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a habit of hiding poetry in pottery

updated sun 6 jan 08


Donald Burroughs on sat 5 jan 08

Thought you fellow clayarters might find this interesting. Notice the pun
in the title?

Don Burroughs

A habit of hiding poetry in pottery

by Lauren Wilson, The Australian, December 28, 2007

OTAGAKI Rengetsu was cursed by beauty and haunted by personal tragedy

Canberra, Australia -- The Buddhist nun overcame great losses in her life
to become one of the few successful female artists in Japan during the
19th century and one of the most prolific ceramicists.

It is said that during Rengetsu's lifetime every home in her Japanese
province of Kyoto owned a piece of her work. The enigmatic nun, known as
Lotus Moon, remains an important cultural figure in Kyoto's history.

The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra has put together the first
solo exhibition of Rengetsu's work outside Japan. Black Robe, White Mist
tells the story of Rengetsu's life alongside a display of her ceramics and
her elegantly painted hanging scrolls. "What attracted us to it was the
story, but it is the simplicity, delicacy and intimacy of the work that
makes the show so appealing in a gallery context, it's very tactile," says
the exhibition's curator, Melanie Eastburn.

"What comes across is the individual sense of the woman. Her work is very
distinctive and her life was very much influenced by her Buddhist faith."

Rengetsu was born in Kyoto's pleasure district in 1791. She is believed to
have been the illegitimate daughter of a courtesan and a nobleman. Shortly
after her birth, she was adopted into Japan's samurai class and trained in
poetry, calligraphy, dance and needlework.

She married while she was still a teenager. At 17 she had her first child,
who died 20 days after his birth. Rengetsu and her husband had two more
daughters, but neither reached adulthood.

Little is known about Rengetsu's relationship with her first husband. They
were divorced and four years later she married another man, who later died
of tuberculosis.

On the night of her second husband's death, Rengetsu, then only 33, cut
off her hair, swore never to marry again and was later ordained as a
nun. "For Rengetsu, most of the tragedy in her life occurred before she
started making art but it absolutely informs what she did," Eastburn says.

In 1832, Rengetsu began a new life in Okazaki, northeast of Kyoto. It was
then, in her 40s and early 50s, that she began making ceramics for the
highly ritualised Japanese tea ceremony.

Her work has an amateurish quality to it. Her fingerprints and nail marks
are visible all over the objects, giving a great sense of the person who
crafted the vessels. They look rustic in their simplicity, but on each
piece Rengetsu inscribed the poetry - called waka, a native Japanese style
that was distinguishable from the prevailing Chinese - in a delicate hand.
She became best known for the cups and pots she created for tea, but she
also made bottles, flasks and sake cups. The vessels designed specifically
for sake, rarely acknowledged in accounts of her work, are highlighted in
this exhibition.

It is believed Rengetsu produced her ceramics quickly by pinching balls of
clay into the desired shape with her hands. Some she would then finish
with a thin, translucent, cream-toned glaze; others she would leave
unglazed, giving the pieces an earthier appearance. This unusual
combination of roughness and delicacy came to define her aesthetic, which
was soon widely copied throughout Kyoto and the rest of Japan.

Rengetsu is thought to have helped other artists sell their work by
inscribing her calligraphy on to their ceramic pieces.

Rengetsu's waka is central to her work and reveals a deep spirituality and
affinity with the natural landscape.

Eastburn considers the NGA's exhibition a considerable contribution to
scholarship on the potter. "A lot of the poetry hadn't even been recorded
and some hadn't even been translated before," she says.

While neither her pottery nor her poetry explicitly reflect her faith -
Rengetsu rarely chose to paint images of Buddha, for example - they convey
her deep empathy with nature. Indeed, it is in the connection she made
with her physical surroundings that her religious beliefs are best

Rengetsu also painted scrolls. She would paint her waka in her threadlike
calligraphy on to dyed paper, often in collaboration with other notable
Japanese artists. Most of her collaborations were after 1865, when she
settled at the Temple of Divine Light, a centre of esoteric Buddhist
teaching. This was the beginning of a prolific and productive period in
her artistic life, and she collaborated with many famous artists of the
time, including Tomioka Tessai and the Shingon monk Gesshin.

Eastburn says the fame Rengetsu attracted during her lifetime enabled her
to work with artists who were generally unavailable as collaborators to
women at that point in Japan's history.

"She was a renowned artist at the time and a very active artist," Eastburn
says, "and a lot of her encounters with artists came just by social
chance. It's not correct to think of her as a nun on the outside of
society, she was very social and in many ways very socially engaged."

Rengetsu died when she was 84, in the tea room she would sit in every day
to craft her ceramics. Her work today is scattered across the globe.

The National Gallery acquired its first Rengetsu a couple of years ago,
and Eastburn says she was surprised to find many Australian galleries also
housed her work. "She has quite a big representation for a not
particularly well-known artist," she says.

The gallery borrowed works from 27 private collections, including some in
Switzerland, the US and Japan. Eastburn says putting the exhibition
together was a surprisingly easy process for everyone involved. "It really
wasn't a challenge," she says. "Once we had all of the objects together
and concentrated the story down to its essence, it all came together."

The show spans Rengetsu's artistic life. "The exhibition has been very
emotional for a lot of people; many are spending quiet time in the space
and are responding intimately to the work," Eastburn says.

Black Robe, White Mist: Art of the Japanese Buddhist Nun Rengetsu is at
the National Gallery of Australia until January 27.