Kawai Kanjiro (河井寛次郎)

Kanjiro KAWAI (August 24, 1890 - November 18, 1966) was a ceramic artist in Japan.

He produced excellent work in the areas such as sculpture, design, calligraphy, poetry, prose poetry (詞), and essays, in addition to ceramics.

Research in schools

Kanjiro was born as a son of a carpenter in Yasugi-cho, Shimane Prefecture (present-day Yasugi City). In 1910, he entered the department of ceramic engineering at Tokyo Higher Technical School (present-day Tokyo Institute of Technology) after graduating from Matsue Junior High School (present-day Matsue Kita Senior High School of Shimane Prefecture). Not having anyone to regard as his master in the world of potters where the master-student relationship was highly valued, Kanjiro became a potter of the new generation who learned pottery in an educational institution called a school. He received instruction from the potter, Hazan ITAYA, and conducted scientific studies on ceramic engineering at Tokyo Higher Technical School. Kanjiro joined the Kyoto Ceramic Research Center (京都市立陶芸試験場) after graduating from Tokyo Higher Technical School, and along with Shoji HAMADA, his junior at the school, he studied more than 10,000 types of glazes, reproduced and studied ceramics from the past, such as Chinese ceramics. Serving as technical adviser to Rokube KIYOMIZU the Fifth, Kanjiro, in 1920, obtained Rokube's kiln in Gojozaka, Kyoto, named it 'Shokei yo' (Shokei kiln), and began to create his own work. In the same year, he married the daughter of a temple and shrine carpenter in Kyoto, Tsune.

A shift from elegant style

In 1921, Kanjiro held the 'Creative Ceramics Exhibition' (創作陶磁展覧会) at the Takashimaya department stores in Tokyo and Osaka. At this time, he met the PR manager of Takashimaya Tokyo, Kenichi KAWAKATSU, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. At the ceramics exhibitions at the Takashimaya department stores, Kanjiro introduced sophisticated, elegant works that he modeled after the great ceramics from China and Korea and applied the results of his scientific studies to, and suddenly received public attention as a master potter even though he was a newcomer. Contrary to the reputation, however, he eventually became concerned about his works. At the same time at the Creative Ceramics Exhibition, Kanjiro held 'the Korean Folk Art Exhibition', displaying the ceramics from the Joseon Dynasty collected by Muneyoshi YANAGI, and was deeply impressed by the simple yet beautiful works of unknown potters.
Kanjiro stopped producing his own works, saying to himself, "My works are like costumes and makeup, but what has happened to the body inside and the spirit?"
In 1924, he deeply sympathized with Yanagi's folk theory and set the goal of creating useful ceramics for daily use when Shoji HAMADA returned home from England, showed him the various containers and slipware he collected there, and introduced Yanagi to him.

The Mingei (folk crafts) movement towards the beauty of daily use

In 1926, Kanjiro together with Yanagi and Hamada made public the prospectus for the Japan Folk Crafts Museum. He joined the 'Mingei movement,' which aimed to discover old daily necessities and recover the skills to produce them, to promote the beauty of ceramics for daily use produced by unknown artisans, and to produce and spread new daily ceramic necessities. Kenkichi TOMIMOTO, Tatsuaki KURODA, and Bernard Leach also joined the movement, and at his exhibition at the Takashimaya department store was held in 1929 after a long period of silence, Kanjiro shifted his focus from classic to daily ware. He visited various places, influenced by the sites of handicraft production and the ceramics of Japan, Korea, and England, he produced a series of ceramics with beautiful coloration made from glaze technology while adopting simple, practical designs, and thus he received public attention again. After that, Kanjiro stopped inscribing his name as an artist on his works.

When the Muroto typhoon destroyed his house in Gojozaka, Kanjiro designed his new house with a studio by modeling the shape of houses in his hometown with the structure to match the shape of a climbing kiln and completed the construction of the house with the help of the carpenters from his parent's family in 1937. This house with the office currently remains as the Kawai Kanjiro Memorial Museum. In the same year, his 'flower design vase with iron and cinnabar glaze' (鉄辰砂草花図壷) won the grand prize at the Paris World Exposition (1937) through Kenichi KAWAKATSU's special arrangement.

Towards a more freewheeling style

After World War II, Kanjiro, who had developed an interest in folk art in the world, began to produce works in wood carving. His style of ceramic design also changed from pots for daily use to simple yet abstract designs. He started to write poems and prose poetry during World War II when materials were difficult to obtain, and created his prose poetry 'Hi no chikai' (literally, fire oath) on a woodcut by Shiko MUNAKATA in 1947. Kanjiro completed the production of a ceramic panel inscribed with his essay 'Inochi no mado' (literally, window of life) on the pot clay. This was a time when he wrote a large number of reflective essays during his old age, but, for ceramic works such as pots and plates, he produced them as if they had been created with a method of action painting by slamming the glaze with a brush against the rough surface of flexible shapes. Moreover, he tested all kinds of glazes and designs, never losing his creative drive until his death.

Kanjiro declined the Order of Culture in 1955. Although recommended as a Living National Treasure and a member of the Japan Art Academy, he declined them as well. In 1957, his 'flower design flat vase with white glaze' (白地草花絵扁壷) won the grand prize at the Milan Triennale International Industrial Art Exhibition arranged by Kenichi KAWAKATSU, but Kanjiro continued to work as a potter without rank or prize until his later years. In 1966, he died at the age of seventy-six.