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Re-making tradition: leach in Japan.

"MODERNIST ART ALSO TENDS TO SPRING FROM THE collision between tradition and modernity It is typically the work of literal or internal emigres, men and women caught on the hop between different cultures and languages." (2)

In the past 25 years and more, consigned to the condescensions of postmodernism, the reputation of Bernard Leach gathered only faint praise. (3) Leach's support for the authenticity of the Sano ceramics of Ogata Kenzan, discovered in 1962, (elsewhere held to be fakes) became a touchstone for the burial of Leach's aesthetic judgement. Professor Richard L Wilson (4) considered Leach to be implicated in a fraud, a view repeated by Edmund de Waal in characterising Leach's relationship to Japan as arcane, mystical, condescending and out of touch. (5)

More careful consideration of Wilson's research, however, demonstrates that his most recent reference considered the matter "still unresolved", (6) that Leach's supporters are respected scholars and writers who continued to support the authenticity of the pieces, (7) offers no details for the scientific tests he claims as evidence, appears to have examined few if any of the objects in dispute (8) and neglects to directly address the arguments that Leach presented in support of the authenticity of the works. (9)

De Waal further charged Leach with "orientalism", a term originating with Edward Said's critique of Anglo-French imperial expansion in the Middle East, an assumption of superiority by its agents in an extension of occidental cultural hegemony, despite the fact that Said's work offers only a passing reference to Japan and is explicitly "limited to ... Arab and Islam". (10) Neither by academic attainment, social or political status and influence, by outlook, age or generation would Leach be included within even an extended meaning of Said's criticism. De Waal's subsequent ascription to Leach of the Western caricature of the Orient--"homo-orientalis", mystical and religiously inclined, presented in turn a caricature of Leach's relationship to Japan precluding any substantive explanation of the historical basis of Leach's experience in the East for the development of his work and the founding of the studio pottery movement.

Leach's guides to Japan were more often arrivals from America; the itinerant writer folklorist Lafcadio Hearn, Chair of English Literature at the Imperial University; and art scholar Ernest Fenollosa, advisor to the Imperial Court (who along with collectors ES Morse and William Bigelow, donors to the Boston Museum of Fine Art represented perhaps the predominant foreign presence in Meiji Japan at the time that Leach, with his friend Tomimoto Kenkichi placed themselves in the somewhat obscure lineage of the Kenzan tradition as apprentices to Urano Shigekichi, Kenzan VI).

The first Kenzan, Ogata (1663-1743), a son of merchant wealth, belonged to a group of artists identified by Fenollosa in his comprehensive study of the relationship of Chinese and Japanese art as Rinpa (11). The school, so understood, linked four artists: Koetsu (1558-1637), swordsmith, calligrapher and potter; Sotatsu, (d 1640), a painter; Ogata Korin (1658-1716) a painter of screens, fans and pottery for whom the school was named and his brother who adopted the name of Kenzan, a decorator of pottery. They formed a school of design, painting and industry (12), "remaking Chinese classical themes in a new Japanese style of bold colours, simplified lines and abstractions of nature, integrating poetry, painting, calligraphy and pottery. It is with the inclusion of pottery as an element of fine art, initially by Koetsu in raku and later by Kenzan in earthenware and stone ware, often with painting by Korin, a synthesis of art and design" (13) that Leach may be identified and represents a touchstone for Leach's life as an artist/craftsman producing objects for daily life.

Leach's more radical contribution lay in breaking through the feudal class lines that separated the country potter and urban decorator, embracing and integrating the entire process of the making of the pot as a work of art, taking as exemplary the work of the anonymous country workman, "honest and thorough", (14) et, like Ninsei and Kenzan, signing his work as an expression of artistic individuality, re-making a unity of painting and pottery

The Rinpa style, no less in the painting of Korin than the pottery of Kenzan, may also have provided a rich source of tradition for Leach, Hamada and Kawai, creating new simplified natural symbols, bold decorative techniques and the adaptations of forms to daily life. This was a style quite distinct from the other contemporaries in Japan, the great masters of tradition; Arakawa Toyoza in shino, Kato tokuro in oribe or Nakazato Tarouemon XII in Karatsu ware.

Leach, however, also looked to China, his birthplace, for inspiration, his period in Japan being interspersed by three visits to Beijing as a self supporting guest of Dr Alfred Westharp, a music folklorist and educationalist, a German self exile and apparently self appointed scientific advisor to the new Chinese government. Rather than the "passionate advocate" of Westharp's ideas ascribed to him by De Waal (15) Leach appears to be intellectually unprepared and probably academically out of his depth in Westharp's company, later confessing that he could he could not say that he "ever liked him". (16) A visit from his friend Yanagi Soetsu, pottery expeditions in his company and the experience of Sung pottery at the Imperial City convinced him to return to Japan with a new resolve as an artist potter to further his experimental work in stoneware and porcelain.

