What is Raku Pottery?

Raku is one of the most famous ceramic dynasties in history. They produced some of the best art in this type of work.

This dynasty of potters from Kyoto has been continuous for fifteen generations. They still make ceramics in the same way they started making them in the middle of the 16th century.

At first, the products of the representatives of the Raku dynasty were not aimed at mass production but created for a small circle of connoisseurs who appreciated the tea ceremony known as cha-no-yu.

The workshop mainly created tea bowls, incense burners, and less often incense boxes and vases for flower arrangements.

This seeming limitation on the capabilities of the Raku craftsmen led to the refinement and crystallization of the style. Know they bear a vivid imprint of the individuality of the masters who created them, and the time to which they belong.

Techniques developed in 16th century Japan

The technology of the Raku family was based on the techniques developed in 16th century Japan. The kilns used at that time were not very hot, and the potters had to learn how to control the atmosphere in the kiln to get the desired effect.

Products were made by hand (probably because the clays in this area were not very plastic, making it impossible to use a potter’s wheel). Then they were covered with lead glazes that melted when they were heated.

The three-color Chinese Sancai ceramics of the Ming era (1368-1644)) were created using a monochrome red and black glaze.

The most famous were monochrome products, named aka-raku (red raku) and Kuro-raku (black raku).

Characterized by its use of high temperatures

Raku is characterized by its use of high temperatures, where pottery is fired in a chamber at temperatures from 850 to 1000 degrees Celsius. After it’s fired, the pottery is quickly removed and cooled in the open air or by immersion in water.

The bowls have two different styles, the first is the lively and expressive style. The second is the style that occurs during sudden cooling.

This happens when the glaze on the bowl hardens quickly, which gives the bowl individuality and meets the requirements of Wabi aesthetics, which determined the tea ceremony of Sen no Rikyu and his followers.

In the 17th century, many people recognized the innovative style of ceramics from the Raku workshop. These ceramics were very expensive, and many people copied them. Many artists created their versions of this style.

Even though Raku pottery has a name that was passed down, the word “raku” means something different now.

Created in the style of raku pottery

Many ceramics were created in the style of raku pottery, which was traditionally used in Japanese tea ceremonies. This happened during the 17th-19th centuries. Japan’s opening to the West in the middle of the 19th century led to many Westerners copying Japanese decorative motifs for their works.

However, the ceramics from the Raku workshop did not get attention from Westerners until the beginning of the 20th century. This is because they were not as flashy and decorative compared to other Japanese ceramic products from the second half of the 19th century that were meant for export.

Bernard Leach (1887-1979)

British artist and ceramist Bernard Leach (1887-1979) is credited with popularizing the Japanese pottery style known as “raku.” Today, the term “raku” is used by ceramists in Russia, Western, and Eastern Europe, Scandinavian countries, and the United States.

However, the way raku is made has changed a lot as it spread around the world. It’s important to think about whether “European” and “American raku” are different. The first European to introduce raku-style ceramics to Western craftsmen was the British artist and ceramist Bernard Leach (1887-1979

He moved to Japan after getting an art education in London. He was influenced by the books of Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), which said that Japan was a country with sophisticated culture, beautiful nature, and hard-working people.

Leach went to Japan in 1909 and got to know some young Japanese philosophers and artists. These people published a magazine called Shirakaba, which means White Birch. They wanted to share the world’s art with as many people as possible.

B. Leach’s activities in this association were originally devoted to the popularization of European prints. At the same time, his active work at Shirakaba introduced him to young thinkers and artists like Yanagi Soetsu, Hamada Shoji, and Tomimoto Kenkichi.

Leach took part in an exhibition in Tokyo in 1911. This made him very well-known as an engraver and textile designer in Japan. That same year, he was invited to a Raku meeting which he describes as a Raku party, with other artists.

These gatherings were a popular form of leisure among educated Japanese people. They would get together and paint ceramic products that had been fired before. They would watch the firing, which is especially beautiful at night when everything is red-hot. While the painting group gathered in the room of the tea house. This emphasized the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of the meeting and its connection to the tea tradition.

Bernard Leach was interested in ceramics within the framework of Sirakaba, but he did not think about working with this material until he participated in the “raku meeting”. This event, where he saw the spectacle of firing and saw the different results achieved by different participants, made him change his artistic career. The first product of Bernard Leach was a dish with an image of a parrot. This decorative motif was copied from Chinese porcelain from the Ming period (1368-1644).

