creators2021/10/05

What Are Japanese Bamboo Baskets?

by Daniel Niles

Daniels Niles is an expert in the field and talks to us about the history of this ancient medium and its reemergence into the art world in recent years. In the 19-20th century, Japanese bamboo basketry was transformed by a group of highly skilled artists into a craft that was at once traditional, revolutionary and sculptural. Such unique craft is the focus of Eocene Arts, an art gallery based in Kyoto, Japan, specialising in Japanese bamboo baskets, alongside 20th century ceramics and bronze, and mingei (folk) arts. 

One does not often really look at baskets. Perhaps repaying the favor, they are strangely difficult to see. 

Baskets are made from everyday natural materials, mostly plants. They have been essential in human history, but to the modern eye usually appear not just folksy, but underdeveloped and even anti-modern. Yet for a few decades in 20th century Japan, artists who could have become painters, musicians, sculptors, or poets instead became makers of bamboo baskets. It seems ridiculous to say that their baskets are one of the most important fields of 20th century art, but there it is. 

Tanabe Chikuunsai II (1910-2000) 

Bamboo baskets transcend our most basic categories about the things of the world. Obviously made by the human hand, they can appear so completely natural that the line that runs through our minds—that line that relentlessly separates things ‘natural’ from those that are  ‘human made’—simply vanishes. They are the color of summer grasses, color of aged wood. The patterns of their bodies can be dazzlingly technical or as freely composed as a bird’s nest. They are often so full of space that they are mostly not there. Other things seem desperate for attention by comparison. Bamboo baskets are like anti-clutter, whispers in a world of noisy things, offering a strangely exquisite, even unsettling beauty to those that find them. 

Perhaps these are the clues to the overwhelming success of recent exhibitions of Japanese bamboo art at major museums in New York, Tokyo, and Paris, the three capitals of modern art. Each exhibition was a major event, bringing in large crowds, and wowing the critics. The normally serene Japanese halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art were at times nearly filled to capacity, as almost 430,000 people visited the show before it concluded in February 2018.  More than 100,000 copies of a special exhibition issue of its Bulletin was distributed to museum members, and then a second printing was necessary to satisfy public demand. The NY Times overflowed, “In a show like this, baskets can start to look like one of the world’s most complete, resonant art forms”, and named the exhibition one of the best of the year.

Tanabe Chikuunsai II (1910-2000)

In Tokyo the scene was quite different, of course. Displaying a smaller selection of first quality baskets from Japanese collectors, the Musee Tomo exhibition was intended for connoisseurs of Japanese decorative arts. Remarkably, even amidst such a sophisticated audience, the exhibition was a revelation, attracting the third largest audience in the museum history, and especially appealing to the younger generation of professional creatives—artists, designers,  architects—for whom it was clearly inspirational. 

And then in Paris, another big hit. In the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, the Musee du Quai Branly staged, “Fendre l’Air”, one of its most successful exhibitions ever. Fendre L’Air featured fine baskets (including several that had been on display in Tokyo) and in addition emphasized the more sculptural works of six contemporary bamboo artists. The people crowded in closely, Instagram was alight, and there was enthusiastic coverage in all the major dailies. A 300 page catalog was produced in French and English editions—both sold out at EUR 60 a piece. On closing weekend, the line extended to the sidewalk. The exhibition comment book was like a dream: “Magnifique!” “Sublime!” “Merveilleux!” “Stupefiant!” 

The Met’s exhibition travelled to Japan, and by the time its tour concluded in Fall 2019, bamboo baskets had been on the international scene for nearly three years continuously. Prices for fine baskets climbed considerably. Loewe released a line of bamboo basket-inspired handbags. Only blockbuster artists might even imagine a similar run. 

Iizuka Rokansai (1890-1959), Flower basket titled "Soul Mountain" made c.1939

How did this happen? In the 20th century, there were in total not many more than one hundred ‘professional’ bamboo artists, those who would regularly submit their baskets to national arts and crafts exhibitions. The very best of these artists were often born directly into bamboo families and raised in bamboo studios, which were most often located in the family home. Their apprenticeships began from childhood as a given part of daily life, and by their teenage years they were completely fluent in the material techniques of working bamboo. 

Charmingly, their focus was always primarily on making beautiful flower baskets. This was because displays of flowers were and still are a central element in Japanese tea ceremonies. The tea experience goes back centuries—it is a kind of ritualized philosophical practice and social exchange inseparable from Japanese and Chinese intellectual life. But at its core it brings people together; the ceremony’s essence is in the setting, the gestures, the conversation, all of which are carefully set off in time and space from the messiness of normal life. More than anything else, seasonal flowers define the ceremony’s time and place. 

Wada Waichisai III (1899-1975), Flower basket titled "Tiger Valley"

Bamboo artists swam in this highly aestheticized cultural world like fishes. They were scholar aesthetes, part of a sophisticated literary class whose formal education included flower arrangement, calligraphy, and Chinese and Japanese art and philosophy, in the same way that 19th century European intellectuals would learn French, Latin and Ancient Greek. With technical skills that are simply beyond what is possible for most would-be bamboo artists today, and taking inspiration from each other’s works, in the 20th century this small group of artists turned basketry into a kind of art that was as ancient, traditional, and disciplined as it was contemporary, sculptural, and exploratory. 

Together they reinvented basketry for our time. But that is not all—they also brought fine art directly back to nature. This is because their success as artists depended on their knowledge of bamboo as material—and as an element in surrounding landscapes. This material and ecological knowledge is what really distinguishes the best bamboo artists, who would either manage their own stands of bamboo or go hiking into the hillsides to select, one-by-one, the bamboo stalks suited to the baskets they had in mind. Searching through the bamboo forests, sometimes it took all day to find a single good stalk. In this sense, they were true landscape artists. 

Two baskets by Yokota Hosai (1899-1975)

Their baskets are not just made of bamboo, they are bamboo. Bamboo is at once structure and form, medium and subject, so that on viewing a basket, the mind makes quick leaps between the basket, its form, pattern, color, structure, and the plant itself. This pitter-patter of reciprocal associations sets the mind alight. Each element opens out into the others. The baskets are vessels for the flowers, and so also for the feeling of the room, and the people within it. They are a subtle unifying element whose secret is that they are always about something else; not just you or me, or this moment right here, but the open world out there.

Meanwhile, in the West, for decades—if not centuries—many of the most creative thinkers, the greatest artists, have been laser-focused on the human experience. Certainly in the 20th century, artists and designers turned increasingly to intellectual abstraction or to the logic of the machine. Modernity was their ultimate referent, and their works take on a technological or industrial ethos. Whatever else it was, high art in the last 100 years was never about plants. It was never really about nature at all. Iizuka Rokansai (1890-1959), Flower basket titled "Double Moon"

And where does this leave us now, when climate change is breaking down the doors? Today the question is rather about the place of humankind within the whole earth. Surprise!  Sustainability is an aesthetic question. What does it feel like? This is a question for the arts, but what does it mean to bring art back into nature?  

The art of our time should recalibrate the scale of beauty, so that beautiful things are not frivolous luxuries but instead lead the mind to deeper thoughts. Artists, writers, creative people today are driven by deadlines, the relentless pace, and the temptation is to do something immediate, something to make a momentary buzz, which itself becomes the goal. Build the brand. But underneath, the challenge is to focus the mind and the body, to drop down to a lower, deeper level, to make and celebrate things that encourage us to rely on our fundamental senses in order to understand the real qualities of the world. Our art should embody the kinds of relationships we seek now, and point to things that are dedicated to life.

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