Weaving Beauty - Japanese Bamboo Baskets


Art & Antiques October 2001 issue

by Dana Micucci

Fig.1 "Tide Wave", 1995
a bamboo sculpture by Yamaguchi Ryûun
(from Tai Gallery/Textile Arts)

"THERE is a balance of forces achieved in Japanese bamboo baskets, which are a study in contrasts: intimate yet formal, simple yet complex, both utilitarian and sculptural, traditional and innovative, natural and structured," says Lloyd Cotsen, former CEO of the Neutrogena Corporation, who has assembled the world's foremost collection of Japanese bamboo baskets, 100 of which are featured in the national touring exhibition "Bamboo Masterworks: Japanese Baskets from the Lloyd Cotsen Collection."

Fig.2,3 A pot-shaped flower basket by Tanabe Chikuunsai I, in the karamono style with double tortoise shell marks. Detail of the basket's inscribed signature (Chikuunsai" on base (below). (from L'Asie Exotique).

At the heart of every bamboo basket lies the poetic mystery of the material itself. A grass with tree-like qualities, bamboo is hollow yet strong. Adaptable to a variety of weaving techniques, bamboo perhaps has found its highest form of aesthetic expression in the traditional Japanese flower basket (hanakago), which evolved from an ancient craft into a contemporary art form. While bamboo baskets have served various utilitarian functions in Japanese daily life for centuries, they also have been valued for their beauty. They are integrally connected to Japanese culture through the time-honored art of flower arranging (ikebana) and the tea ceremony. By the 6th century, the tea ceremony had evolved from a Chinese tea-drinking custom into a ritualized Japanese art form called chanoyu that was advanced by noted tea master Sen no Rikyû. (For more on Japanese tea ceremony antiques, see "The Way of Tea Ceramics," Art & Antiques, October 2000, page 80.)
Chanoyu, as practiced by the literati, aristocracy and warrior and merchant classes, incorporated ikebana baskets with fresh-cut flowers as well as ceramics, calligraphy, painting and other arts and crafts that expressed a unified Japanese aesthetic rooted in simplicity, humble natural materials and imperfect beauty.

"Prior to the 16th century, the Japanese imported bamboo baskets from China for use in the tea ceremony," says Jean Schaefer of New York's Flying Cranes Antiques Ltd. "They also designed their own baskets in the Chinese or karamono style of formal, symmetrical structures and tightly plaited weaves. This was a manifestation of their age-old love affair, even obsession, with Chinese culture and all things Chinese."

Fig. 4 Flower-arranging basket, c. 1930-1940, woven by Ishikawa Shôun 
using wide, swirling slats of honey-colored bamboo,
(from Kagedo Japanese Art)

But it wasn't until Rikyû championed a less formal, rustic aesthetic that ikebana baskets took on a distinct Japanese wamono style, inspired in part by indigenous farming and fishing baskets. This style is characterized by a looser, irregular weave, wide slats of bamboo and the incorporation of other natural materials such as rattan, vines, and bamboo and tree roots.

Fig. 5,6 Woven bamboo basket with large timber bamboo handle and storage box, c. 1890, 
by Wada Waichisai, titled 
"Muchoko," literally translated as "Duke of No Intestines,"
an archaic reference to a crab . Waichisai's inscribed signature on the base of the basket (below) 
reads "
Leaning toward the West in the wind and the rain Waichisai."
(from L'Asie Exotique)

During the 18th century, a shift back to the admiration for things Chinese catalyzed by a preference among the Japanese literati and merchant class for the Chinese-style sentcha, or steeped green-leaf tea ceremony (vs. the matcha, or powdered green tea associated with chanoyu) led to a new demand for Chinese-style flower baskets. These baskets served as inspiration for many modern Japanese basket makers who, beginning in the Meiji period (1868-1912), gradually transformed traditional ikebana baskets from utilitarian containers into sculptural masterpieces crafted in a variety of shapes, weaves and knots.

"Up until the late 19th century, basket makers were mostly anonymous," says Jeffrey Cline of Kagedo Japanese Art in Seattle. "During the Meiji period, with the modernization of Japan and its opening to the West, the best basket makers began to exhibit and win prizes at both national and international exhibitions. By the early 20th century, many had begun to sign their baskets and view themselves as artists. Also, new wealth in Japan created a greater demand for fine flower baskets, further encouraging unique creations."

Among the first generation of bamboo basket artists were such 19th-century masters as Hayakawa Shakôsai I (1815-97), who was the first to consistently sign his works, and Wada Waichisai I (1815-1901) who both worked primarily in the more formal Chinese style. Early 20th century masters such as Maeda Chikubôsai I (1872-1950) and Tanabe Chikuunsai I (1877-1937) combined elements from both the karomono and wamonostyles, thereby imbuing their work with a distinctive Japanese interpretation.

"Chikuunsai I was fond of incorporating found objects such as bamboo arrow shafts into his baskets, as well as innovative insect stitches, which are symbolic of the Japanese love of nature," notes Martha Blackwelder, Maddux-Cowden curator of Asian art at the San Antonio Museum of Art. "Chikubôsai I became well known for adding natural bamboo root and branch handles to his formal, finely woven baskets. Lineages developed in which the sons or adopted apprentices of these noted basket artists carried on the family tradition and its often secretive techniques, while adding innovations of their own. The Hayakawa family is known for a special dyeing process that involves the juice of red plum trees as well as for baskets displaying a distinctive armor-like construction."