This suggests that at the beginning of the 20th century, the technology of raku was no longer used in the same way as it was originally. It became known as a method for decorating ceramics.

That being said, Raku meetings were related to the old traditions of artistic creativity. This creativity was based on the ethics and aesthetics of the tea ceremony, joint poetic creativity, and competitions between calligraphers and ikebana masters from the 17th-19th centuries.

This tradition was brought back at the beginning of the 20th century. This was an important time because it marked when people started to demand culture and art that was associated with old Japan. This showed that people wanted to keep the traditions of their country.

This was a time when there was a revival of interest in the tea ceremony, the practice of making sencha tea, and other traditional arts. People were also interested in religious-philosophical and aesthetic teachings.

Horikawa Mitsuzan

B. Leach tried to learn pottery and ceramic painting on his own, but he couldn’t do it as well as he wanted. So he searched for a teacher in Tokyo and found Horikawa Mitsuzan. Mitsuzan was a specialist in the Raku style of pottery.

Leach found greater understanding with Urano Shigekich, 1851–1923, Kenzan VI), whose ceramics inherited the traditions of the outstanding master Ogata Kenzan (Kenzan I, 1663–1743).

Although Urano Shigekichi’s work and the commitment to decoration at the Rimpa school of art were considered to be weak by Leach, this master had all the technical knowledge of ceramics that belonged to an old and prestigious dynasty. He was also ready to teach a foreign student the basics of ceramic decoration.

Leach worked in the workshop of Urano Shigekichi with Tomimoto Kenkichi for two years. At first, Kenkichi helped translate for Leach since he didn’t know Japanese that well. However, Leach also learned how to make pottery to create molds himself.

He noted that, even though he was not Japanese, he could feel the nature of traditional forms and decor. He said that many of the early works (1911-1913) of the master were unique interpretations of European styles of ceramics, done in light of the Japanese pottery and artistic tradition.

Later, the ceramics of the Far East and African countries would also have a great influence on Leach’s work. After a year of apprenticeship, Urano allowed B. Leach to set up his workshop in the corner of the garden on his estate and build a small raku kiln.

Inheritors of the Kenzan family tradition

A year after the construction of this workshop, Urano presented certificates to Tomimoto Kenkichi and Bernard Leach that recognized them as inheritors of the Kenzan family tradition. Bernard Leach was also officially recognized as the master of Kenzan VII. As part of this tradition, Bernard Leach received a collection of documents with glaze recipes and other production secrets, such as the basics of Raku firing.

Leach published some of his findings in his works, including the “Potter’s Book”, Available at Amazon. This book was published in 1940 and it had a big impact on the way people made ceramics in the Western world. Leach made the traditional technology available to all ceramists who were interested in enriching the artistic language of studio ceramics.

The master used the raku technique throughout his creative life, both while working in Japan and St. Ives.

B. Leach was the first artist in Europe to have an independent studio in 1920 when he returned to England.

Gradually, Leach and Yanagi Soetsu developed a new understanding of the role of the craftsman in the artistic tradition. They believed that the craftsman should have a strong connection to the natural world, as well as to other artists. This idea coincided with the ideas of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Like Morris, Leach was against the industrialization of the craft and its transformation into a unified production. For Yanagi Soetsu, as well as for many Japanese artists and thinkers of the early twentieth century, the prospect of the inevitable industrialization of Japan seemed a serious threat to the original culture of handicrafts and folk crafts.

Mingei movement

In the 1920s, people became interested in preserving folk traditions. This led to the Mingei movement, which was started by Hamada Shoji and Kawai Kanjiro 1890-1978. In the 1930s, Arakawa Toyozo: 1894-1985) helped revive the old ceramic workshop traditions.

The rehabilitation of the old arts was an important part of Japan’s national policy in the first half of the 20th century. This policy found a lot of support from the philosophers and artists of that time.

Okakura Kokuzo’s “The Book of Tea” published in 1906 had a big influence on people’s interest in the national tradition. In this book, he explained the enduring ethical and aesthetic value of the tea ceremony. This book, which was published in English, has become a revelation for Western readers. Along with The Potter’s Book by Bernard Leach, this book had a huge impact on ceramists in Western countries, as well as on a wide range of artists, writers, and thinkers of the mid-twentieth century.

In Cornwall, Bernard Leach and Hamada Shoji were both creative and taught other people how to be creative too.

