The painted ceramics of Ogata Kenzan (1663–1743) are elegant and harmonious. They match shape to decoration beautifully and they render natural motifs fluently in an almost abstract way. They are so revered in Japan and the West that there is almost a cult of Kenzan.
Bernard Leach worked in the Kenzan tradition and his occasional brush decoration is good because he was trained to draw before he learned pottery. Potters in the Anglo-Oriental tradition shared Leach’s admiration of Japanese ceramics but their painting is perfunctory because they doubted the validity of decoration and colour.
Given the beauty of Kenzan’s pots, it’s disappointing to discover how much in the Kenzan cult is bogus. Ogata Kenzan made very little himself and he commissioned most “Kenzan” pots from unknown potters and painters. Kenzan is a brand rather than a person, like Gucci or Louis Vuitton. Ogata’s successors may be presented as traditional craftsmen but some of them were urban sophisticates who ran factories making products for Tokyo department stores.
Leach mythologized his relationship with Kenzan, emphasising what he learned from Urano Shigekichi, whom he called “Ogata Kenzan”, and obscuring his debt to other teachers. Leach’s supposed inheritance of the Kenzan title was really no more than a certificate of competence from Urano, which, at the suggestion of Tomimoto Kenkichi, he inflated as a way of marketing his work in Japan. Janet Leach said that Tomimoto’s idea so went to her husband’s head that he came to believe that he was a Kenzan.
Kenzan may be imagined as a traditional pottery workshop without division of labour, but such workshops are not so much a fact as an idea. As soon as pottery-making moved out of the household, there was a division of labour. Excellence in making became possible only when potters specialised in making, decorating or kiln-firing. The studio pottery workshop in the West was a product of the Arts and Crafts philosophy, of which Leach was a late and passionate adherent. Even in the workshop of the English country potter, another of the studio potter’s inspirations, there was a division of labour, and admired country potters like George Curtis and Isaac Button were found to be working alone only because by that time they were old and were running down their businesses.
Leach’s famous essay “Towards a Standard” in A Potter’s Book (1940) is a re-statement of the Arts and Crafts philosophy with all of William Morris’s suspicion of industry and idealization of the peasant. The Arts and Crafts movement was influential in Japan as well, and Leach’s Japanese colleagues, Tomimoto and Soetsu Yanagi were thoroughly familiar with Ruskin and Morris. And so Leach’s “Japanese” ideas were already westernized before he picked them up.
The value and scarcity of work from Ogato Kenzan’s workshop inevitably encouraged forgeries. By the early 1960s a large number of them had come onto the market and for a time they deceived collectors and critics. Leach never ceased to believe in them, even after everyone else was undeceived. Although his failing sight made it difficult for him to see them properly, he said that he knew in his heart that they were genuine.
Nevertheless, the best Kenzan ceramics (whether made by Ogata or not) remain an inspiration to pottery painters.
Richard Wilson, The Potter’s Brush (Washington: Smithsonian, 2001)
Bernard Leach, Kenzan and his Tradition (London: Faber & Faber, 1966)