My Dreams of Itaya Hazan

As many of you know, I went for a two week trip to Japan in December 2017. This was my 3rd trip to Japan and definitely won't be my last. On this trip I visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Kagoshima, and Yamanashi prefectures. I saw a lot of wonderful things, I went to so many hot springs and bath houses, I walked 80 miles total (destroying my brand new shoes), road on a Japanese Kiso horse at the base of Mt. Fuji (in Yamanashi), and ate as much delicious food as I could. In addition to making a special ink trip in Tokyo to Bungubox in Shibuya which I'll write about in a separate post, I also visited a bookseller in Kyoto and discovered an incredible new art inspiration.

I finally arrived in Kyoto on the 4th day of my trip. I had already walked way more than I was used to in Portland, and I now think my brand new shoes were actually the wrong size too, so my feet REALLY hurt. There's a lot of sights to see in Kyoto, but for the first day there I was definitely not interested in anything farther than about 500 feet. So instead of going to one of the ancient temples in the area, the Gion district and trying to spot a Maiko, or the art museum where they were holding an exhibition of one of my favorite mangas of all time (Glass Mask), I just hobbled down the street of my hostel to find food and see what else was nearby. There was a new bookstore that I wandered into, but they didn't really have anything that interested me, but then there was a used bookstore too. 

Inside the used bookstore I went, and of course the wonderful smell of old books filled my soul with happiness. I've always had a dream of being able to read Harry Potter in Japanese, so that was one of my goals of this Japan trip, find a used copy of Harry Potter in Japanese (which I did!), but in talking with the shopkeeper (who was very helpful in recommending me books to practice reading Japanese with) she also showed me the art section as well. I'm not really sure how exactly I found this book here amidst all the hundreds of others, but in this dimly lit section of the shop, one of the books I pulled off the shelf stopped me instantly. 

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It was a museum art book about Japanese ceramic artist, Itaya Hazan.

The reason why his art stopped me instantly was because of the similarities between his works and mine that I didn't expect to find in Japan. It's not just the way he designs birds and plants, but also his exploration of occupied and negative space, light and dark, and his general arrangement that made me feel this was a kindred artistic spirit. 

Itaya Hazan lived from 1872-1963, meaning he experienced both World War I and World War II, although he never traveled to Europe and he was in his 70's during WWII. But when I realized this, I had to just stop and consider what that must have been like for a moment. News would have traveled very differently then, I'm not sure what the coverage of WWI was like in Japan at the time, which also then leads me to remember that he was born only about 20 years after Japan first opened to the West (1853)! He was born just 3 years after the end of the Boshin War (a major Japanese civil war 1868-1869) and was 5 years old at the time of the Satsuma Rebellion (1877). This was a Japan in the midst of an extreme period of change in almost every way. And not only was this a time of intense social change and cultural exchange, but also massive industrial change as Japan moved from small scale, largely anonymous artisan potters to mass produced ceramics, and then also to famous well-known and collected artisan potters.

So here comes along Itaya during this chaotic time, and at age 17 entered what is now known as the Tokyo University of the Arts. Initially he studied as a sculptor under Koun Takamura and Tenshin Okakura and became a sculptor teacher at the Ishikawa Prefectural Industrial School which closed only a few short years later, in 1898 when he was 26 years old. From this point on until his death at age 91 he switched from sculpture to ceramics. During this time he was influenced by multiple cultures and design traditions inside and outside of Japan. He has different periods of exploration that can both be separated out and eventually merge inseparably incorporating influences from India, China, and Europe, both ancient and modern. 

Much of what he's now left behind has ended up not being ceramics, but the sketches of designs he was practicing to eventually use on an object, and sketches of objects that he imagined one day realizing. 

In the process of learning more about where Itaya found the inspiration for his designs, I learned even more about the history of Indian textiles in particular in Edo and Meiji era Japan. Itaya studied many of his vine motifs from a book called Hikone Sarasa, which is a look at Indian textile patterns that were very popular from the early 17th century on in Japan. Apparently the designs were so popular that several instruction manuals were produced around this time. Considering Japan's isolationist policy at this time, original Indian designs were extremely limited, so Japanese artists created lots of their own inspired patterns and imitations, and the designs also gained special sophistication status from their inclusion in small parts of Japanese Tea Ceremony and other aspects of high class lifestyles. 

Lots of articles I read about him focus on Itaya's incorporation and fascination with European Art Nouveau, but personally I really am more interested in his incorporation of Indian styles, the way he transforms plants into patterns, and his use of negative and occupied space and natural symbolism. He also has done things that I've considered, but never tried, such as showing plants with serious flaws like eaten or crumbling leaves, and birds with legs. 

So inspired by Itaya, I ended up taking a special trip in Tokyo to visit the Idemitsu Museum of Art. Sazo Idemitsu was a long time friend and collector of Itaya's and the museum has one of the largest collections of his works and sketches today. Unfortunately the show that was going on at the time had nothing to do with Itaya, but in the special permanent ceramics fragments section I was able to find some shattered pieces of Itaya's works and see them in person. It was a really special moment to glance around and immediately recognize a shard of one of his pieces. 

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In a fine art world obsessed with paintings, it's frankly been very difficult to find named and revered artists with any similarities to my own work. I'm really grateful to have stumbled upon Itaya Hazan and I am looking forward to learning even more about him, studying his style, and thinking of him as inspiration in my future works. Already his color palette was the inspiration for the colors I picked from Bungu Box for two of my most recent colored works. Without finding Itaya I would have had a much more difficult time figuring out a palette that matched my style. Who knows, maybe he'll inspire me to put legs on my birds.

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