Warren Mackenzie

One of Leach’s first American students was Warren Mackenzie. He studied at the St. Ives workshop from 1949 to 1951. The interest of American artists in the Japanese pottery tradition grew in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

After the Great Depression and the Second World War, America had a time of stability. This affected the development of arts and crafts. In the middle of the 20th century, American ceramists were mainly interested in improving their techniques and making better glazes.

In the post-war decade, the aesthetics of the applied arts changed radically. This was due to the expansion of design possibilities that were created by the proliferation of new materials.

Beginning in 1950, Craft Horizons magazine started featuring articles about the work of artists and crafters. In 1953, the American Craftsmen’s Educational Council held an exhibition of “craftsmen-designers” in conjunction with the Brooklyn Museum. In 1956, the Museum of Modern Crafts was opened by the same association.

The number of educational institutions studying crafts and arts gradually grew in the United States. This created a fruitful environment for artists, masters of various types of arts and crafts.

After World War II, the world changed rapidly. The world became much bigger because of the war. People were interested in different countries too. America had military bases in Japan, and this made people interested in Japan and its culture.

Gradually, Japanese aesthetics captured the minds and hearts of American artists. They responded to technogenic culture and wartime design with ideas of “organic” art and proximity to natural forms. There was also interest in the spiritual culture of Japan, which focused on Zen Buddhism.

The Buddhist school of thought spread to the West thanks to the work of Suzuki Daisetsu Teitaro and Alan Wilson Watts. Suzuki was a writer and educator who helped spread knowledge about Zen Buddhism. Watts was a philosopher and religious scholar who wrote about the aesthetics of art, which was influenced by his time living in a commune in California

The writer Elsa Gidlow founded a commune in which the inhabitants created all the necessary household items themselves, guided by ideas of natural and functional aesthetics. This commune included Alan Watts.

Watts saw a connection between the simple aesthetics of American amateur artists and the aesthetics of things created in the spirit of Japanese Wabi. This included arts like the tea ceremony and ikebana flower arrangement.

Zen Buddhism and its aesthetics were seen by Watts and his followers as a way to find their voice in a conservative state and unite all forms of life in America. “Free-form” pottery has come to prominence in the arts and crafts of the United States.

“Free-form” pottery has come to prominence in the United States arts and crafts scene. This type of pottery is unique because it allows artists to express themselves freely and creatively. Additionally, this form of pottery emphasizes the unity of all life in America.

Influence on American ceramists

Bernard Leach’s work, The Potter’s Book, published in the United States in 1947, had a huge influence on American ceramists in the 1950s. However, the arrival of English master Yanagi Soetsu and Hamada Seji in the USA with a series of lectures and masterclasses in 1952 had the greatest influence on the artists.

This conference was focused on the art of ceramics and artistic weaving. The purpose was to show how international cooperation can make this art more interesting.

Thanks to the master classes of Hamada Shoji, American ceramists learned about the special plastic qualities of Japanese ceramics. Hamada Shoji was a master potter who rarely gave public lectures but would often demonstrate his work when the opportunity arose.

Japanese ceramics can be considered art. They are made to be beautiful and look good in any setting. People who make them think about how they will look and how people will interact with them. They also think about the colors and textures of the ceramics to make sure they are perfect.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, some very famous Japanese masters, like Kitaoji Rosanjin and Kaneshige Toyo, traveled to the United States. They had a big impact on American artists.

Paul Soldner

Many people were interested in the lectures and masterclasses. One especially interested person was Paul Soldner. He is considered the inventor of the “American raku” style of pottery. This style eventually became popular all over the world.

Peter Voulkos (Panagiotis Voulkos, 1924-2002) was a very famous ceramic artist. He taught a student, three years younger than him, and worked together to experiment with new forms of ceramics.

Soldner was greatly influenced by Zen philosophy, the tea ceremony, and the work of Japanese potters. However, these phenomena did not have a lot of influence on his early work – monumental, intricately shaped items that were made on a potter’s wheel.

However, in 1960, while preparing a class for students at the Scripps Institute, he became interested in Raku ceramics and discovered the possibilities for creativity and improvisation that this type of ceramics allows.

Soldner abandoned complex pottery forms and instead started making organic, close-to-natural ones. This also led to the abandonment of the potter’s wheel – molding methods began to more closely resemble those adopted in the Raku workshops in Kyoto.

Changes to the process

To fire a ceramic product, Soldner did special research and made changes to the process. He used information from a book by B. Leach to create a small kiln.

