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TO OCT. 27

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Sometimes a teacup is just a teacup, but not in Japan, where ceramics—and tea—embody tradition. The style known as Kenzan dates to 1699, when Ogata Shinsei opened a studio northwest of Kyoto. (“Kenzan” simply means northwest.) This show is the first complete exhibition of Charles Lang Freer’s collection of Kenzan pottery, the largest outside Japan. It includes not only ceramics designed by Ogata—a draftsman who didn’t actually dirty his hands with potting clay—but also work by his successors and imitators. “No signature has so often been forged as that of Kenzan,” said Edward Sylvester Morse, a Westerner who taught at the Imperial University of Tokyo in the late 19th century. Morse maintained that the true Japanese style of pottery employed dark glazes, rough forms, and emblematic designs; more colorful, regular, and delicate ceramics were strictly for import. Freer reportedly bought Morse’s assessment, but he purchased lots of pots that don’t support it. In addition to the Chinese motifs common in all Japanese traditional art, the vessels here include designs derived from Vietnamese and Dutch pottery and a handwarmer whose ornate embellishment suggests (probably unintentionally) Persian manuscripts. Ogata’s trademark was simplified forms taken from nature—leaves, grasses, and flowers—as seen in a water jar with a maple-leaf design. Other self-respecting potters copied features of Kenzan style, but they added their own illustrative inspirations, from naturalistic gibbons to the colorful simplicity of a child’s top. The result is an unruly school, but it presents a lively show. The work is on view from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, to Sunday, Oct. 27, at the Freer Gallery of Art, 12th and Jefferson Drive SW. Free. (202) 357-4880. (Mark Jenkins)