Scenes of samurai warriors, fighting cocks, dazzling fish, children at play, couples courting in gardens, and Japanese home life are popular subjects for Kutani's three centuries of production.
Kutani is very delicately worked with hair fine brush work for minute detail and an all-over design. Stippling and tiny crosshatch marks were employed, and many attractive Oriental scenes were recreated with a remarkably stylized and distinctly Oriental sense of design.
Meaning "Nine Valleys", Kutani is a general term for the style of porcelain produced by different kilns in the province of Kaga in Japan. The exact origin of Kutani porcelain remains murky, but it began in the 17th century. One of the first types of pottery produced has incised lines and is glazed in green, dark blue, light purple, red and yellow. The second type is very reminiscent of Imari, another type of Japanese porcelain, with a bold graphic style of decoration in red, blue and white. Both of these styles are called Ko-Kutani, literally "Old Kutani" and are rarely seen.
There is some suggestion that a Japanese prince named Maeda Toshiharu from the Kaga province who loved ceramics was the originator of Kutani porcelain. He sent the master potter and samurai warrior Goto Saijiro to study Imari porcelain elsewhere in Japan during the mid 17th century, and to learn the secrets of a new enamel overglaze technique originating in China. Thus the first porcelain was produced that could really be referred to as Ko-Kutani. Unfortunately, the production of the five-colored Ko-Kutani ceased around 1730, after Goto Saijiro, the Samurai-potter, died with no heirs to his knowledge.
80 years later production was resurrected, under the patronage of another member of the Maeda family; a famous Kyoto painter began making Kanazawa Kutani, a type with a red ground and figural decoration in the Chinese style.
This pattern of financial and/or political difficulty resulting in the failure of a particular kiln, followed by the resurrection of the style by a Maeda at a different, but nearby, location continued for many, many decades. The Maedas were the rulers of the province, so it was in their interest to maintain the livelihood of their villages, in this case kilns and porcelain production. It was also difficult for kilns to maintain skilled artists; as they were in high demand and were constantly being lured away by rival kilns.
The more familiar, and relatively newer type, is generally referred to as simply "Kutani". It began in 1835 in a kiln in Miyamoto, where a Kyoto potter named Zengoro established the technique. It is a soft ivory colored porcelain with gold and red decoration, or bright white with gold, red, and a light brown. The decoration on the 18th century Kutani is very finely done, and once one is familiar with the look, instantly recognizable. Figural Kutani of the same period is also found; sleeping cats with carefully drawn hairs and red patches, bunnies, monkeys, and regal birds of prey.
It should be noted that Kutani is still in production today but the poor quality of design and lack of detail make it immediately recognizable when you've seen the vintage wares. Most of the pieces from the 18th century are marked in characters- the newer 20th century Kutani is often marked "Kutani" in English.
For collectors, Kutani is an interesting and beautiful compliment to the more familiar export porcelains of Noritake and Nippon. Kutani might be considered a starting place for those designers who years ago sought to develop artistry appealing to Western cultures. More importantly, Kutani is a reflection of the culture in which the artware was produced, rendering a powerful artistic expression of pre-20th century Japan.
For more information on Kutani and other Oriental porcelain, check out "Japanese Porcelain: 1800-1950" by Schiffer Books, 1999. This book is currently available through our antique reference bookstores and also on the website MyAntiqueMall.com.
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