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This article was published in shortened form in The Log Book 2008, No 34, pages 32-35

Should anagama firers bow to Japan? How low?

by Owen Rye

Throughout the history of ceramics potters have taken ideas from other countries. The Chinese borrowed the use of cobalt blue, and also overglaze enamels, from Islamic countries. Europeans borrowed the concept of porcelain from China along with decorative motifs from China, Japan and Islamic countries. My updraft bisque kiln, a fibre-lined metal drum sitting on a wood firebox is based on the design of Roman kilns from a couple of thousand years ago.

So where have our current woodfire practices originated? When we begin to look into this question of influences we see many answers. For example the Bourry box kiln – Ivan McMeekin and Michael Cardew studied the designs of Emile Bourry, developed to achieve high temperature at the Sevres porcelain factory. So ostensibly the Bourry kiln originated in France but I’d be interested to see where Bourry got his ideas from.

Influence, from a full historical perspective, can be a complex study: the woodfire river has many tributaries. There can be a silly end to the scale, where people whose art is atrociously bad claim inspiration from the famous. My intention here- apart from trying to avoid the ridiculous - is to look at the general rather than the specific. From this point I will concentrate on the anagama kiln, versions of which have been built all around the world. I have been annoyed at various times by ill informed critics who say our Australian work is ‘influenced by Japan’ but don’t do any analysis of influence beyond that. For what should we thank Japan? My intention here is to take an introductory look at how important the Japanese influence really is for Australian anagama practice.

We are aware of, and take an interest in Japanese woodfire - but I suspect very few Japanese woodfirers have any interest in what we do. Robert Yellin, ceramics critic in the Japan Times (Oct. 9, 1999) after attending the 1999 Iowa woodfire conference, said that Japan has a much higher quality of woodfired work than other countries. Robert would say that, because he sells Japanese pots but I believe it’s a common attitude in Japan at least among the high-reputation potters. This attitude derives at least in part from their very refined closed-shop marketing system that gives high value (artistic and monetary) to their pots and excludes outsiders. Elite equals expensive. I think that’s one key to understanding the Japanese attitude that their pots have greater merit than any others. The reality is that the standard of Japanese pots overall ranges from inspirational to awful – as is the case anywhere.

Another clue to understanding Japanese attitudes is their need to preserve traditional cultural values (such as their explicit and complex integration of ceramics and food) against the intrusions of the West, as a way of preserving their Japanese identity. Understandably, because that’s something done by people in most countries. Witness for example the French protecting their language – and their film industry. I note that the Japanese potters whose work sells for very high prices in Japan, generally cannot get those prices selling in other countries. The best of them are national treasures but they are not international treasures like say Picasso. Some of our Australian potters like Gwyn Hanssen Pigott are international figures as much as any Japanese potter. By this I mean that we in the business might know about many Japanese living treasures, but the general- art public may not and the general -general public certainly would not have heard their name.

Let’s take a brief look at the history of the anagama in Japan. Both the anagama (single-chamber kiln) and the potter's wheel were introduced into Japan from Korea in the middle of the fifth century – so if we owe a debt anywhere for stealing the idea of anagama it’s owed to Korea (and even further back single chamber bank kilns were used in China 3000 to 4000 years ago). It took a thousand years for Japan’s greatest pottery styles to mature in the Momoyama Period (1568-1715); and again Korea was a major source for styles of teawares from centres such as Bizen, Shigaraki, and Tamba. These tea wares had lost much of their popularity by 1600. The anagama was overtaken 400 years ago by the more efficient and reliable noborigama and ogama and the anagama techniques were essentially lost until the 1930’s when an anagama revival began.

This revival consisted of some Japanese potters copying the work of earlier Japanese potters of the old Momoyama traditions. The creative part, I suspect was the need for reconstruction of materials, kiln design and firing techniques from fragmentary evidence. That revival was led by a handful of regional potters: Toyo Kaneshige (1896-1967) who revitalised Bizen ware, Hagi's Kyuwa Miwa (1895-1981), Handeishi Kawakita (1878-1963) in Mie, Rosanjin Kitaoji's (1883-1959) Kamakura kiln and Toyozo Arakawa (1894-1985), whose Shino studio was in the hills of Toki, Gifu Prefecture. In 1933 Arakawa (1894-1985), built a semi-underground anagama to recreate Shino ware. He later became one of the first Living National Treasures in ceramics.

So really the origins of current Japanese anagama woodfire, at least any that can be considered innovative rather than copying tradition, date back at the earliest to the 1930s. Should anyone take offense at this suggestion, perhaps as a parallel you could consider Michael Cardew reviving mediaeval English slipware traditions and then look at how this segued into current English stoneware practice which therefore primarily owes its origins to the 1950s.

A further Japanese anagama revival began in the 1950s with Furitani Michio, and built up in the 1960s; examples include Furutani Hiromi’s anagama of 1950 producing work in the Shigaraki tradition; Ichino Shinsui in Tamba built his first anagama 1968; Isezaki Jun in Bizen, 1961-62; and Shukai Kagami in 1969.

The Japanese potters responsible for this most recent revival had to learn from scratch just as we have. The difference is that they had models to try and replicate whereas we did not. Initially we also tried to copy old Japanese pots that we saw in books. Now some Japanese potters have moved away from those early traditions while some stay within.

Soon after, in the 1970’s, a number of Americans went to Japan to study woodfire techniques and aesthetics. Of these Rob Barnard, Jeff Shapiro, Peter Callas, John Neely, Randy Johnston, and Richard Bresnahan are all still active. They not only learned techniques but to a greater or lesser extent also took on Japanese attitudes about the superiority of Japanese practice. This may be entirely appropriate for those individuals but were such attitudes to be widely adopted in the West they could greatly inhibit innovation and imagination.

A number of Australians have also spent time in Japan but usually for shorter periods than the Americans and with less obvious loyalties. They include Milton Moon, Peter Rushforth, Les Blakebrough, Col Levy and more recently people like Paul Davis, Kirk Winter and Ian Jones. A major difference is that none of them have Japanese wives.

It is clear that awareness of Japanese woodfire has influenced some general aspects of Australian practice. Potters here in the 1950s such as Ivan McMeekin fired woodfired pots in saggars to give good glaze qualities; but largely as a result of looking at Japanese approaches to woodfire we now increasingly fire to deliberately deposit ash. My interest in the anagama developed through this remote Japanese influence. I admired old Tamba pots in Daniel Rhodes Tamba book, and pictures of old Shigaraki pots, but never thought in the beginning to study contemporary Japanese pots from the anagama; probably because these were not available to see in the flesh. And the pots I did see in pictures were viewed through spectacles tinted with images of abstract expressionism which sat very comfortably with the images of 14th century Japanese pots. I had looked at every painting exhibition in Sydney through the 1960s and was very familiar with the Australian expressions of abstract expressionism. And as a student in 1960’s I admired the work of Milton Moon (much to the disgust of Ivan McMeekin who could not see past Sung). Of all Australian ceramics Milton’s work seemed closest to abstract expressionism to me at the time. It might be a worthwhile study both in Australia and the US to look in detail at the respective influences of Momoyama ceramics and abstract expressionism on current woodfire practice and to see how intertwined these two pressures really are.

But for most of us in relation to the anagama kiln itself, with initially no knowledge of its workings (Peter Thompson once said they sent this piece of equipment out from Japan with no instruction book) it was matter of experimenting to see what happened, and trying to be open minded to whatever came along. Now 20 or 30 years on various Australians have built up a good knowledge of anagama design with many variations; in fact no two of these kilns are alike in Australia. We have also built up knowledge of the aesthetics resulting from use of different fuels and we are probably at the same stage as many Japanese were in the seventies when the early Americans went there to study. That includes having a confidence about our work based on considerable experience.

So, I suggest that those who studied in Japan should acknowledge the experience – but let’s not downplay our own creativity and innovation. I think it’s more important to look to the future and what we are planning to do than to dwell on the past. Part of that future is that oil will be very expensive, coal firing will be illegal or very expensive in carbon credits, with implications for electricity costs, and gas will become impossibly expensive. So anyone who makes pots might just have to fire with wood. Our collective local experience might become quite valuable.

And from the aesthetic viewpoint any area of human activity only stays alive if there is some demand for it, and it keeps being renewed. Currently in Australia Bill Samuels, Neil Hoffmann, Rowley Drysdale and others are actively exploring new directions for woodfire. Their innovations illustrate the truism that what is important is how bright the fire glows, not what sparks ignite it.

Some people have said in reviews that my work has a strong Japanese influence. So I was enlightened, when a group of us exhibited at the Green Gallery in Tokyo, to have some Japanese potters look at my work and then tell me how interesting it was because it was so alien and totally different to Japanese work. Some critics writing about Australian anagama take the soft option and talk about how the work is ‘Japanese influenced’ without any further analysis. In future if anyone feels like doing that I would ask them to say specifically which Japanese potters have influenced the specific Australian work they are discussing; and then go on to discuss more specific details of the relationship. If that cannot be done then the critic has no credibility.

Owen Rye is an Australian woodfirer and writer. This comment was originally prepared for a talk at the Sturt Woodfire Conference but was not used due to changes in the program. Details of developments in Japan have been taken from various websites.