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Rethinking Kyoto Art
"Mr. Samsa" (1954) by Yagi Kazuo

Rethinking Kyoto Art

Art historian Shigemi Inaga discusses the transformation of Japanese art in the first half of the 20th century.

Vincent Lim Email VincentLim

Yagi at the point of 1954 represented one of the most radical elements. He wanted to liberate himself from the Kyoto tradition.

Japanese arts and crafts underwent dramatic changes during the first half of the 20th century. On Oct. 8, 2007, art historian Shigemi Inaga explained that the changes were evident in the works of Kyoto artists Asai Chu, a painter, and Yagi Kazuo, a ceramicist.

The Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies sponsored Inaga's lecture at UCLA on modern Japanese arts and crafts, which was based on a chapter in a forthcoming volume edited by him. Inaga is a professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto, Japan, and holds the Chair of Modern Culture at the Library of Congress's John W. Kluge Center.

Around 1855, Japan established a bureau dedicated to mastering the techniques of Western drawing and painting. Later, Antonio Fontanesi was one of the group of Italian artists hired to teach Western techniques at a fine arts school founded in 1876, and Asai Chu (1856-1907) studied under him. Asai went on to study in Europe and to establish the Meiji Bijutsukai, the first circle of Western-style painters in Japan.

"Asai was trying to introduce the tradition of...Europe...[like] his rival in Tokyo, Kuroda Seiki," Inaga said. Seiki was another painter who brought Western theories about art to Japan. Asai, who lived in Kyoto, was a Western-style painter who drew on the impressionists' painting style. His famous works include Shukaku and Landscape of Grez-sur-Loing.

Reinventing the Wheel

Yagi Kazuo (1918-1979) transformed the way Japan thought about clay art and the way ceramics were produced in the studios of Kyoto. Chinese ceramics were very popular in Kyoto in the early 20th century, and Kyoto potters sought to produce exact copies of Chinese ceramics such as ancient Sung dynasty vases.

Yagi's works paid tribute to classical China but went far beyond copying. Defying conventions that demanded reproductions of functional ceramics, Yagi created Mr. Samsa, a work that served no practical use, as an ordinary vase or cup would.

"Yagi wanted to project his own transformation from a traditional ceramicist…to a modern artist," Inaga said. Yagi's father, Yagi Isso, was a traditional Kyoto potter.

Yagi formed a cylinder on a potter's wheel and cut it up. He then formed small tubular clay pieces that he attached to the cylinder to create Mr. Samsa. His action was considered radical because ceramicists took great care with pieces made with a potter's wheel. Yagi also painted Mr. Samsa in a more Western color scheme than those found in Kyoto ceramics.

Creative titles were one of Yagi's innovations. Works were traditionally given names like "Wine Cup and Stand" or "Covered Bowl" that explained their uses. Yagi named his work, Mr. Samsa, after the main character in Franz Kafka's novel, Metamorphosis.

"Within only 50 years, some of the elements [of the Kyoto tradition] were completely transformed," Inaga said. "Yagi at the point of 1954 represented one of the most radical elements. He wanted to liberate himself from the Kyoto tradition."

Inaga's talk was the first colloquium of the 2007-2008 academic year sponsored by the Terasaki Center. Three more colloquia are scheduled before the end of the year.

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