Satsuma with a story: special pieces from private collectors.

 

WHAT'S IN A NAME? THE BEAUTY OF AN UNMARKED VASE.

 

Every collector knows that indefinable feeling of owning something you would like to know more about. But no matter how you search and compare on the internet, no matter how many books on the subject you read and ask for advice from fellow collectors, the ultimate answer is missing.  Collectors of Satsuma pottery will have experienced that feeling more often than collectors of paintings.  A painting by an unknown maker can often still be traced in a lexicon. In the Netherlands, for example, there is the "Pieter Scheen  Lexicon of Dutch Visual Artists 1750-1950", which with the many thousands of biographies of almost forgotten masters still remains the standard work of Dutch painters of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the field of Satsuma artists, however, there is no lexicon and individual biographies are often difficult to access for those who do not master Japanese. In addition, a great deal of Satsuma ware, including work of very high quality, was simply not signed.  And also signed pieces do not always bear the name of an artist but of a company, a kiln or a decoration studio.  Seikozan, Taizan Yohei or Kinkozan Sobei, they are well-known names, but they only produced a fraction of what was made under their name. And sometimes nothing at all like Hododa, who according to experts was a trader rather than an artist.  And finally, it should not be forgotten that well-known producers such as Kinkozan and Taizan also produced work of less quality, intended for a target group that could not afford the very exclusive, time-consuming and therefore expensive pieces.

Documentation does exist about the most famous and larger workshops, but many individual makers of Satsuma pottery are unknown and will always remain so. What remains is what they have created. And so  it's wiser to judge a Satsuma piece on its intrensical quality, and if there is a well-known name written it, that’s a bonus, but certainly not the most important thing.

The vase we show here comes from the Polish collector Arek Nowakowski. He bought it a few years ago because of the exquisite and detailed painting.  His interest in Satsuma only started after he deepened his interest in the backgrounds and characteristics of real Satsuma, after an initial dislike for the many Chinese imitations that is for sale on the internet auctions. The vase is not marked but contains an intriguing panel with a number of stylized characters which he could not identify and which also proved too difficult for us. Especially the character at the bottom right remained enigmatic, although he could find it at Bowes (Japanese Marks and Seals - 1862). Louis Lawrence, with whom Mr. Nowakowski had contact, solved the problem: "The character you have found in a seal on a painting in Bowes' book is 'bo'. Both are written in highly stylized Japanese which is very hard to read and nowadays out of use. Bo' is generally used in conjunction with dates, meaning time or period. I am sure you will have noticed that the panel with calligraphy on the vase "disappears" into the border. There are three complete characters and three half characters above. As Japanese is a language read top to bottom, the three characters shown in their entirety make no sense together."

Unfortunately, Lawrence didn't give us a clue about the possible kanji's. More important however, for the contributor as well as for many Satsuma collectors, is that he focuses on what the vase has more to offer than an unidentified inscription that probably refers to the period in which the vase was made or to the story depicted. Rightly so, of course, because in the end: "What's in a name", the vase itself is no less beautiful without a name. The borders and the background have been made using stencils and although not exceptional, they have been executed with care. You often come across it on Satsuma pottery, usually of less quality, sometimes more refined than was done here. However, the painting of the panels is sublime, and even of superior quality. Possibly several decorators have worked on this vase, a not uncommon phenomenon in the production of Satsuma ware.

The refinement in the execution of the painting on the panels but also the design itself show that a master painter has been working here.  One side shows three men, one of whom has thrown himself in supreme humility at the feet of another man with crossed arms, turning his head away as a sign that he does not want to accept this profound respect. The third man points to the kneeling man, he may have urged the man to pay his respects in this way. The other panel is of an almost serene rest and shows a flute playing man and his listener, on the banks of a river or lake.  Here, too, the faces are painted with much expression, the flute player concentrated on his playing, the other man visibly enjoying the music. On both panels it is mainly the expression in posture and facial expressions of the figures that are depicted most aptly. Perhaps not as detailed or refined as, for example, on the Naruse Seishi pieces shown on previous pages, but the style, the handwriting of the painter is also different and therefore difficult to compare with that of Naruse Seishi. Maybe we shouldn't do that either and leave both painters in their value. Both panels suggest that they are illustrating a passage from a story or legend. But which story is it then?  We like to let Louis Lawrence speak again: "I think the images refer to the legend of Ushiwakamaru playing his flute on the banks of lake Biwa and his subsequent meeting with the rogue warrior Benkei. Another possibility is that is a representation of the Benkei and Yoshitsune legend. Both are linked with flute playing and I think it would need sight of the other vase to determine exactly which this could be".

