Chigusa and the Art of Tea

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Tea-leaf storage jar named Chigusa with mouth cover and ornamental cords Photo credit: Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art The mouth cover for Chigusa was made by Tsuchida Yuko in 2013; the cords for tying ornamental knots are from the Japanese Meiji era (late 19th–early 20th c.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The humble and revered Chigusa, a 700-year-old storage jar designed to hold powdered Japanese tea, will make its U.S. debut this week (Feb. 22) at the Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art.

Over the course of several centuries and generations of connoisseurs this ordinary vessel has become one of the most revered objects of Japan’s chanoyu, the “art of tea.”

“Chigusa and the Art of Tea” is a collection of tea kettles, tea ware and artifacts commonly used by 16th century Japanese tea masters. The exhibit opens daily Feb. 22 through July 27 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

“Japanese collectors in the sixteenth century used the compact tea room as the setting for interacting with objects. Looking closely at form and surface, they singled out exceptional works and gave them personal names,” explains Louise Cort, curator of ceramics at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

“These named objects could develop a reputation and a history as they were displayed and used in tea gatherings,” she said.

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Tea-leaf storage jar named Chigusa China, probably Guangdong Province, Southern Song or Yuan dynasty, mid-13th to mid-14th c. Stoneware with iron glaze H: 41.6 cm
Photo Credit: Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art

The museum acquired the 16.5-inch tall jar at auction in September 2009. It is a commercial vessel believed to have been made during the Yuan dynasty. It is colored with a mottled amber glaze with four lugs on it shoulder and a cylindrical neck with a rolled lip sealed by a silk cover and secured with cord.

“This handsome jar has been admired and sought after by Japanese tea masters for half a millennium,” said James Ulak, curator of Japanese art at the Freer and Arthur M. Sackler galleries. “As the documentation shows, its surface has been admired and caressed by a who’s who of Japan’s cultural giants from the 15th century forward. It is extremely rare to find such a storied work on the market.”

The exhibit shows how one Chinese storage jar was transformed into a vessel worthy of display, adornment, and contemplation. Diaries of tea events reveal what the writers admired about the jar named Chigusa, which appears in the exhibition alongside other cherished objects — Chinese

Documents associated with the tea-leaf storage jar named Chigusa Photo Credit: Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art

Documents associated with the tea-leaf storage jar named Chigusa
Photo Credit: Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art

calligraphy, Chinese and Korean tea bowls, Japanese stoneware and wooden vessels — used during this formative era of Japanese tea culture.

The name Chigusa means “abundance of varieties” or “abundance of plants.”

The poetic name is an indication of the jar’s high status in 16th-century Japanese tea culture, in which valued Chinese objects were often imbued with elaborate significance through practices such as naming and adorning them with special accoutrements. The name has been useful to scholars in tracking the jar through the diaries and records of tea connoisseurs and collectors who observed it in use at various tea functions. One eyewitness, who saw the jar named Chigusa at a gathering in 1586, admired its large size and the reddish color of the clay and noted that it was a “meibutsu,” meaning “celebrated tea object.”

The jar bears four ciphers written in lacquer on its base. The oldest is attributed to Noami (1397-

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Tea-leaf storage jar named Chigusa with mouth cover, securing cord, and net bag. Photo Credit: Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art
The mouth cover for Chigusa was tailored in Japan using Chinese silk from the Ming dynasty (15th c.); the cord for securing the mouth cover is from the Japanese Meiji era (1868– 1912); the silk net bag is Japanese from the Muromachi or Momoyama period (16th c.).

1471), a painter and professional connoisseur for the Ashikaga shogun. This suggests the possibility, otherwise unrecorded, that the jar circulated among owners close to the Ashikaga government. The next oldest cipher is that of Torii Insetsu (1448-1517) an important tea connoisseur and collector in the international trading city of Sakai, known for innovative tea activity. The next owner to inscribe his cipher was another Sakai tea enthusiast, Ju Soho, who hosted a tea in the new year of 1573 for guests, including the esteemed tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-91).

Only a few hundred similar jars survive and fewer still are accompanied by such a wealth of artifacts and documentation. The exhibit allows visitors into the secret world of 16th century “tea men” who raised drinking tea from a refreshing activity to a level of obsessive connoisseurship, and created one of the most iconic aspects of Japanese culture.

The Freer Gallery of Art is located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., both on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, except Dec. 25. Admission is free.

Learn more: Chigusa and the Art of Tea

Source: Smithsonian Institution

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