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Legendary 700-year-old tea jar "Chigusa" on display at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery
Documents associated with the tea-leaf storage jar named Chigusa. Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art.

WASHIMGTON, DC.- The story of Chigusa is the remarkable tale of how an ordinary Chinese storage jar, over the course of several centuries and generations of connoisseurs, rose to become one of the most revered objects of Japan’s chanoyu, or “art of tea.” On view Feb. 22–July 27, “Chigusa and the Art of Tea” introduces visitors to the renowned object—on view in the U.S. for the first time—as seen through the eyes of the 16th-century tea men who celebrated it.

Chigusa originated as one of countless utilitarian ceramics crafted in southern China during the 13th or 14th century and was shipped to Japan as a container for a commercial product. Once in Japan, however, its use as a tea-leaf storage jar endowed it with special status, and over the years it became a highly desirable antique. The bestowing of a personal name—Chigusa (“thousand grasses” or “myriad things”), an evocative phrase from Japanese poetry—was a sign of additional respect and reverence.

During the 16th century, the “art of tea” evolved into a major aesthetic and cultural pastime in Japan. Circles of influential tea connoisseurs imbued high status to meibutsu, or celebrated objects, through such practices as naming, adorning and close observation. Tea diaries kept by these enthusiasts recorded not just Chigusa’s name but also detailed descriptions of its physical attributes and accessories, allowing contemporary scholars to see the jar through their eyes.

In “Chigusa and the Art of Tea,” Chigusa holds court alongside other cherished objects, including calligraphy by Chinese monks, Chinese and Korean tea bowls and Japanese stoneware water jars and wooden vessels that were used and enjoyed during this formative time of Japanese tea culture. In order to create the intimate feel of a 16th-century tea gathering, part of the exhibition space recreates a Japanese tea room, complete with tatami mats.

“Tea men looked at Chigusa and found beauty even in its flaws, elevating it from a simple tea jar to how we know it today,” said Louise Allison Cort, curator of ceramics at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. “This ability to value imperfections in objects made by the human hand is one of the great contributions of Japanese tea culture to the world.”

The remarkable documentation and artifacts that surround Chigusa—including inscriptions, letters, ceremonial accessories and storage boxes—narrate a fascinating history of ownership and enjoyment. Few jars with comparable documentation survive in Japan or elsewhere. Marks on the jar’s base are thought to be the signatures of its proud owners, dating from the 15th to the 16th centuries. It was held in Japanese private collections until it was acquired by the Freer Gallery at auction in 2009.

For display in the tea room, Chigusa was outfitted with luxury accessories bestowed upon it by its successive owners: a mouth covering of antique Chinese gold-brocaded silk, a netted bag of sky-blue silk and a set of blue silk cords used to tie ornamental knots attached to the four lugs on the jar’s shoulder. A video in the exhibition follows a tea master dressing Chigusa in its adornments, an elaborate process.

Visitors will be able to experience a traditional Omotesenke tea presentation, including the preparation of matcha, the whisked green tea made from leaves of the kind that Chigusa would have held, on Sunday, March 23 and April 6. Other public programs include a conversation with core Chigusa researchers Oka Yoshiko and Andrew M. Watsky Sunday, March 2, and lunchtime curator-led tours on Thursday, April 3 and 10.

Following its Washington, D.C., debut, Chigusa will travel to the Princeton University Art Museum in the fall, on view Oct. 11–Feb. 1, 2015.

“Chigusa is the rare object that allows us deep insight into how people in Japan looked at, thought about and valued things over time,” said Watsky, professor of Japanese art history at Princeton University. “We are incredibly fortunate to participate in the now centuries-long activity of examining and appreciating this singular ceramic jar.”

The exhibition is accompanied by a book of essays by multiple authors narrating Chigusa’s 700-year-history—a major contribution to the study of Japanese aesthetics, history and material culture. Chigusa and the Art of Tea (288 pp., 272 illus., $40, published by the Freer and Sackler and distributed by the University of Washington Press) is coedited by Louise Allison Cort and Andrew M. Watsky, and will be available in March at the Sackler store.

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