Magazine article The Spectator

Folk Experience

Magazine article The Spectator

Folk Experience

Article excerpt

Mingei was a neologism coined in 1925 by the Japanese philosopher and art critic Yanagi Soetsu and his two potter friends Kanjiro Kawai and Hamada Shoji to describe a family of objects that they collectively admired and which they feared would cease to be made in the face of rapid industrialisation. The European equivalent of mingei (from minshuteki kogei - 'art of the people') would be folk or popular art, while the mingei movement as it developed between the wars had a good deal in common with the Arts and Crafts Movement in late-19th-century England. But there were striking differences that become apparent once inside Yanagi Soetsu's Nihon Mingeikan (Japan Folk Craft Museum) in West Tokyo. The building alone is worth a visit as an antidote to the hallucinatory high-rise neon skyline of trendy Shibuya and Shinjuku. Since the museum opened in 1936, the chic little suburb of Komaba has sprung up around it, making its oya stone and wattle and daub walls, its magnificent timber interior inspired by the vernacular farmhouses of Japan, and its sweeping stonetile roof look especially romantic and incongruous.

The Mingeikan is not an ethnographic collection in the spirit of Skanscn in Sweden or the Folk Craft Museum outside Oslo. It is more selective and, though dedicated to handwork, it is informed by a modernist spirit. Mingei and mingei objects are plainer and starker than anything produced or admired by the Arts and Crafts Movement at its height in the 1880s. Yanagi Soetsu belonged to the avant-garde Shirakaba group of writers and intellectuals, and he wrote one of the first major studies of William Blake as well as passionately admiring Cézanne and German Expressionism.

The folk art he collected was strong on formal strength and testifies to the beauty of everyday objects in Japan and interwar colonised Korea. There are deerskin fireman's jackets with stencilled crests, casually drawn otsu-ye paintings sold at Otsu to pilgrims, emblematic carved shop signs, cast-iron kettles and massive sculptured blocks of wood carved into hook shapes from which these kettles were suspended. One real surprise are the objects from Britain dotted about the museum - a selection of Windsor chairs, a couple of long-case clocks, mediaeval jugs and country slipware and embroidered samplers, as well as weaving and ceramics by interwar craftsmen and women such as Ethel Mairet, Michael Cardew and Bernard Leach.

Bernard Leach is, of course, the link. …

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