IN the strolling gardens that surrounded a Japanese warlord's estate, a lake or a bridge or a lotus pond would be built to remind him of a favorite scene in China or Japan. And somewhere in this landscaped park would be a "garden pottery," where the warlord or daimyo, his family members and his guests might retire for the pleasure of throwing a pot.
At the Freer Gallery, "Garden Potteries and Official Kilns: Clan-Sponsored Ceramics in the Edo Period" contrasts the warlords' crude but well-intentioned attempts with the exquisite efforts of the master potters who labored for the daimyo in his clan's domain.
From the Edo period in Japan, 1615 to 1868, the 38 ceramic pieces here were made for the daimyo's use, either as home furnishings or as gifts he would give to his samurai or to he Shogun.
One of the pots, a bumpy brown tea caddy, appears as a poor cousin to a sleek black raku tea bowl decorated with a lustrous rendition of Mount Fuji.
Both were made in kilns supervised by the master potter Raku Tannyu. But while the Mount Fuji tea bowl was fashioned in a professional pottery, the tea caddy was thrown in a garden kiln, probably by the eleventh head of the Kii house.
Doubtless the eleventh head of the Kii house felt the familiar guilt that comes from not using expensive hobby equipment: His garden kiln, located near his private villa, was fired only five times, between 1834 when it was built, and 1846 when the lord died.
Despite the fact that the professional potters' work is smooth-crafted, well-controlled and even eloquent, the amateur's pot is more important.
"It's uniquely Japanese," says Louise Cort, who organized the show. "I don't know of one instance where someone like Marie Antoinette actually went out and made pots."
Pot-making was the daimyo's home course in art appreciation.
"To really understand the skill of a professional," says Cort, "it was desirable to try one's hand. It was in the concept of the tea ceremony. It would mean a great deal to someone to use a bowl like this in a tea ceremony, and be reminded of the person who made it."
It had nothing to do with skill, says Cort. "It was a personal expression of taste, with the amateur potter incorporating bowls he had seen, whereas wares made by professionals had a sense of being a little more remote."
GARDEN POTTERIES AND OFFICIAL KILNS: CLAN-SPONSORED CERAMICS IN THE EDO PERIOD -- At the Freer Gallery through August 17.