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Made in Japan: Kakiemon and 400 years of porcelain

Chiba Tetsuya (b. 1939), Fair Isle Lighthouse Keepers Golf Course, Scotland. Ink and colour on paper, 2015. Loaned by the artist. © Chiba Tetsuya.

In 1616, Ri Sanpei discovered porcelain stone in a quarry in Arita, a town on the southern island of Kyushu near Nagasaki. This sparked the porcelain production in Japan, and accelerated when Ming dynasty China closed off foreign trade with the West and allowed Japan to virtually monopolise the market. Starting with the Dutch East India Company, Japanese porcelains were coveted by many Western traders and gave rapid rise to the advancement in porcelain and kiln technologies in Japan. The result was a flourishing emergence of new ceramic making styles and dynastic potter families that continue to be appreciated and practiced to this day.

Possibly the most iconic are the porcelains made by Kakiemon kiln started by Sakaida Kizaemon (1596-1666) in the 1650s. Kizaemon discovered the secret to creating polychrome enamel decoration and was given his artist name and title, Kakiemon, in reference to the orange-red hue he used, which evoked the colour of a ripe autumnal persimmon (kaki). He and his family have been firing the exquisite wares for fifteen unbroken generations. Particularly admired also is the ware’s creamy white ground achieved using a technique called nigoshide.

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of porcelain production in Japan. To celebrate the heritage and timeless appeal of the craft, the British Museum is holding a special exhibition of Kakiemon wares entitled Made in Japan: Kakiemon and 400 years of porcelain curated by Professor Nicole Coolidge Roumaniere, Founder and Research Director of the Sainsbury Institute. ‘Kakiemon style dates its popularity back to the 1670s and was made for a largely European market,’ Nicole explains. ‘It originated with Sakaida Kakiemon I, who learnt the secrets to overglaze enamelling possibly from a Chinese specialist in Nagasaki in 1647. He then introduced this technique to Arita, earning the name ‘Kakiemon’, which derives from kaki (persimmon) after the orange-red colour of the enamel.’

The Kakiemon kiln has continued to produce porcelain for fifteen generations, and today is still modelled on the traditional Japanese early modern workshop system. Succession is based on the principle of iemoto or ‘head of the household’, the oldest son inheriting and sustaining the brand and workshop. Sakaida Kakiemon XV (b. 1968) is the latest to hold the prestigious title – the fifteenth generation of this famous dynasty.

Hoshino Yukinobu (centre) and his son with Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere (left)

Contextualising the exhibits is an immersive film made specially for the exhibition. Documented earlier in the year, the film reveals the process of porcelain making by Kakiemon XV’s workshop today and provides the visitors with a glimpse of the creative process from start to finish using techniques that have been passed down for hundreds of years. The actual objects exhibited in the Made in Japan exhibition range from the charming late 17th-century figurine of a boy on a Go game board to an awe-inspiring large dish made by Kakiemon XIV. Not to be missed is the exquisite octagonal lidded bowl by Kakeimon XV, which was made specially for the exhibition and British Museum collection. Demonstrating the demand for Kakiemon style wares, the show also includes examples of European Kakiemon style imitation wares.

Large bowl with design of azalea branches, Kakiemon IVX, 1996. The British Museum. 1996,0326.1
Large bowl with design of azalea branches, Kakiemon IVX, 1996.
The British Museum. 1996,0326.1

The exhibition is supported by the Asahi Shimbun and includes a series of related events open to the public.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays, British Museum
Made in Japan Kakiemon and 400 years of porcelain
23 June – 21 August 2016
Free | Room 3 | Open late Fridays

Special thanks to Professor Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere and the British Museum Press Office

Kaz Morohashi
Research, Planning and Public Relations Officer

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