Inspiration and objects of comparison with European roots in Japan

fig15: kiyonaga 1

Fig. 15: Kiyonaga print (1) ookawabata rou ue no tsukimi (Cat. 36) in Yamaguchi, K. Kiyonaga

The rise of oranda shumi and the general love for “exotic” items inspired Japanese artists of different disciplines. Still, combining European and Japanese forms in order to please the Japanese buying public was a difficult task. Yet, by some the implementation of Western forms in Japanese material culture was attained smooth and airily. Looking at the print ookawabata rou ue no tsukimi (大川端楼上の月見, Admiring the moon from a lookout. 2nd half of the 18th ct.) by Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815) (Yamaguchi 1985, 36), Edo print designer, book illustrator and painter (Hockley 2005, p. 496), one might be taken away by the captivating composition of a group of bijin amusing themselves by watching the boats on the nearby river, playing the shamizen.
At second sight a drinking vessel in the middle one of this triptych attracts attention. On a low wooden table this sake goblet, apparently made of glass, is charmingly arranged together with a low, flat sake cup flanking it to the left and just one three-blossom chrysanthemum in an unobtrusive vase on its right side. This glass goblet resembles remarkably much a European wine glass with its concave foot, the knob at the upper part of the thin stem and the slender bowl. According to the print description, this type of flower arrangements were exhibited and compared in summer nights at teahouses in the pleasure quarters in Tokyo in the years 1764-1781. The wine glass is referred to as gyaman (Yamaguchi 1985, 36), probably deriving from the Dutch word gem for gem or diamond referring to the properties of glass.

Unfortunately the description offers no answer to the question, where Kiyonaga got acquainted with this Western shaped glass goblet. Probably he had seen it at one of those flower-arrangement-gatherings in Edo, the city most important for new things and styles in the period.

fig16: kiyonaga 2

Fig. 16: Kiyonaga print (2) sokokuro (Cat. 408) in Ôto, K. Tôkaidô

However, it seems Kiyonaga has a special fondness for this type of glass. He depicts a similar vessel approx. in 1781, but this time with a handle, in another of his print series: Seven Hot Springs of Hakone – hakone shichitô meisho (Davis 2005, p. 144). In this print, sokokuro (Ôto, Tôkaidô 3. 408), he positions the wine glass again quite in the middle of the foreground next to a teapot and a tray with the meal, ready to be taken by three bijin, playing the shamizen and reading. Certainly Kiyonaga might have sketched the design from the distance, inspired by travelogues. But if we presume, that he had been to the Hakone region with its famous “Seven Springs” himself, two assumptions are obvious. He either brought the idea to Hakone, and, by this might have inspired our craftsman, or he saw it there.

Western glass has thus inspired at least one famous Japanese artist in the second half of the 18th ct. The unknown clearness and shimmer together with the elegant shape make it an attractive object to incorporate or transfer in the own art or craft. Possibly also a large lidded goblet for sweets, in shape and size similar to ours, had been incorporated in one of the great many ukiyo-e prints issued in those years and may as such have inspired an artist of another discipline – such as our bamboo artist.

Evidence shows some good examples of Western style goblets, manufactured from bamboo and lacquer in Japan.

One bamboo sake goblet in the shape of a European wine glass is incorporated in Blomhoff’s collection (Forrer 1996, p. 21/ 25). This sake cup resembles the wine glass in above-mentioned Kiyonaga print Admiring the moon from a lookout. It is strikingly simple. The gozame-ami pattern is not once disturbed by any decoration. Even the red lacquered interior appears matt (which may of course be caused by less costly material and/or workmanship).

fig17, 18: sake cups

Fig. 17: Sake cup (Cat. 25) in: E. Kinnen (ed.) Edo no kogai. An exhibition of Japanese crafts focusing on the Jan Cock Blomhoff Collection, Fig. 18: Sake cup (Cat. 62) in Brauen, M. Bambus im alten Japan. Kunst und Kultur an der Schwelle zur Moderne. Die Sammlung Hans Spörry im Völkerkundemuseum der Universität Zürich

Another much more elaborated object is part of the collection of Swiss silk merchant Hans Spörry (1859-1925). He lived in Yokohama from 1890-1896 and assembled the most divers collection including about 1500 bamboo objects. A pair of Sake cups, dated 1891, clearly shows European influence (Brauen 2003, p. 124/ 62). And again, with its concave foot, the handle and the slender, wide unfurling bowl, it resembles very much the glass depicted on Kiyonaga’s sokokuro print. Compared to our goblet it appears similar in plaiting technique and the shiny interior, even though Spörry’s goblet is here embellished with a beat-gold finish inside the bowl and on the bottom.  Still, the whole construction differs. The stem is made of a piece of unpeeled bamboo. Out of its top end and bottom end the tate higo are cut, that are plaited with added yoko hige to form foot and bowl (Jirka-Schmitz 2003, p. 255). The decoration is even less coincidentally. The designer applied three motifs: bamboo as the plaited material and visible in its pure form in the stem, plum blossom as decoration attached to a bamboo twig, that twines around the bowl and thirdly pine needles plaited in the foot of the drinking container, thus only visible while drinking. Brought together, they form a motif of Chinese origin, called shôchikubai or matsu-take-ume – Three Friends in Winter. All of them are symbols of winter, long life and the cultured gentleman (Baird 2001, p. 66), representing in Japan fortune and a long life (Brauen 2005, p. 285).  Considering the golden interior and the significant decoration, these sake goblets were made for a more distinctive purpose than our goblet. According to Jirka-Schmitz (Brauen 2005, p. 285) those goblets may have been given away at a festive occasion.

Both examples are considerably smaller in height (14 cm, resp. 9cm) and diameter (8cm, resp. 4.7cm) than our goblet. Being a drinking vessel, they are intended for a different usage, too. And despite the outer shape of them is European, the style of pattern and decoration is entirely Japanese, nevertheless in various even oppositional ways. Placing our goblet in the middle of the two, the three of them would demonstrate a line up of formal, semiformal and informal in regards to usage, occasion and wealth. However, they all present in their very own manner the desire of the merchant class to bring some shine into their houses. The sophisticated craftsmanship and the ability of the craftsman to festoon a European or otherwise imported shape with an obviously Japanese attire heightens the interest. The combination seemed outermost exotic, as well to the Japanese as to the European merchants passing through Hakone Mountains.

Different sources of inspiration coming from within Japan as well as Asia and Europe were available to the artisan. The rising oranda shumi accelerates the demand for “exotic” looking objects. The craftsman of our chalice incorporates different aesthetic ideas to form a goblet that responds to that new fashion.

He merges his working material, bamboo, and his skills, plaiting it into a form reminiscenting Asian offering containers and European glass goblets. He keeps in mind his target group by offering them a container made of a fine but common plaiting technique, that in itself has a horizontal character, a familiar alignment recognisable in many expressions of material culture in Japan. He finishes the interior with shiny red lacquer to add an astonishing contrast to the rough plaited bamboo surface. The quality of his work as well as the remarkable shape attract Fisscher to even buy two quite identical pieces.


Next: The collector and the goblets way from Japan to Europe



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