Japanese porcelain wares made in the town of Arita were widely exported by Europeans during the 17th century. The center of the Japanese porcelain industry lays in the little town of Arita after the white kaolin clay was discovered in 1616. Arita porcelain rivaled the Chinese wares that then dominated the porcelain export trade in Asia. These pieces were exported to Europe through the Dutch East India Company, however the porcelain wares that make Arita porcelain widely-known are the pieces created specifically to attract European taste. Two famous styles of these Arita wares are the Kokutani style and the Nabeshima style, both characterized by specific themes, designs and styles. While one attempted to conceal impurities in porcelain with overglaze enamel paintings, the other highlighted the purity of the porcelain by minimizing the amount of paintings and framing the stark-whiteness of the porcelain. Even though these two styles came out of the same Saga Prefecture in Japan, the differences in their styles set them apart in very distinct ways.
- Plate with peony design, circa 1650-1700 Japan: Arita region, Saga Prefecture, Ko-Kutani ware; porcelain with polychrome enamel.
Figure 2 – Ko-Kutani ware, circa 1650-1700 Japan
Ko-Kutani means "new Kutani," and refers to the Kutani revival of porcelain wares during the last half of the 17th century. Potters and painters who produced the Ko-Kutani ceramics defined and established a unique style in overglaze ceramics. Legend says that amateur painters and artisans were forced to produce a comparable porcelain to that produced in nearby towns, however, lacked the milk-white porcelain needed to make quality wares. To compensate, Ko-Kutani painters covered the entire surface of their wares in a technique called overglaze enamel.
Ko-Kutani generally is made using purple, green and yellow with more seldom dark blue and red, but no silver and no gold. The style is often quite simple with a rough design, especially Gosu blue lines which are generally more thick, stronger and wider. One of the characteristics of Ko-Kutani porcelain ware is the full covering of the surface with enamel to hide the poor quality of the porcelain. Ko-Kutani style is quite unique for this style of overglaze and the use of many dark colors to hide impurities in the porcelain. What began as a technique to conceal impurities became a unique style that characterized Ko-Kutani style porcelain wares and set them apart from other styles of porcelain during this period.
- Dish with a string of camellias, circa 1700-1750 Japan: Arita region, Saga Prefecture, Nabeshima ware; porcelain with underglaze cobalt and Polychrome enamel decoration.
Figure 1 – Nabeshima ware, circa 1700-1750 Japan
The Nabeshima was a dominant samurai clan of the Saga Prefecture from the late 17th century into the 18th century. Their high-quality porcelain wares became famous during the Edo period, where they were exported as "Imari wares," from the port from which they were exported. The specific style is still named after the clan and referred to as "Nabeshima ware."
Their wares are noted by their dramatic compositions which utilize a milk-white porcelain body decorated only mildly in order to showcase both the artistry of the paintings and the craftsmanship of the porcelain itself. The dish with camellias strung on a chord in a circular band exemplifies a typical Nabeshima composition. A decorated motif, such as a cherry tree or a gourd vine, is often depicted in an elongated form that wraps around the edge of the plate, framing a stark white center serves to dramatize the floral motif and highlight the purity of the porcelain. The milk-white porcelain body, flawlessly transparent glaze and glossy multicolored enamel decoration demonstrate the rigorous control involved in this officially sanctioned industry. Nabeshima wares are also known for their ornamental designs, many of which are derived from patterns found in illustrated textile manuals of the period. Because of their attention to detail and the flawlessness of the porcelain, Nabeshima wares were popular gifts for officials and leaders.
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