The Bard Graduate Center was the premiere venue for Quiet Beauty: Fifty Centuries of Japanese Folk Ceramics from the Montgomery Collection. The exhibition consisted of 100 extraordinary Japanese folk ceramics dating from 3000 BCE to 1985 and was the first exhibition outside Japan to explore this particular range of ceramic production. The exhibition was organized and circulated by Art Services International, Alexandria, Virginia. The national tour was sponsored by the Drs. Ben and Jess Shenson Foundation, Mitsubishi International Corporation, and the Toshiba International Foundation.

Quiet Beauty: Fifty Centuries of Japanese Folk Ceramics from the Montgomery Collection examined the unique Japanese reverence for ceramics, which began in the 16th century and continues in the present day, and explored the near-perfect combination of form, proportion, color, texture, line, gesture, movement, energy, and sense of spiritual harmony in this tradition. Produced primarily as vernacular ceramics with the intended use by farmers, artisans, and merchants, the objects in the exhibition were astonishing in their wide variety and profound aesthetic impact.

This remarkable display was drawn from The Montgomery Collection in Switzerland, arguably the most important collection of Japanese folk art outside of Japan. Spanning 5,000 years of Japanese art and history, it presented a comprehensive survey of technical and artistic achievements. The range and diversity of styles and techniques was remarkable, from prehistoric vessels of the Early Jômon period to late 20th-century pieces including ones by acclaimed potters Hamada Shôji, Kinjô Jirô, and Shimaoka Tatsuzô, all of whom have been designated Living National Treasures by the Japanese government.

Japan’s ceramic history is the oldest in the world. The earliest Jômon pottery dates back to 10,500 BCE, roughly 4,000 years earlier than the oldest known pieces from Egypt or Mesopotamia, and as old as pieces found in China. Formal appreciation for traditional ceramic craft can be traced back to the tea ceremony ritual in the 13th century. The tea ceremony was performed by monks who had studied Zen rituals in China and brought them back to Japan. It consisted of the communal drinking of a bowl of green tea, which was a stimulant used to help focus during meditation, and also had medicinal value. Later, the tea utensils themselves, their craftsmanship and simplicity, came to be a focus of contemplation and conversation. The ceremony emphasized the beauty of unadorned, natural materials as opposed to ornate luxury goods. While the first generation of Japanese tea masters selected costly imported Chinese utensils, taste soon shifted to simpler Korean kitchenware and Japanese peasant wares. All of these styles would assimilate into the Japanese folk ceramic vocabulary. From 1480 to 1650, the tea ceremony was an independent, secular, aesthetic activity, which created an atmosphere of creativity and innovation among Japanese intelligentsia.

Prior to 1868, there had been no distinction in Japan between fine art and decorative art. In fact, the concept of “fine art” did not exist there until the Japanese government started bringing over American and European scholars to teach art and science. Around this time, the word kogei, which had meant “handmade crafts,” came to mean “industrial crafts” with the advent of factory-made ceramics. As Japanese society and culture went through industrialization, factory-made Western goods became more fashionable, replacing the need for the hand-crafted.

Japanese folk ceramics had nearly descended into total obscurity until the founding of the Japan Folk Art (Mingei) Movement in 1925. The Mingei Movement was a response to industrialization and brought back the appreciation and practice of folk craft. Soetsu Yanagi coined the word mingei, which means “the people’s art,” in 1925 to replace kogei, and by January 1926, had started the movement. Yanagi was trained in the West, where he studied both Eastern and Western philosophy. While abroad, he studied and was inspired by the British Arts and Crafts Movement of the 1880s. He also befriended the British etcher and potter Bernard Leach, who helped him establish a short-lived artist’s commune in Japan. The Mingei Movement built large collections of Japanese, Korean, and Okinawan ceramics and opened a museum devoted to Japanese folk ceramics, which is open to this day with seven branches in Japan. Jeffrey Montgomery, from whose collection the pieces in Quiet Beauty were drawn, modeled his collection on the ideas and aesthetics of Mingei.

The objects in the exhibition were arranged in chronological order and subdivided by region of production. Included were cooking beakers; wine jars; storage jars; grinding and mixing bowls; plates, dishes and bowls in stoneware and porcelain; saké bottles and saké flasks; oil-drip plates; sculptural alcove ornaments; and flower-arranging vases. The exhibition included a number of rare ceramics. Especially noteworthy was the Montgomery Collection’s Momoyama Period (15681615) Bizen Ware Saké Bottle, considered one of the best of its type in the world.

The objects were selected by Robert Moes, former Head of the Asian Art Department at the Brooklyn Museum and Guest Curator of the exhibition. Moes is a highly respected scholar of Asian art who has organized over 15 exhibitions exploring various areas of the field for the Denver Art Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Asia Society, and Japan Society. Included among his publications are Southeast Asian Ceramics (1975), Auspicious Spirits: Korean Folk Paintings and Related Objects (1983), and Japanese Folk Art: A Triumph of Simplicity (1992). He was also Guest Curator for Art Services International’s 1995 exhibition, MINGEI: Japanese Folk Art from the Montgomery Collection, which traveled to art museums in North America and Europe.

The exhibition was accompanied by a 224-page, full-color catalogue published by Art Services International. An extensive series of essays by curator Robert Moes traces the development of folk ceramics from prehistoric techniques to ceramics of the 21st century. There also is an accompanying essay by Rupert Faulkner, Senior Curator, Japanese Art, Asian Department, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.