Bamboo: Mirror of Japanese Modernity

Bamboo: Mirror of Japanese Modernity

The tropical woody grasses of the bamboo family are widely celebrated today as a natural resource that encapsulates much of East Asian culture in general and Japanese culture in particular. Bamboo is portrayed and used as an emblem of simplicity and naturalness, a green building material, a foodstuff, a source of natural beauty, and a medium for visual and musical artistic creativity.

For thousands of years, Japanese farmers and artisans have plaited this material into practical containers. Some of those containers were thought refined enough to be treasured in imperial storehouses or used to display flowers in the tea ceremony, but it is surprising to discover that the idea of basketry as a self-conscious art form is little more than 150 years old.

Hayakawa Shōkosai I (1815–1897), the first basket-weaver known to sign his work, was one of the founding fathers of a craft industry centred around sencha—a supposedly Chinese manner of tea-drinking with Chinese-style utensils and quite distinct from the Japanese chanoyu (“tea ceremony”)—that became popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Later generations of bamboo weavers gradually abandoned Chinese models and developed a nativist style that, over time, became less closely associated with tea and entered the mainstream of a mid-twentieth-century art world dominated by collectors (including many from overseas), dealers, official art exhibitions, craft associations, department-store displays, and the Japanese government’s “Living National Treasure” system.

Drawing on his recent experiences cataloguing a private European collection and counselling a major celebration of Japanese bamboo culture to be held in São Paolo, Brazil, this summer, Joe Earle will discuss the revival of “bamboo consciousness” during Japan’s early modern era and introduce previously unpublished masterworks made by leading bamboo artists over the past 175 years.

These will range from the earliest artist-signed flower baskets in the Chinese style (made in the Osaka region), to later, more assertively nativist works pioneered by artists in the Kanto region of eastern Japan, illustrated here by a rare early example from the hands of Iizuka Rōkansai, perhaps the greatest of all Japanese bamboo artists. (Rōkansai’s son, Living National Treasure Iizuka Shōkansai was the teacher of Buseki Suikō, whose “Crane Dance” was the first piece of Japnese bamboo art acquired by the National Museums of Scotland, in 1912.)

Earle’s presentation will conclude with the post-war project to find a place for bamboo in the global contemporary art scene. In its early stages, this manifested itself as a branch of Japanese essentialist modernism, strongly supported by American collectors and dealers. Today’s vast, room-sized sculptures and outdoor installations, by contrast, tend to reflect more global, green responses to issues of sustainability, yet always with a positive, anti-dystopian flavour.


Hayakawa Shōkosai I (1815–1897)

unnamed (5)

“Six Elements” Handled Flower Basket
Circa 1893
Bamboo, rattan; double-wall construction, mat plaiting, double hexagonal plaiting, square plaiting, twining
43.5 × 19.3 × 20 cm
Signed: Nanajūkyū-ō Shōkosai kore o tsukuru七十九翁 尚古齋造之 (Shōkosai made this, aged 79)
Private Collection


Iizuka Rōkansai (1890–1958)
飯塚琅玕斎 (1890〜1958)

unnamed (4)

“Lotus Seed” Flower Basket
Bamboo; free-style diagonal plaiting, free-style hexagonal plaiting, wrapping
33.2 × 18.3 × 17 cm
Signed: Kinoe-ne shoka Rōkansai saku 甲子初夏 琅玕斎作 (Made by Rōkansai in April 1924)
Private Collection

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