Nevertheless Leach's decision to leave Japan some three years later in 1920 after 11 years in the East may have saved him from the fate of antiquarianist eccentricity or of an expatriate Japanophile suggested by the copyist, if yet only experimental character of much of his ceramic work up to that time: Japanese Raku, English Toft and Chinese porcelain. It was only his return to England and the social condition of the 1930s that Leach could begin in a practical way to cultivate the transformation of the trifurcated foundation of his work; English traditional slipware, the inspiration of the pottery of Korea and the Sung dynasty and the guidance of the Japanese philosophy of beauty as the foundation of the studio pottery movement.

After an initial period rooted in a revivalism of English slipware, his work, however, often overshadowed by that of Michael Cardew, Leach began to radically rethink the work of the potter. His new thinking was first formulated in 1928 as A Potters Outlook (17) proposing to integrate the use of machines, oil as fuel and turning to stoneware rather than slipware as more in keeping with modern tastes. Around this time Leach also responded to an invitation by the American art philanthropist Dorothy Whitney and her English husband Leonard Elmhurst to found a pottery on their estate of Dartington Hall and further enable a return of a year duration to Japan in 1934. Their support, coinciding in time with commissions offered by Whitney and Elmhurst to Walter Gropius, (whose views on the importance of craft as the foundation of art, on the role of tradition, on the establishment of a standard and the method of the education of artists, the cultural unity of East and West, the benefits and dangers in the use of machinery; the problem of the separation of design and execution and the root of the Bauhaus in the tradition of Blake, Ruskin and Morris (18) crossed paths with Leach's views), culminated in 1940 in the publication of the work that established his reputation; A Potters Book. Leach could then move forward for the next two to three decades with his most innovative and original work, interpretations of classical English medieval, Chinese and Korean forms in a restrained palette more suited to his temperament; celadons, tenmoku and cobalt and Japanese decorative effects, the work of a "very subtle artist" (19)

Leach's challenge to the alienated content of commodity production, the romantic critique of the hegemony of industrial capitalism, forms the essential ground of his work both in England and Japan. In the present, a renewed appreciation of his work would also recognise his views on the separation of mankind from nature and from his own nature as compelling themes under the condition of an hegemony that appears so complete as to have occluded even the perception of the possibility of any such alternative.


(1.) In a conversation with William Marshall I raised the matter of the Sano Kenzan ceramics and was surprised by his response; "Oh, they were genuine."

(2.) Eagleton, Terry, The London Review of Books. 25 May 2011.

(3.) Clark, Garth, The Potters Art: A Complete History of Pottery in Britain. 1995.

(4.) Wilson, Richard L, "The Art of Ogata Kenzan". 1991.

(5.) Waal de, Edmund, "Homo Orientalis: Bernard Leach and the Image of the Japanese Craftsman", Journal of Design History. Vol 10, March 1997.

(6.) Idegawa, Naoki, "The Still Unresolved New Sano Kenzan", Geijutsu Shincho. #54, 1985.

(7.) Mizuo, Hiroshi, Edo Painting: Sotatsu and Korin. New York, 1978.

(8.) Author Unknown, Shinhakken Sano Kenzan, Ten. (Exhibition of Sano Kenzan, New Discovery in his Work) 19-28 June 1962.

(9.) Leach, Bernard, Kenzan and His Tradition. New York, 1966.

(10.) Said, Edward, Orientalism. New York, 1975. pp 16-17.

(11.) Fenollosa, Ernest, Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art, An Outline history of East Asiatic Design. Boston, 1912. Kotatsu is presented by de Waal as the brother of Kenzan, Bernard Leach, p 20. In fact he lived almost a century earlier.

(12.) Ibid. Vol 2, p 127.

(13.) Wilson, Richard L, p 116.

(14.) Leach, Bernard, The Japan Advertiser. 22 June 1919. p 6.

(15.) De Waal, Edmund, Bernard Leach. p 16.

(16.) Leach, Bernard, Beyond East and West. New York, 1978. p 87.

(17.) Hogben, Carol, The Art of Bernard Leach. Faber, 1978. Appendix.

(18.) Gropius, Walter, "The New Architecture and the Bauhaus". Faber, 1935.

(19.) Heron, Patrick, "A Master Potter's Aesthetic", New Statesman & Nation. 2 February 1952.

Article by David Palmer

David M S Palmer. The author is an independent writer and lives in New York City
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Author:Palmer, David
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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