At Freer, Aesthetic Is Simply Smashing
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
It's not often that an exhibition makes you want to run home and smash your best china. But that could be the result of a visit to "Golden Seams: The Japanese Art of Mending Ceramics," a tiny gem of a show at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery. Of course, before you start smashing, you'll want to make sure you have access to a master of kintsugi.
That means "golden joinery" in Japanese, and it refers to the art of fixing broken ceramics with a lacquer resin made to look like solid gold. Chances are, a vessel fixed by kintsugi will look more gorgeous, and more precious, than before it was fractured.
All the broken pots in "Golden Seams" are lovely and impressive as could be. Thirteen ceramics from China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan, which have been mended and enhanced with this distinctive Japanese technique, are included in this small exhibition.
The story of kintsugi may have begun in the late 15th century, when the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa sent a damaged Chinese tea bowl back to China to be fixed. It returned held together with ugly metal staples, launching Japanese craftsmen on a quest for a new form of repair that could make a broken piece look as good as new, or better. Japanese collectors developed such a taste for kintsugi that some were accused of deliberately breaking prized ceramics, just to have them mended in gold.
Kintsugi adds a whole new level of aesthetic complexity to the vessels that it mends. A beautiful 14th-century vase from Longquan, China, glazed in translucent celadon with fronds and leaves in delicate relief -- just the kind of porcelain that shogun Yoshimasa is supposed to have sent out for repair -- started life as an example of pristine symmetry. Once it was broken and mended, however, that order was disrupted by bold zigs and zags of gold, along with a golden crescent where a piece of the original rim was replaced. Because the repairs are done with such immaculate craft, and in precious metal, it's hard to read them as a record of violence and damage. Instead, they take on the look of a deliberate incursion of radically free abstraction into an object that was made according to an utterly different system. It's like a tiny moment of free jazz played during a fugue by Bach.
Or the same kintsugi can have an almost opposite effect, as when it's used to fix a much coarser tea bowl, in Japanese Yatsushiro ware. There, the repair becomes a controlled thread of treble in a composition that is otherwise all careening tubas and double basses. It's even possible that the Freer's 18th-century Yatsushiro piece was carefully chosen for the deformities it had acquired in a badly heated kiln, then deliberately broken and repaired. A pot that would normally have been trashed was recognized as the perfect background for work in precious kintsugi.
Kintsugi can also be read as an explicit sign of culture clash. A 15th-century bowl is decorated with the loose, abstract patterns of Korean punch'ong wares, in pale greens, beiges and white. The large piece broken from its rim, however, is filled with a gilt patch that anyone would recognize as Japanese: It is done in the insanely detailed gold-on-gold technique known as maki-e, and shows tiny leaves and cherry blossoms floating on a ground of gold. Thanks to kintsugi work, a Japanese collector doesn't merely own fine old objects from China and Korea. He marks them forever as distinctly Japanese.
That hints at one of the most impressive things about this little exhibition. Where the huge range of precious Asian objects at the Freer can leave the nonspecialist at sea, the lines of gold that run through all the varied objects in this show bring them together into a single, comprehensible experience. The cracks shown off in "Golden Seams" become a unifying aesthetic thread. That must always have been part of their appeal.