After firing the ceramic pot for several hours, Soldner removed it and wrapped it in wet leaves. This created a reducing environment, which helped the pot cool down more quickly. The traditional Japanese method of cooling raku products involved exposing them to an oxidizing environment.

However, this is the same method that started the spread of what is now known as “American cancer” to many parts of the world. Soldner continued making his kilns to fire products at different temperatures and under different conditions, including kilns and reduction chambers specifically for raku.

The hermetically sealed steel smoke chambers were about 1.2 m in diameter and were able to cool 6-10 products at the same time. Partial oxidation of the surface of the products was necessary to give them their bright color. The lid of the furnace could rise for a while to allow this to happen.

Departing from the traditional Japanese techniques.

As Soldner created his ovens, glazes, and products during his many experiments. He departed from the traditional Japanese techniques used in Raku ovens.

Soldner believed that an artist should only rely on intuition and experience when creating something new. At the same time, other artists of his time thought that abstract expressionism, which prioritized spontaneity and the unpredictability of the final product, was similar to the principles of Zen naturalness and spontaneity.

This means that the Japanese medieval tradition in the middle of the twentieth century sounded new and original. Chawan bowls, which were created by Soldner with a group of Otis students in the 1960s, followed traditional Japanese ceramic methods while still being new and unique.

The sides of the bowls have streaks of different colors. This is done by painting on the glaze. The glaze is then put in the oven to dry.

The master experimented with different classical forms of Japanese ceramics throughout his long career. He brought new and unique features to raku pottery, which is a type of freestyle pottery.

In the 1980s, the master tried out more complex forms, which were already close to sculpture and art objects.

The Missoula Art Museum showed a large, almost globular, vessel by Paul Soldner at the 2012 exhibition. This vessel was covered in brown glaze and fired in the tradition of raku.

By the 1960s, many American ceramists believed that “raku” referred to objects, fired in smoky chambers.

This could be done by either smoking the object in a chamber, or firing and cooling it in a chamber with smoldering fuel or water.

Raku pottery is a type of pottery that is

Raku pottery is a type of pottery that is fired in a preheated kiln. The pottery is taken out of the kiln at the maximum temperature and slowly cooled in water or outdoors. Raku pottery can be created with different techniques, but Paul Soldner avoids uniquely defining it through technology.

He believed that the main qualities of Raku ceramics – inner freedom and convenience – were not related to technology, but the artist’s understanding of life.

The master got to see the difference between his technique and traditional Raku during his visit to Japan in the late 1990s.

And, by that time, his technology of firing products, proposed in the 1960s, had become known as “raku” far beyond the United States – thanks to exhibitions.

Many ceramists in the United States continue the tradition of American raku firing. However, in other Western countries, different versions of this tradition exist.

British potter David Roberts

British potter David Roberts is one of the most influential contemporary raku artists. His work, which includes a new English take on this Japanese pottery, has led to a resurgence of interest in raku pottery in the United States. In addition, he created the Naked Raku movement to make this pottery even more modern.

Naked Raku is done by hand. The forms are big and use a lot of clay, and the pottery is fired once. Then they put a thin layer of paint on it, and fire it again.

The second firing at a temperature of 850-900°C ends with the product being smoked in a reducing environment – in a container with paper and a small amount of sawdust. And within a few minutes, the dyes and compounds of engobe and clay are restored.

When the finished product is washed, the glaze is removed from the surface, exposing a white engobe with a whimsical pattern.
In some cases, the finished product is rubbed with natural wax to give it a deep shine.

All surfaces, whether matte or polished, have a deep sheen that does not create glare. This ability of the stone – jade in particular – has made it a noble material in the eyes of the Chinese for centuries. There have been many imitations of jade created in porcelain and ceramics from China and

Western masters

Pottery is very different from Paul Soldner’s experiments. His “raku” created a galaxy of new, bright “naked” raku masters in many countries. Western masters include Charlie and Linda Riggs (Charlie, Linda Riggs, Atlanta, USA) and Paolo.

Different artists try different compositions of clays, engobes, and glazes. They also experiment with different combustible materials for the restoration process in smoking chambers. Additionally, they create new forms of ceramic products – from traditional vases to interior decor elements and art objects.

Many ceramists create works in the “American raku” technology, following the traditional Japanese style of creating products with rough organic forms and rich glaze colors.

People have been studying the art of raku ceramics for a long time. Raku ceramics are decorative items that people make from clay.

There is a lot of debate about what raku ceramics are, but most people agree that they are beautiful and unique.

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