It's a little confusing here. Although Lawrence seems to outline two possibilities here, "Ushiwakamaru playing the flute and his subsequent meeting with the rogue warrior Benkei" as the first possibility and the "Benkei and Yoshitsune legend" as the second possibility, they are the same characters.  Ushiwakamaru, is better known with his adult name Minamoto no Yoshitsune.  So both panels would show scenes from the Yoshitsune and/or Benkei legend, but as Lawrence mentioned already, determining which scenes are depicted is not easy.  Yoshitsune and Benkei are both among the most beloved heroes of Japanese history and their individual as well as collective adventures have been preserved in numerous myths and legends that took shape in paintings, Kabuki plays and Noh representations.  The stories are grafted onto existing figures from the period of the Genpei War, a civil war between the Taira and Minamoto clans during the late-Heian period of Japan, at the end of the twelfth century. Benkei is described as a terrifying man of exceptional strength, who could break someone's bones with a single hand, but nevertheless he was also a peace-loving man. As a young man he was abandoned and grew up in the monastery, from which he would later be banished because of his behaviour. He then founded his own monastery near the Gojō Bridge in Kyoto, where he challenged every Samurai who tried to cross it to a fight and then disarmed him. Thus he collected 999 swords from defeated swordsmen.  But in his 1000th fight, he was defeated himself by Minamoto no Yoshitsune. Benkei was so impressed that he spent his entire life serving as a follower of Yoshitsune. Is this what we see here on the one panel, Benkei humbly throwing himself at the feet of Yoshitsune after his defeat?  Perhaps, although the kneeling man has little of the terrifying appearance of Benkei who was called Oniwaka (demonic or ogre child) as a child. Ïn Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune (Pamela S. Turner, Watertown MA-2016), we found the following description of the fight between Benkei and Yoshitsune, then known as Ushiwakamaru. "...One day a handsome youth tried to cross the bridge. He was made up in the proper manner for a young bushi (warrior) who had not yet undergone the adulthood ceremony, and he was playing a flute. Because he also carried a sword, Benkei challenged him. The young man, Ushiwakamaru (Young Bull) by name, nimbly outfought his gigantic opponent, defending himself with little but his flute and folding fan. Benkei was so impressed by his foe that he vowed to serve Ushiwakamaru for the rest of his life."

The description of the two figures does little justice to what we see on the vase.  But perhaps the painter wanted to portray the grandeur of Yoshitsune, one of the greatest generals in Japanese history,  and is that why he towers here proudly and exaltedly above Benkei?  The fact that Ushiwakamaru plays the flute here and even uses it as a weapon is interesting, given the depiction on the other panel of the vase. Anyway, it is only an interpretation of what we see, and what exactly is depicted remains a mystery for the time being.Louis Lawrence supposes that this vase was one of a pair, and that "it would need sight of the other vase to determine exactly which this could be." 

Is all this important to be able to enjoy the intrinsic beauty of this vase?  Maybe not, the quality stands on its own and even without knowing what is written on the panel, or what story is really depicted on the vase, its beauty is beyond question.  But it does add something, most collectors will agree with us. And certainly the owner of this beautiful vase would therefor like answers to some pressing questions:

Does anyone have a plausible answer to the question of what's written on the panel? Is there anyone who has any idea which scenes are depicted? And above all: does anyone recognize the style on this vase and does he or she knows where that second vase might have gone, should it have survived the almost a century and a half since the date of production? 

Do you know the answer to one of these questions ?  Please, contact Arek Nowakowski <anowakowski@outlook.com>

And curious as we are, please let us know it as well: info@satsuma-database.nl.

 

  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •