According to the Raku Museum website, the term “Raku ware” originally only referred to the products of the Raku family, which began with Raku Chojiro in the sixteenth century. Apparently he wanted to create a tea bowl that was acceptable to the renowned tea master of the time, Sen no Rikyu. Japanese Art by Joan Stanley-Baker states that Sen no Rikyu’s choice of the “simple peasant ware produced the aesthetic” which defined Japanese tea accoutrements for centuries after (148).
He refused the option of using celadon, and instead chose something that reminded the onlooker of the beauty in everything, even the imperfect. Part of this imperfection was left entirely to chance. The potter determined the bowls’ shapes, but after glazing and firing the piece, he would remove it from the kiln while still hot. Not allowing it to cool slowly in the kiln created the possibility that the color or texture would be greatly altered from the original effect. As Penelope Mason notes, “The aesthetic of sudden change seemed to fit in with the idea of Zen enlightenment” (241). Thus every aspect of the process is given an alternate meaning, from the clay first being formed all the way through the firing process. Creating these pots is an art, and only those who truly comprehend it should try to learn the ways of raku. That is what sets the Raku family apart from imitators.
The family is still carrying on the tradition of fine ceramics at its building in Kyoto, with the current leader of the household being Raku Kichizaemon, who is fifteen generations removed from the household’s founder (Raku Family).
This is a modern piece done by Kichizaemon.
As I looked around the Raku Ware website, I found a section devoted to images of the tea bowls made by each of the household leaders throughout the years. It is intriguing to see how the styles developed over time – each artisan has a distinct style, even though the majority of them are well within keeping with the overarching traditions of the workshop. Most are simply one color, or perhaps one base color with a second tinted glaze trailed over it in accent. Occasionally there was a small image included, such as this bowl with a snippet of bamboo painted on it.
The bowls take on various shapes over the years, from squat and round to taller and fluted. What especially intrigues me is the fact that majority of the pieces retain their irregular shape. A few are smooth and symmetrical, but most remain true to the importance of those irregularities in terms of their role in the meditative aspects of the ceremony.
“The irregular glaze, shape and decoration of raku was intended to echo the asymmetry of the teahouse as a whole; it was also felt that dazzling decoration on pottery would break the contemplative mood” (Stanley-Baker 148).
Taking this perspective on the tea implements echoes the Japanese predilection for “worlds in miniature” such as the styles of rock gardens, which represent microcosms of Japan, or the world. “Plain” remains a key concept in Japanese art, and yet it does not detract from the loveliness of the pieces.
I think this comment from the Raku Museum best describes why the tea bowls began so simply, and remained that way for many generations:
Chojiro, through his negation of movement, decoration and variation of form, went beyond the boundaries of individualistic expression and elevated the tea bowl into a spiritual abstraction and an intensified presence (Raku Generation).
By keeping the implements as simple as possible, the artist creating the tea bowl allowed the person performing the tea ceremony to focus on it in what might be compared to a Platonic ideal—the universal ideal of the tea bowl. The tea bowl image provided for Chojiro shows a simple bowl, perhaps two or three inches high, with an even glossy black glaze (Raku Generation).
It is exceedingly similar in shape to the tea bowl I encountered at the Freer, although the former has absolutely no markings on it, in the true fashion of the Raku workshop.
Nowadays Raku refers more to the type of pottery and manner of firing than the actual house that began the tradition.