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The Mingei Spirit in Japan From Folk Craft to Design at Musee du Quai Branly
View of the exhibition.

PARIS.- In the exhibition of its permanent collections, the Musée du Quai Branly highlights the aesthetic and technical qualities of local traditions which, from the time of their collection, have found themselves threatened by the standardisation of globalisation.

By refusing to favour luxury and showiness, the Mingei movement, led by the thinker Soetsu Yanagi and supported by a new generation of artist craftsmen, endeavoured from the 1920s to reveal the beauty of everyday objects and their spiritual dimension. He was also interested in the conditions in which popular craftsmanship might develop in the future.

This collective realisation, which did not reject modernism and which benefited from the arrival in Japan of Bruno Taut, Charlotte Perriand and Isamu Noguchi, expressed itself in certain design aspects from the post-war period onwards, when the action of Sori Yanagi, son of Soetsu, was decisive.

The Influence of Soetsu Yanagi
Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961) was one of the founders of the Shirakaba group and journal which brought together, from 1910 onwards, intellectuals attracted to Western literature and art. Along with the English potter Bernard Leach, he took an interest in the Arts and Crafts movement, discovered William Blake and Walt Whitman, and shared the belief that "the future progress of mankind will depend on the mutual understanding between the East and the West”. With a universal spirit, and a keen interest in esotericism and European mysticism, he was greatly influenced by Buddhist thought and "The Way of Tea".

He discovered the beauty of the anonymous popular craftsmanship of Korea and Japan in 1914. He campaigned for the recognition of what he called Mingei, from the words minshû (common people) and Kogei (folk craft). In 1926, with the help of his potter friends Tomimoto, Hamada and Kawai, he decided to create a museum dedicated to Mingei, which opened in 1936. His actions were supported by the publication of the journal Kogei and by the creation in 1934 of a support association, the Nihon Mingei Kyokai.

At a time of Japanese military imperialism and nationalism, Soetsu Yanagi defended the cultural originality of the peoples which Japan was seeking to assimilate: the people of Korea, Okinawa and Taiwan, and the Ainu minority in northern Japan.

Yanagi Soetsu was also a book lover. From 1931 to 1951, he published the Kogei journal, designed as a folk craft object in the spirit of Mingei, with precious covers made from handcrafted fabrics and later from paper with lacquered patterns and elaborate typography. The journal held precise information about collections and allowed his artist friends to create special editions.

Following the issue of Shirakaba dedicated to Rodin (1909), the members of the group sent him a series of ukiyo-e woodcuts and the master sculpture sent them three sculptures. When the collector Noritaka Asakawa saw the sculptures he gave this faceted pot to Yanagi, which revealed the beauty of an "infinite shape" to him.

Popular art in Japan
In a country which valued only aristocratic craftsmanship, Soetsu Yanagi, who was convinced that "a good collector is an auxiliary artist", began to intuitively seek out everyday objects (getemono) of which he admired the beauty and which had been made by unknown craftsmen. He recognised the virtue (toku) of these objects through their sober character; they were devoid of any technical virtuosity and could only be described by using moral terms defined according to the notion of obligation: safe (kakujitsu), reliable (chûsei), sincere (seijitsu).

According to the principle of the universally accessible Buddhist philosophy, tariki, he believed that truth goes beyond self-awareness and that it is granted beyond the notions of beauty and ugliness, which made it possible to produce just and durable works regardless of the materials used and their purpose.

In order to raise the awareness of these works of art and of the principles of Mingei, Soetsu Yanagi increased his research activity in the provinces and organised exhibitions (1927, 1929, 1931, 1934), using the press and department stores. He wanted to establish a commercial network (the takumi shop) and, as he was concerned about the socio-economic results of his actions, recommended the creation of corporations.

Popular art at the outer edges of the archipelago
Soetsu Yanagi, unable to get politically involved, reacted to the Japanese repression in Korea in 1919 by publishing his text on the popular craftsmanship of this country, "Thinking of the Koreans". With the help of his brothers Noritaka and Takumi Asakawa, he set out to create a museum of popular art, which opened its doors in Seoul in 1924. Korean craftsmanship always remained a benchmark for Soetsu.