Fig.7 "Woman", 2000, 
by Nagakura Kenichi
(from Tai Gallery/Textile Arts)

Many early 20th century baskets were made of sooted bamboo (susudake) from the rafters of traditional thatched-roof houses that had been exposed to hearth smoke for centuries. These baskets are admired for their rich patinas. Certain regions in Japan became noted for specific basket styles. Basket artists from the Kansai region, the traditional seat of Japanese culture that encompasses the cities of Kyoto and Osaka, produced baskets with the tight weaves, elaborate knots and stitches, typical of the karamono style. Baskets produced in the Kanto region, the area around Tokyo, and Kyushu, Japan's southernmost island, where the basket trade has long centered around the hot springs resorts at Beppu, often are more dynamic and unrestrained in style.

The art of Japanese basketry further evolved with the revolutionary sculptural style pioneered by Izuka Rôkansai (1890-1958) during the mid 20th century. Rôkansai raised baskets to the level of high art by categorizing them according to an aesthetic system adopted from Chinese calligraphy. In addition to the shin (formal) and gyô (semi-formal) styles, he produced expressive, free form baskets in the (informal) style, which deeply influenced later basket makers such as Shôno Shôunsai (1904-74), the first of three bamboo artists to be designated a Living National Treasure - a rare honor bestowed by the Japanese government. Iizuka Shôkansai (b. 1919) and Maeda Chikubôsai II (b. 1917) are the second and third Living National Treasures in bamboo arts.

Fig.8 This bamboo flower basket (right),
c. 1930, by Maeda Chikubôsai I, is a classic example of his trademark use of bamboo root for the overhead handle, tied down with knots to the shaved two-toned cylindrical bucket form.

Fig.9 Below: A detail of Chikubosai's signature on the base of the flower basket.
(from L'Asie Exotique)

Like many other non-Western cultures, the Japanese traditionally have not drawn a sharp distinction between art and craft, the beautiful and the useful. Not surprisingly, many contemporary basket makers consider themselves to be both artists and artisans, respectful of the ancient tradition from which bamboo baskets evolved while continuing to push the boundaries of their own creativity. Tragically, with fewer than 100 basket artists working today in Japan, bamboo artistry is in danger of disappearing.

Fig.10 (above) Higashi Takesonosai's
"Colorful Streams," 1999
(from Tai Gallery/Textile Arts)

Fig.11 A cylindrical basket (left), 1921, 
with vertical slats and a loop handle is accented by a row of insect stitches 
ending in knots that resemble cicadas; signed by its maker, Chikuunsai I
(from Flying Cranes Antiques Ltd.).

Fig.12 "Budding Beauty", 1981
a bamboo sculpture by Monden Kyôgoku
(from Tai Gallery/Textile Arts)

"Contemporary bamboo artists do not enjoy the same recognition in their own country that they have begun to receive from Western audiences," says Robert Coffland of Santa Fe, New Mexico's Tai Gallery/Textile Arts and author of "Contemporary Japanese Bamboo Arts." And few young people are willing to devote themselves to this difficult, time-consuming art. It can take a decade just to master the basic skills, and then many more years to mature as an artist. Most of the great artists working today don't reach their prime until they are in their 50s and 60s, and they struggle to make a living. It can take two to four months to weave a single, unique basket for Japan's prestigious arts and crafts exhibitions, so they still have to produce traditional baskets for the tea ceremony and ikebana industries in order to survive, even though containers made of other materials have become more popular. 

Fig.13 A Japanese bamboo flower-arranging basket, c. 1910, 
in the 
morikago (fruit basket) style, signed by Tanabe Chikuunsai I
(from L'Asie Exotique)

Driven by their passion for bamboo as a material and its artistic possibilities, contemporary basket artists such as Maeda Chikubôsai II, Yamaguchi Ryûun, Higashi Takesonosai, Nagakura Kenichi and Monden Kyôgoku use a variety of techniques to create baskets that range from delicately woven pieces with almost lace-like plaiting to more robust, thickly knotted and braided examples.

Baskets by the best contemporary bamboo artists often are larger in scale and more purely sculptural than most of those created by their predecessors. The treatment of the bamboo, the incorporation of materials such as wood, glass and metals, as well as variations in the color and application of dyes are other arenas for experimentation. Once created as functional objects inspired by Chinese models, Japanese bamboo baskets today have become vehicles for communicating color, motion, shape, texture and each artist's unique temperament." This has been an overlooked collecting held in which scholarship is just beginning," says Alan Pate of L'Asie Exotique in La Jolla, California. "While the supply of the best antique baskets, which date roughly from the late 19th century to 1940, is diminishing, they are still an excellent value for their quality." Prices for antique bamboo baskets range from several hundred dollars to about $25,000. Signed baskets by well-known artists and those with their original wooden storage boxes signed and sealed by the artist bring the highest prices. Contemporary baskets can be purchased for $1,200-50,000.Whether an exquisitely woven antique that once held flowers or a cutting-edge contemporary sculpture, Japanese bamboo baskets invite a wondrous appreciation of the organic warmth of bamboo itself, the mastery of technique and the expression of what collector Lloyd Cotsen calls the "visual and the visceral."

Fig.14 An ikebana basket titled "Fukkai (Sea of Good Fortune)"
created in the 
karamono style and constructed with delicate bands of bamboo
(from Flying Cranes Antiques Ltd.)

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