undamaged condition. The use of gold and silver, though seemingly contradictory to the ideas of wabi and sabi, appropriately expressed the profound esteem felt for a damaged object by employing precious material in the repair, and reflects decorative aesthetics associated with Japanese courtly taste and artistic refinement.

When hosting a tea gathering, the tea master carefully chooses utensils that make associations with nature and the season, as well as more personal allusions to the occasion, guests, or to the tea community as a whole. Using mended antique objects, especially those once owned by previous tea practitioners, can impart to the participants a sense of belonging to a great tradition that extends into the past. Investing in the expense of fine lacquer repair represents an endorsement of the utensil by its owner and instills the importance of preserving it for future generations.

The exhibition is organized by the Museum of Lacquer Art, Muenster, Germany.  We are grateful to Thomas Bachmann and Gabriel Eckenstein, Basel, Switzerland, for arranging to make this private collection available for public viewing.

Ellen Avril
Chief Curator and Curator of Asian Art