Otagaki Rengetsu and Bai Ming: Ceramics Firsthand at the Samuel P Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida

By Nemmers, Laura K.; Steuber, Jason | Ceramics Art & Perception, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Otagaki Rengetsu and Bai Ming: Ceramics Firsthand at the Samuel P Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida


Nemmers, Laura K., Steuber, Jason, Ceramics Art & Perception


An accredited member of the american Association of Museums, the Samuel P Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida is fortunate to have a wide variety of ceramics from locations throughout Asia dating from the Neolithic period to cutting edge contemporary ceramics fired in 2009. Necessarily, these ceramics reflect diverse techniques that were intended to serve many utilitarian and aesthetic purposes. As a university-based art museum, the Harn endeavours to realize traditional museum goals of collecting, exhibiting and interpreting works of art. The university component of the Harn's mission is reflected by its integration of these goals into the research and training conducted by professors and students, particularly undergraduate and graduate students majoring in ceramics at the School of Art and Art History. The following offers a brief introduction to collaborative efforts by the Harn Museum of Art and the School of Art and Art History. Two artists are introduced that have works in the Harn Museum's collections: a female potter from 19th century Japan and a male artist from 21st century China. The goal is to demonstrate how a university-based art museum offers unique learning opportunities for students to interact firsthand with works in ways that complement and assist their classroom and studio-based educational and practical training.

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Otagaki Rengetsu, a 19th century female Japanese artist and Bai Ming, a contemporary male Chinese artist, share a common aesthetic by preferring to work with their hands, leaving imperfect impressions of their fingers in the clay. Both artists also favour to paint their ceramics with calligraphic forms and with imagery embodying elements of nature. Bai's art often incorporates painted images of the natural world, while he also deliberately shapes objects to mimic forms in nature. Likewise, Rengetsu's stoneware is frequently embellished with sculpted flora and fauna. There are conspicuous differences, of course. While Rengetsu's stoneware pieces have a rough, natural texture, Bai's porcelain is often smooth with few imperfections. The works by Rengetsu were made as functional wares, whereas many of the pieces created by Bai were designed solely for aesthetic purposes.

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Rengetsu was born in 1791 in the Sabongi pleasure district of Kyoto. During her youth, she trained in martial arts, calligraphy, dance, needlework and waka poetry. At the age of 33, she devoted herself as a nun and acquired the name 'Lotus Moon' (Rengetsu). In her late 40s or early 50s, she began experimenting with traditional Japanese ceramic traditions. Her handmade ceramics exemplify an imperfect beauty that suggests natural order and forms found in nature. During her lifetime, she gained notoriety by creating affordable and remarkable ceramics, which were often embellished with original poetic compositions in her elegant and trademark calligraphic style. In 1865, she settled at the Jinkoin Temple of Divine Light, where she had her most prolific period of producing pottery. In 1875, Rengetsu passed away at the age of 84.

Rengetsu created her ceramic works by hand, first moulding the clay into a ball and then gently pinching and forming the clay into the shape that she preferred. The results of this hand modelling are works that have a natural surface, leaving the texture of the clay in its inherent form. The impressions of fingerprints and fingernails, the organic forms and the nature and texture of the stoneware remind the viewer of the object's creator and the intimacy that she had with the clay (Image 11). Poetic and flowing lines of Rengetsu's calligraphy capture the energy and symbiotic relationship that her elegant texts have with her works. The relationship between text and ceramics enables the viewer to grasp the works to reveal the texts that often circumscribe the physical space of the exteriors.

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