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Jan Kollwitz: focusing the flame.

IN ANCIENT JAPAN, GLAZING WAS NOT CONSIDERED AN essential aspect of ceramics production. Potters found that they could create serviceable high-fired stoneware vessels simply by firing the unglazed clay for up to a week at temperatures of 1200[degrees]C or higher. The kilns these potters used were tunnels dug into the sides of hills, with a flue opened further up the slope. These tunnel kilns, or anagama, were relatively inefficient, consuming vast amounts of wood and requiring days of firing to completely fuse the clay body. Inevitably, debris from the kiln roof fell onto some of the pieces, while others slumped from being too close to the fire mouth at the entrance or fired incompletely from being too far away. Estimates of loss in each firing run as high as 50 percent, or even greater.

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Yet, the pieces created by this inefficient, time-consuming process, although intended for use as simple, utilitarian vessels, have captured the attention of ceramics lovers for centuries. As early as the late 15th century, masters of Japanese tea practice selected works of native unglazed stoneware for use in a mode of tea gathering they referred to as "cold and withered". This aesthetic approach contrasted with the use of fine Chinese utensils and artworks, which were expensive and more lavish in appearance.

Following the publication of Bernard Leach's A Potter's Book in 1940, Japanese ceramics approaches and aesthetics became familiar to craftspeople in Europe and North America. From the early 1970s, ever-increasing numbers of potters from the West travelled to Japan to study with masters of traditional ceramics lineages. Most of these potters returned home to establish studios that were based in some way on Japanese ceramics workshop traditions.

Among the more radical transplanted approaches was the use of woodfiring kilns. Some potters who built such kilns based their early designs on the 'climbing kilns' (noborigama) introduced to Japan from Korea at the end of the 16th century. Others, however, built a modified form of the older anagama, using a single above-ground firing chamber of brick to replace the more volatile tunnel constructions used centuries ago.

The potter Jan Kollwitz is one of those for whom woodfired stoneware proved to have an irresistible fascination. Yet, not content to simply reproduce the outward forms, he has internalised many deep and significant aspects of Japanese culture. His lifestyle, working environment and finished pieces are influenced by Kollwitz's understanding of such seminal aspects of traditional Japanese culture such as Zen Buddhism and chanoyu, the tea ceremony.

Born in Berlin, Kollwitz now works in the village of Cismar, near the Baltic Sea. His wood-burning anagama kiln was built in 1988 by the Japanese master kiln builder Watanabe Tatsuo. It has served Kollwitz well for more than two decades. Over time, Kollwitz has gained the ability to predict with relative confidence which areas of his kiln will yield the effects he desires. Even so, each firing results in surprises that evoke pleasure and wonder. The kiln has become a collaborator--not simply a construction of bricks, but a semi-independent force that adds its own unique contributions to the outcome of each piece.

Kollwitz creates ceramics inspired by Japan out of a respect for the foundations of Japanese culture, not out of a desire to simply imitate Japanese forms, styles and methods. Examining his pieces, one is struck by his extreme sympathy for Japanese sensibilities. Despite the relatively unpredictable nature of his collaboration with the kiln, Kollwitz's woodfired ceramics are exquisite manifestations of what Japanese connoisseurs themselves value most highly in ceramics. This attests to not only his careful selection of materials and construction of forms, but also to his sensitive placement of pieces in the kiln and his intuitive decisions about which examples are chosen to enter his oeuvre of work.

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Some of Kollwitz's ceramics are notable for their subtlety; others are striking for their dramatic contrasts. Pieces such as Iga Hanaire, Hanaike or Kyozutsu display black scorching (koge) on the lower area that is rarely found even on unglazed wood-fired ceramics in Japan. This manifestation links Kollwitz's work with the Japanese ceramic type known as Iga, a bold, yet enigmatic ware that reached its height of popularity in the early 17th century. Iga shares certain characteristics with neighbouring Shigaraki, another ceramic type that Kollwitz credits with influencing his work, including rough, off-white clay and typically heavy deposits of incidental glaze.

