Ogata Kenzan: Ceramics and Design in Early Modern Japan

Dr. Richard L. Wilson

Lecture 1998-09-21

Akita ranga is the art school founded in the Edo period by the daimyo Lord Satake Shozan. During Japan's long period of isolation, rangaku (Dutch-learning became popular among the educated classes. Sugita Ganpaku translated the nation's first anatomy book, Kaitai Shinsho, from Dutch in 1774. The illustrator was Odano Naotake. Through illustrating the anatomy book Naotake learned the Western artistic techniques of perspective and chiaroscuro (use of light and shade) and incorporated these elements into traditional Japanese painting. This lecture explains and illustrates Naotake's approach to Kaitai Shinsho.Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743) was steeped in the literary and artistic traditions of Japan and China. While his pottery bears influences from calligraphy and painting, at the same time his ceramics have an unfinished, amateurish touch that have endeared them to admirers right down to the present. Over four decades, the Kenzan workshops, located in Kyoto and later in Edo, produced a diverse line of wares that testified to the urban demand for fine goods that repackaged images of classical court culture for upwardly mobile townspeople.

The admiration elicited by Kenzan wares encouraged imitations, the study of which sheds light on the original works and highlights shifts in taste after Kenzan's death. At present, developments in urban archaeology and scientific analysis are opening up a new frontier in Kenzan studies.

In Japan the idea of the artistically gifted potter has become commonplace, but Kenzan was the first. His work brings high-culture images into humble vessels: a meeting of heaven and earth. If there is an essential Japanese aesthetic, the designs of Ogata Kenzan must be close to it.


Dr. Richard L. Wilson is a Professor of Art and Archeology as well as Director of Japan Studies at International Christian University. He is the author of many books and articles, in English and Japanese, on Ogata Kenzan and Japanese ceramics.


Edited from material submitted by Dr. Joshua Dale.