Fri, Dec 6, 2019

Japanese art according to Sophie Richard: The art and life of Kitaoji Rosanjin

By Sophie Richard

One fascinating and moving aspect of art history is to discover the life story, sources of inspiration and personality of artists. But this can be difficult when they are separated from us by centuries and geographical distance. When an artist lived closer to our times however, we can access to a wealth of stories and material evidence, as well as anecdotes, that help us understand the characteristics of his or her life. Such is Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883-1959), a 20th century artist that was a ceramicist, aesthete, collector, antique dealer, gourmet and restauranteur.

Kitaoji Rosanjin (The Yomiuri Shimbun)

Rosanjin led a remarkable life, which I discovered bit by bit in the course of my visits to Japan and in museums. Born in Kyoto in 1883, he grew up in difficult circumstances but soon revealed an artistic bent. Having moved to Tokyo at the age of twenty, he studied and then taught calligraphy. Spending two years in Korea, he learned seal engraving and upon his return to Japan carved seals for many artists. He studied ceramics in Kanazawa for a while, where he also learned the art of cooking from a traditional restaurant.

In 1919 in Tokyo, Rosanjin opened an antique shop. A year later, on the shop’s second floor, he began serving food in traditional ceramic dishes he had collected, which was enthusiastically received. He went on to create a Gourmet Club, which became fashionable among Tokyo food-lovers, and opened a restaurant. Having lived in Kamakura outside Tokyo for some time, he established a studio and kiln there and also began to hold ceramic exhibitions.

In 1951, his work was exhibited in France and began to attract attention abroad, which led to his travelling to the USA, where a show dedicated to him was held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and to Europe, in 1954 at the age of 71. On that occasion he met Picasso (and took the cooking in his own hands when dining at La Tour d’Argent in Paris, one of the world’s most celebrated restaurant at the time).

He died in 1959, having refused to accept the designation of Living National Treasure. His career defies characterisation, as he had so many artistic pursuits; he changed his art name many times, to reflect different moments in his life. He also wrote extensively on art and gastronomy and was known for being outspoken and eccentric.

I am touched by Rosanjin’s attraction for earlier periods in Japanese art history. Antique works were a great source of inspiration for him and he accumulated a large collection over the course of his lifetime, including pieces by Edo period artist Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743), an artist I personally particularly admire.

Large bowl with cherry blossom and maple design (Kitchoan Museum)
Bowl with camellia design in Kenzan style (Kitchoan Museum)
Maple-shaped dishes with Tatsuta river design, overglaze enamel (Kitchoan Museum)

In his work as a ceramicist, Rosanjin emulated classical forms of Japanese ceramics, such as Bizen, Kutani, Shino, Shigaraki and Oribe wares. Often, his reason for designing a ceramic vessel was his desire to obtain the perfect dish on which to serve his refined Japanese food. He remarked, “Dishes are kimono of good food.”

Rosanjin has an enormous output. Pieces were purchased by his many devoted patrons and collectors; today a number are in public and private collections in the USA and elsewhere.

In Japan, the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto and the Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo hold several of his pieces. It should be noted that the Adachi Museum of Art in Shimane Prefecture is a great place to appreciate Rosanjin’s art. Famous for its impressive Japanese gardens, the museum also has a particularly large collection of the artist’s works amounting to about 400 pieces.

Bamboo-Shaped Flower Vase, Oribe Kitaoji Rosanjin
Circa 1951 (Adachi Museum of Art)

In fact, as a way to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the museum will inaugurate a Rosanjin Hall in the spring of 2020. A newly designed space will be dedicated to him and display a selection of about 120 of his works at one given time, providing a unique opportunity to delve into Rosanjin’s creative spirit. I very much look forward to visiting this new exhibition hall next year.

A rendering of Rosanjin Hall scheduled to open next spring
(Courtesy of Adachi Museum of Art)
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Sophie RICHARD

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Art Historian

Sophie RICHARD

Born in Provence and educated at the Ecole du Louvre and at the Sorbonne in Paris, Sophie worked in the art world in New York before moving to London where she now resides. She has been a regular visitor to Japan for the last 15 years. Passionate about Japanese arts and culture, she set out to explore the country’s many museums. In the course of her research she has visited close to 200 venues across the country. Her articles on Japanese museums have appeared in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan. Her first book on the subject was published in 2014 and then translated into Japanese. Her new book “The art lover’s guide to Japanese museums” was published in July 2019. In 2015, Sophie received the Commissioner’s Award from the Agency of Cultural Affairs in Tokyo, in recognition for her work in bringing Japanese culture to a wider audience. (Photo©Frederic Aranda)

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