It is the fall of ash that creates the speckling, sheen, glazing, or flow that decorates an unglazed woodfired piece. Wood ash contains minerals such as silica that do not burn up in the firing, but are blown through the kiln by the kiln draft, falling randomly according to their weight, the strength of the kiln draft, the temperature and any obstructions that may impede their course. Generally, the surfaces of items that face the source of the kiln draft will receive a heavier deposit or coating of ash glaze. Thus, most unglazed woodfired pieces have a clear 'front' and 'back' such as Kake-Hanaike and Echizen Otsubo).

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Other surface effects, such as flashing (hi-iro) are caused by variations in the kiln atmosphere at certain points in the firing process as well as the location of a specific piece in relation to other pieces. Kollwitz has achieved some arresting contrasts in cool and warm colours as a result of this manifestation in Kabin.

Kollwitz's principle teacher in Japan was the Echizen potter Nakamura Yutaka. Traditional Echizen ware is known for the small vessels called o-haguro tsubo (tooth-blackening jars). Kollwitz has succeeded in recreating these jars in an eerily accurate manner, to the point that one imagines that they are just how antique Echizen jars must have looked when they were new as in Ohaguro Tsubo. Such an ability to capture the spirit of wares of five hundred years ago is rare even among the best Japanese potters.

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Not all Kollwitz's forms are Japanese in origin. Among his pieces are pitchers (not a traditional Japanese shape) and a number of distinctly original jar, vase and platter forms. Nevertheless, each of his pieces demonstrates his intense focus on achieving just that perfect je ne sais crois.

The Kollwitz estate and workshop is located in an old parsonage in Cismar that is a monument of Shaker-esque simplicity and understated elegance. Kollwitz's workshop and gallery reflect a successful marriage between the Teutonic utilitarian approach to life and the austere aesthetics of a Japanese tea master. Stark white walls and varying warm and cool tones of unpainted wood provide a ready backdrop for his ceramic shapes. Executing all the necessary processes of ceramics production himself, from digging and preparing clay to the actual firing, Kollwitz carries on a lifestyle something like that of a Buddhist monk and, indeed, Zen has had a significant impact on his life.

In his village retreat in Cismar, Kollwitz leads a markedly different life from that of his great-grandmother, the renowned artist Kathe Kollwitz, who spent most of her life in the metropolitan city of Berlin. Nevertheless, there are some tangible connections between Kollwitz and his great-grandmother.

"When I was growing up, there were works by my great-grandmother in our house, sculpture as well as drawings and prints. I felt an emotional attachment to them and, even though the subject matter was often dark and disturbing, they never frightened me. There was a sculpture that I touched whenever I passed it. As a small child, I didn't know the significance of these artworks or their background, but I sensed in them a feeling of harmony."

Later, as a teenager, Jan was often irritated that whenever he was introduced to someone, they seemed inevitably to ask if he was related to Kathe Kollwitz. That feeling disappeared when, in his early 20s, he read her diaries for the first time. "After learning of the awful circumstances under which my great-grandmother worked for much of her life, I came to feel proud of her dedication to her art and to her ideal of making the world a better place."

Kollwitz's first attraction was to sculpture, but was hesitant to commit to the medium because he did not want to be compared to his great-grandmother. After meeting the German potter Horst Kerstan, however, Kollwitz became convinced that he could make ceramic vessels that were sculptural in nature, yet would not be judged against his great-grandmother's work. Now, years later, he feels that ceramics have enabled him to express himself artistically and spiritually, without the overt social/political focus that dominated many of the pieces of his great-grandmother.

In 2010, Jan Kollwitz's ceramics were exhibited at the Kathe Kollwitz Museum in Cologne, Germany, just after his 50th birthday. Viewing the installation, he felt that his pieces met the challenge of the formidable venue and that his great-grandmother would have been pleased with them.

"Kathe Kollwitz's life and art were different from mine in almost every way. The only aspect in which I believe we are comparable is in our dedication to work. Like her, no matter the circumstances, no matter how I am feeling, I simply try to make the best work I can, without a thought to its reception or impact. That, for me, is an artist's greatest legacy."

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Article by Andrew Maske

Andrew L Maske is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Kentucky, US. His research focuses on connections between ceramic art and broader culture in the nations of East Asia. His most recent book is Potters and Patrons in Edo Period Japan: Takatori Ware and the Kuroda Domain (Ashgate Publishing, 2011).
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Author:Maske, Andrew
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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