Despite difficulties due to the war, Soetsu Yanagi multiplied his field investigations. In December 1939, he was fascinated by the craft resources he found in the Okinawa Islands whilst he was travelling with Kawai and Hamada. In this "Country of Pure Beauty", he was struck by the spirituality of everyday life and by the uniqueness of its local traditions and styles. He campaigned to defend the local dialect.

Soetsu Yanagi arrived late in Taiwan, but the interest that he showed during wartime for the craft creations of the natives of the island is significant of his refusal to separate that which constituted an essential and superior Japanese tradition from the traditions of the Japanese minorities and other Asian cultures.

Soetsu Yanagi distinguished the pottery of the Choson dynasty (1392 – 1910) from the porcelain of the Kôryô dynasty (912 – 1392), which was more highly regarded but influenced by China. He highlighted its originality and unique qualities, a simplicity of shape and technique, which would help to define the Mingei aesthetic.

Soetsu Yanagi gathered together an exceptional collection of Okinawa textiles which are perhaps amongst the most remarkable in the world for the finesse of their weave of vegetable fibres and for the subtlety of their colours.

Used throughout the Far East, bamboo tended to represent for the foreigner the typical material of Japan, and Taut, Perriand and Noguchi's recommendations of bamboo sparked off debates because they seemed to be unaware of the refined traditional treatment of the material in the country. Kanjiro Kawai had designed bamboo furniture, which was made by craftsmen from Taiwan living in Japan. Soetsu Yanagi also later became interested in the material. Perriand, who was well-informed about the different varitities of bamboo, presented the stools made by these craftsmen whilst also designing other pieces of furniture thanks to the finesse, robustness and flexibility of the material: coffee tables, seats, beds, etc.

Soetsu Yanagi's first collaborators
Soetsu Yanagi went on to build a circle of artist-craftsmen around the Mingei movement: Bernard Leach, Kenkichi Tomimoto, Shoji Hamada, Kanjiro Kawai, Keisuke Serizawa and Shiko Munakata supported him in the intelligence and diversity of his approach and won him great renown for his activity, breaking the rule of anonymity. Group trips, the publication of issues of the Kogei journal and the organisation of exhibitions demonstrated the dynamic and scope of Soetsu Yanagi's thought.

The links established by Leach between Great Britain and Japan, and Soetsu Yanagi's trips abroad, often accompanied by Hamada, guarantedd the international influence of the movement, notably in the USA.

Soetsu Yanagi benefited from the advice and financial support of patrons such as Tamesaburo Yamamoto and Magosaburo Ohara who contributed generously to the construction of Mingeikan and built up its collections.

Tomimoto, who trained as an architect and introduced the thought of W. Morris after a trip to London (1907 – 1909), dedicated himself to pottery under Leach's influence. He subscribed to Mingei, of which his white porcelains with a Korean influence are the best example. He became interested in mass production and finally adopted an elegant eclecticism.

A loyal companion of Soetsu Yanagi from 1919, the connoisseur and collector Shoji Hamada was without doubt the best interpreter of the Mingei spirit because of his ability to translate the tradition of the freedom of movement in the decoration of objects.

A follower of Mingei, of which he upheld the principle of anonymity, as Hamada did, Kanjiro Kawai displayed great technical mastery which allowed him to develop an animist, sensual and colourful style. He regularly contributed to the journal Kogei and helped Charlotte Perriand during her investigations into craft techniques in 1940.

Three international designers in Japan
Three international experts, invited by Kogei Shidosho to the Japanese Ministry of Commerce and Industry to advise on the production of items for export, would establish a bridge between the recognition of traditional craftsmanship and modernity, taking into account all of the constraints involved.

Originating from the Werkbund (German national designers' organization) and Bauhaus (German school of crafts and the fine arts), Bruno Taut fled Nazism and arrived in Kyoto in 1933. He admired the imperial palace, Katsura, and became interested in the vernacular architecture, about which he published a book in 1937 after his departure for Turkey. He made objects using local techniques and materials and designed the Hyuga Villa in Atami, which fused elements of European and Japanese design.

Thanks to Junzo Sakakura, whom she had met at Le Corbusier’s studio, Charlotte Perriand was invited to Japan in 1940-1941 and discovered the craftsmen’s houses in the provinces with the help of Soetsu Yanagi and his son, Sori. On the eve of her departure, she presented her exhibition “Tradition, Selection, Creation”, which brought her designs together, at the Takashimaya store. She soon came up against the political difficulties of the period.

