CHIGUSA AND THE ART OF TEA IN JAPAN | Legendary 700-year-old tea jar “Chigusa” featured in the U.S. for the first time


PRINCETON, NJ—The story of Chigusa is the remarkable tale of an ordinary Chinese storage jar rising, over the course of several centuries and generations of connoisseurs, to become one of the most revered objects of Japan’s chanoyu, or art of tea. On view Oct. 11, 2014 through Feb. 1, 2015, Chigusa and the Art of Tea in Japan introduces visitors to this renowned object—on view in the U.S. for the first time—as seen through the eyes of the 16th-century tea men who celebrated it.

Chigusa originated as one of countless utilitarian ceramics crafted in southern China during the 13th or 14th century and was shipped to Japan as a common container for commercial goods . Once in Japan, however, its use over many years as a tea-leaf storage jar endowed it with special status: it was deemed an aesthetic exemplar and became a highly desirable collectible. The rare bestowing of a personal name—Chigusa (“thousand grasses” or “myriad things”), an evocative phrase from Japanese poetry—on the object was a sign of additional respect and reverence, a marker that it had assumed cult like status and renown.

“Tea men looked at Chigusa and found beauty even in its flaws, elevating it from a simple tea jar to how we know it today,” said Louise Allison Cort, curator of ceramics at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. “This ability to value imperfections in objects made by the human hand is one of the great contributions of Japanese tea culture to the world.”

During the 16th century, the art of tea evolved into a major aesthetic and cultural pastime in Japan. Circles of influential tea connoisseurs imbued high status on meibutsu, or celebrated objects, through such practices as naming, adorning and close observation. Tea diaries kept by these enthusiasts recorded not only Chigusa’s name but also detailed descriptions of its physical attributes and accessories, allowing contemporary scholars to see the jar through the eyes of generations of connoisseurs and scholars.

“This is an exceptional opportunity to study the ritual of tea through the lens of a single, renowned object and its accoutrements, and thus to trace the story of an object over the centuries—and in doing so to gain new insights into historic Japanese culture,” notes Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward.

In Chigusa and the Art of Tea in Japan, Chigusa holds court alongside other cherished objects, including a Chinese painting remade in Japan for chanoyu, a remarkable portrait of the tea master Sen no Rikyū, Chinese and Cambodian vessels and Japanese ceramics that were used and enjoyed over the centuries within the context of Japanese tea culture. In order to create the intimate feel of a tea gathering, the exhibition includes an abstracted tea room and a full complement of tea utensils from the collection of Peggy and Richard M. Danziger.

The remarkable documentation and artifacts that surround Chigusa—including inscriptions, letters, textile accessories and storage boxes—narrate a fascinating history of ownership and enjoyment. Few jars with comparable documentation survive in Japan or elsewhere. Marks on the jar’s base are thought to be the signatures of its proud owners, dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. Chigusa was held in Japanese private collections until it was acquired by the Freer Gallery at auction in 2009. Once the exhibition has concluded, Chigusa will permanently enter the collection of the Freer Gallery and will never again travel.

For display in the tea room, Chigusa was outfitted with luxury accessories bestowed on it by its successive owners: a mouth covering of antique Chinese gold-brocaded silk, a net bag of blue silk and a set of blue silk cords used to tie ornamental knots to the four lugs on the jar’s shoulder. A video in the exhibition follows a tea master dressing Chigusa in its adornments, an elaborate process.

“Chigusa is the rare object that allows us deep insight into how people in Japan looked at, thought about and valued things over time,” said Andrew M. Watsky, professor of Japanese art history at Princeton University. “We are incredibly fortunate to participate in the now centuries-long activity of examining and appreciating this singular ceramic jar.”

The exhibition is accompanied by a publication by multiple authors narrating Chigusa’s 700-year history—a major contribution to the study of Japanese aesthetics, history and material culture. Chigusa and the Art of Tea (288 pp., 272 illus., $40, published by the Freer and Sackler Galleries and distributed by the University of Washington Press) is coedited by Louise Allison Cort and Andrew M. Watsky.

In November 2014, in conjunction with the exhibition, a symposium jointly organized by the P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art at Princeton University and the Department of Art and Archaeology will enlarge upon the exhibition’s scholarly themes. Titled “Contextualizing Chigusa: The Arts in and around Tea in Sixteenth-century Japan,” the symposium will gather major international scholars to present original research on areas of Japanese art that intersect with the world of Chigusa, including painting, calligraphy, ceramics and textiles.

Chigusa and the Art of Tea in Japan is organized by the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery with major funding from Toshiba International Foundation—25 years of supporting the arts.  Generous support is also provided by Mitsubishi Corporation (Americas); Dr. Sachiko Kuno and Dr. Ryuji Ueno; Jay and Toshiko Tompkins, anonymous, and the Friends of the Freer/Sackler.  Additional support for the exhibition publication is provided by the Barr Ferree Foundation Fund for Publications, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University.  The exhibition at Princeton has been made possible by generous support from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts; Christopher E. Olofson, Class of 1992; and the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund, with additional support from the Department of Art and Archaeology and the P.Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art, Princeton University.  Further support has been provided by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, a Partner Agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; and the Partners and Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum. The exhibition brochure is made possible through the support of the Parnassus Foundation, courtesy of Jane and Raphael Bernstein..

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