The Craft & Folk Art Museum’s latest exhibition reveals the ever-deeper vitality and beauty of Japanese bamboo art.
In 1911, after seeing an exhibition of Japanese bamboo baskets at the Victoria & Albert Museum, a writer for the arts journal The International Studio made a case for basketweaving to be raised in status “to a veritable art like cabinet-making or silversmith’s work … When we add the possibilities it offers of evolving beautiful design, it appears somewhat strange that basket work should be so overlooked as an art.”
It has arguably taken the better part of the last century to give this art its due on an international scale. The Craft & Folk Art Museum is Los Angeles is currently host to the latest exhibition on the subject, “Bamboo,” which features 30 works by 26 artists spanning two centuries and illuminates anew the artistry of basketweaving in Japan. The exhibtion will be on view through September 9.
Basketry first took prominence in Japan as part of traditional tea ceremonies, where Chinese and later Chinese-style hanakago, the term for bamboo baskets, were utilized for ikebana (floral arrangement) in chanoyu (matcha) and sencha (leaf tea) ceremonies. The famous chanoyu tea master Sen Rikyu (1522–91) is said to have brought baskets into ceremonial use after witnessing a fisherman using one at a riverbank.
Up to the 19th century, Japan looked to China for basket inspiration; in tea ceremonies, a distinction was made between karamono (literally “Chinese things”) and those of Japan, wamono. By the end of the Edo period in 1868, Japanese artists developed a distinctive aesthetic in flower-arranging baskets that valued asymmetry and materials over the balance of Chinese-style shapes. But with the decline of ceremonial practice in the last century, and particularly after the Second World War, bamboo as an artistic medium began to lose its prominence.
The collected works in “Bamboo” illustrate the late 20th- and 21st-century move toward a renaissance among bamboo artists. Bamboo’s contemporary significance as an art form is most evident in the bestowing of the title “Living National Treasure” on six bamboo artists, three of whose work can be seen in the current exhibition: Chikubosai Maeda II, Fujinuma Noboru, and Shounsai Shono, who was the first bamboo artist to be awarded this title, in 1967. Moreover, new practices have promoted a means of learning beyond the demanding tradition of apprenticeship; forms are no longer solely dictated by ikebana use but rather can be sculptures that speak for themselves; and women artists have for the first time enjoyed acceptance in this male-dominated profession.
Most works in the exhibition come from the collection of the late Los Angeles-based collector and philanthropist Lloyd Cotsen, whose passionate patronage of Japanese bamboo art brought new international recognition to the craft and helped to revitalize it for future generations. During his lifetime, Cotsen collected over 1,000 baskets, amassing the most important group outside of Japan. In 2002, he donated some 800 works to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Seeing the shrinking interest in basketweaving traditions in Japan, he also sponsored an annual competition, the Lloyd Cotsen Bamboo Prize, for young artists, beginning in 2000.
Among the many highlights of this show, if one must choose, is Nagakura Kenichi’s Human Being (2000), which combines the conventional flower-arranging form with that of an abstracted woven sculpture. Its title even suggests the presence of maker, owner, and ikebana practitioner.
An art traditionally reserved for men, bamboo basketweaving has changed its course only in this millennium. In 2000, the Japan Traditional Craft Arts Association admitted its first woman as a full member, Kajiwara Aya, who was introduced to bamboo art by her husband, fellow artist Kajiwara Koho. Her Spiral Pattern Flower Basket (2014) reveals the unadulterated simplicity, delicacy, and highest level of precision of her baskets.
Like Kajiwara Aya, Tanabe Mitsuko can be said to have married into bamboo. She learned from her husband, Tanabe Chikuunsai III, and her father-in-law, Chikuunsai II. What comes across most strongly is both women’s commitment to their craft and to their families. Mitsuko and Chikuunsai III’s son Chinkuunsai IV (previously known as Shochiku III) also carries on the generations-old tradition. The display of Mitsuko’s Cultivating Life, Tiger Bamboo & Bamboo Sheath (2010) alongside Chikuunsai IV’s Connection/Life (2005) in the exhibition is both the aesthetic culmination of one of Japan’s most important bamboo art familial dynasties and a tender and personal gesture between mother and son. The family’s legacy is also represented in the show by a flower-arranging basket of smoked bamboo by Tanabe Chikuunsai I.
The site-specific installation Fibonacci Tunnel (2018) by Akio Hizume provides an unexpected and monumental conclusion to the exhibition. Akio has invited museumgoers into his unique process in the creation of an interactive sculpture that successfully brings mathematics and his own architectural training into the bamboo
By Martina D’Amato