The sculptor Isamu Noguchi, an American citizen, returned to Japan between 1950 and1952. During several months he was involved in multiple activities: pottery with Kitaoji Rosanjin; projects linked to architecture for Hiroshima with Kenzo Tange, and for the Keio University with Yoshiro Taniguchi; furniture with Isamu Kenmochi, and lanterns in Gifu, producing his Akari series.

From 1928, Isamu Noguchi became interested in light as a material for sculpture (Power House). Visiting the producers of traditional lanterns in Gifu, he designed a series of lanterns using their technique which transformed his concept of light-sculpture into an everyday object, which soon became universally widespread.

In September 1952, Noguchi exhibited his work at the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura. He began using new ceramic techniques in Seto and later at Rosanjin´s residence in Kita-Kamakura, such as moulding, by developing the local techniques and applying them to his sculpted shapes.

The construction of the Banraisha (foyer for the professors and students at the Keio University), in collaboration with the architect Yoshiro Taniguchi, constituted for Noguchi an experience of integration so rare that he dedicated it, shortly after the Second World War, to the memory of his father. The distribution of the space between "life on the tatami", "life on the chairs" and "life with the shoes" summarised the problems of that time. This allowed him to combine sculptures and furniture, outside and inside, the past and the present, with a strong desire for spiritual unity.

A tireless leader of Japanese design since before World War Two and trained in the principles of the Bauhaus, Kenmochi met Noguchi in June 1950 and invited him to work at Kogei Shidosho (Japanese Industrial Arts Research Institute). Together they designed the woven bamboo and iron rod chair. The Kashiwado chair, named after a famous Sumo wrestler of the time, is composed of layers of carved wood and emits an impressive primitive force.

Constrained by the technical difficulties of wartime, Charlotte Perriand became fascinated by the materials of Japanese craftsmen; here she found the qualities which led her to adapt a piece of furniture designed in 1928 and made out of steel tubes by testing the possibilities, flexibility and robustness of bamboo. Soetsu Yanagi and Hamada wrote that this piece of furniture was one of the successes of the exhibition.

In 1955 in Tokyo, she presented her research and the new challenges in her exhibition "Proposition for a synthesis of the arts, Paris, 1955, Le Corbusier, Fernand Léger, Charlotte Perriand". Inspired by the Bunraku (traditional Japanese puppet theatre), she called her stackable chairs "Ombre" (Shadow), whilst her shelves followed the principle of the shelving at Katsura Palace.

Charlotte Perriand displayed in this exhibition prototypes which had been tested over three years before going into mass production. She thus illustrated a decisive step in the development of her work by reviving the spirit of her projects of 1940 which were difficult to put into practice.

Sori Yanagi and the Design question
Born in 1915, Sori Yanagi combined the modern design approach and the functionalist teachings with a non-dogmatic practical approach inspired in him by Charlotte Perriand. He became increasingly interested in his father´s spiritual and human message with regard to ordinary everyday craftsmanship and the necessity to encourage a collective work process.

From 1948, he produced widely distributed works: white porcelain tea and coffee services, series of stainless steal bowls. He developed prototypes which conserved the sensibility of the model, favouring quality materials and contemporary production and assembly techniques. The Butterfly seat (designed in 1953, made from moulded plywood) would become a design icon: it was easy to store, stock and assemble.

After the war, along with Isamu Kenmochi and Riki Watanabe, he developed the designer profession in Japan and built international relations, particularly with the designer Charles Eames. However, he would repeatedly emphasise, like his father before him and despite becoming the director of the Mingeikan Japan Folk Crafts Musuem, the beauty of "anonymous design".

His designs were the forerunners of those by contemporary designers like Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison, who prioritised the idea of the "Super Normal" in designing objects whose efficiency and simplicity were their defining features.

Sori Yanagi aimed to demonstrate with the mass produced items, produced with the unique character of each material, that the object is, in its diverse elements, the result of a close collaboration between the designer and the manufcaturer. Faithful to the "original forms" of traditional craftsmanship, he sought, through tireless experimentation, to create quality objects.

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