Seifū Yohei III (清風與平) (1851–1914) was a leading ceramist of Japan’s Meiji period (1868–1912). This Kyoto-based artist had a focus on producing subtle color and surface design effects in porcelain. He had a deep interest in Chinese-style tea, known as sencha in Japan, and literati culture—that of bibliophiles with a penchant for artistry and intellectual exchange. Seifū, pronounced “say-foo,” is written with two ideographs that together mean “pure wind.” The name was likely bestowed upon the first Seifū—Seifū Yohei I (1801–1861) by his mentor, Nin’ami Dōhachi (1783–1855), an artist renowned for his ceramics made for sencha. It derives from a poem by Lu Tong (d. 835) that describes the relationship of a freethinker to imbibing tea. Figures pursuing the untrammeled life suggested in this ancient poem appear in underglaze blue landscapes painted on tea sets by Yohei I and later generations of the Seifū studio.
Thanks to a generous gift from James and Christine Heusinger in December 2022, visitors get to experience works by five generations of the Seifū studio installed in the Pollock Focus Gallery this August through next March.
My first close encounter with Seifū Yohei III, the most famous member of the studio, took place in 2014, the year of his 100th death anniversary, when Remaking Tradition: Modern Art of Japan from the Tokyo National Museum went on view in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Exhibition Hall. I have since then been on a sharp learning curve, the results of which I hope to share in the upcoming exhibition. One of the works we installed in 2014, a large, creamy white vase with a design of chrysanthemums and butterflies by Yohei III, went on to be designated Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government in 2017. I found the piece intriguing because it was so understated in comparison with another in the show by Yohei III’s contemporary, ceramist Miyagawa (Makuzu) Kōzan (1842–1916), that features a huge, lifelike model of a crab. I placed the two opposite one another just beyond the portal into the final room of that exhibition. To the left was the enormous crab lurching across a stoneware jar dripping with glaze, clamoring for attention, and to the right, Yohei III’s self-contained, elegant garden on an ovoid porcelain form. Beyond the two, I put a very different work by Kōzan, a later one in which he engaged wholeheartedly with Chinese Qing-dynasty (1644–1911) porcelain designs with bold colors and overglaze enamels, as did Yohei III’s successor, Seifū Yohei IV (1871–1951).
That story is one of a tension between different ambitions, which we can continue to explore through the works gifted by the Heusingers. On the one hand, the aesthetics of Japanese tea, or chanoyu, ended up paired with sculptural forms in a manner that appealed to the European export market in some of Kōzan’s work. At the same time, access to Qing-dynasty works once restricted to use in China’s imperial court flowed into the international market as the dynasty collapsed, reigniting Japan’s long-standing reverence for Chinese ceramics even as it turned to expansionism into China. Yohei III, however, was largely unconcerned with market forces and trends, despite his elevation in 1893 to the ranks of the Imperial Household Artists, a forerunner of today’s “Living National Treasure” system. He was the first ceramist to be granted the title, even though he was junior to the second—Kōzan. Yohei III’s primary interest was in his craft, and his toughest critic was himself.
In a subtle, elegant vase from the Heusingers’ collection, for example, he was still exploring peonies and butterflies—this time, he hid the butterflies around the other side of the vase, so you cannot catch the whole idea with a glance. He played with an ivory clay base paired with a pink-infused, translucent, creamy glaze over slightly raised forms with incised details. Yohei III connected intimately with the concept of utsushi, or copying with iterative, minute, variations, that permits exhaustive explorations of a concept. With this exhibition, we can move from an overview of the art of modern Japan to a close-up view of how one studio, grounded firmly in Japan’s cultural capital, interpreted what it meant to become modern through the medium of clay and the minerals of glazes.