Arita Ware Master Manji Inoue to Hold N.Y. Exhibit

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Manji Inoue says the more he works, the more ideas come to him.

Manji Inoue, a 94-year-old potter and a living national treasure, is preparing for a solo exhibition in New York, scheduled for March next year.

The exhibit of white porcelain is set to finally open its doors after a series of ordeals for its artist — including the show’s postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the death of his eldest son, who was supposed to succeed him.

“I can finally go [to New York]. I want the world to recognize the beauty of Arita ware,” he said.

Inoue, who is from Arita, Saga Prefecture, has been crafting pottery for about 80 years. In the world of white porcelain, where there is little use of decoration, he has been pursuing the beauty of forms. He has held numerous solo exhibitions both at home and abroad. The upcoming exhibition will be his second in New York, but he has special feelings for the March show.

The exhibition was originally scheduled to be held in March 2020, but the pandemic forced a drastic postponement. Then, in August that year, his eldest son Yasunori died at the age of 62 from an illness.

“I didn’t want to give in. My heart is burning,” he said.

Inoue plans to present about 50 works, including jars, vases, bowls and plates, at the solo exhibition. One is his major work “Hakuji (white porcelain) Round Vase,” which has a plump, rounded shape. He calls it the culmination of his beauty of form, which he achieved after trial and error. “It has a very ordinary shape, but it’s the ordinary that’s most difficult. This work is what I always go back to,” he said.

Courtesy of Inoue Manji Kiln
“Hakuji (white porcelain) Round Vase,” one of Inoue’s major works

“I paid close attention to the roundness of the top, the opening of the mouth, the height, and everything else,” he explained. “I want people to focus on the fact that I used only a potter’s wheel to express form.”

Other works to be displayed are “Hakuji (white porcelain) Spiral Vase,” with a brilliant spiral twist inspired by the whirlpools of the Naruto Straits, and “Engraved Hakuji (white porcelain) Cherry Blossom Vase with Green Glaze,” which features a cherry blossom pattern on a white background, produced as an expression of peace for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Courtesy of Inoue Manji Kiln
“Hakuji (white porcelain) Spiral Vase,” a vase with a swirl pattern whose shadowed valleys and glossy glaze harmonize with both Japanese and Western interiors
Courtesy of Inoue Manji Kiln
“Engraved Hakuji (white porcelain) Cherry Blossom Vase with Green Glaze,” which Inoue created in memory of those who fell like cherry blossoms during the war.

Inoue was born in Arita into a family of potters, the profession going back to his grandfather. However, he did not intend to become a potter himself. Rather, he dreamed of becoming a pilot, and at age 15 he joined the Kagoshima naval air corps in the city of Kagoshima. After being stationed in Kanoya, Kagoshima Prefecture, which was where a kamikaze base was located, he was transferred to the town of Kushira in the prefecture, where he remained until the end of the war.

“Because of the harsh experiences, I managed to overcome whatever difficulties I had afterward and devote myself to porcelain,” Inoue said.

After returning to his hometown, he trained at the prestigious Kakiemon Kiln, but spent a long time as an unpaid apprentice. A turning point came when he met Okugawa Chuemon I (1901-75), who was considered a master potter. Inoue became his apprentice, honing his skill on the potter’s wheel.

Then, he put in 13 years as a technical officer at the Saga Prefectural Ceramics Experiment Station, predecessor of the Saga Ceramics Research Laboratory, studying clay, glaze and design. Eventually, he made up his mind to master white porcelain. “No matter how many decorations you add, it won’t turn into pottery unless there is a shape,” he said. “[I thought] if I could create the ultimate level of form, I wouldn’t need anything but white porcelain, which is the original form of porcelain.”

Having been invited to U.S. universities to teach, Inoue has visited the United States more than 20 times. “Encountering an aesthetic sense unbound by tradition [in the U.S.], I was able to expand the scope of my work,” he said.

Inoue founded his own studio in 1970 and became the first white porcelain potter designated a living national treasure in 1995.

In recent years, he has tried out new methods of expression, such as carving patterns on the bare clay and using green and yellow-green glazes, in addition to producing white porcelain. Since the death of his eldest son, Inoue has been working with his grandson Yuki, 34, and others to pass on the techniques he has acquired.

He has been receiving physical therapy for his back every day, saying he wants to go to New York in perfect physical condition.

“I still have a lot of work I want to do. I don’t want to feel like I’m an old man. My heart is still young. I’ll continue working hard all my life,” he said.

Traditional, contemporary art

The upcoming exhibit will be held in conjunction with Asia Week New York, an Asian art festival that takes place in the city every March. The exhibit venue will be the Onishi Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The area has some 500 galleries, most of which show Western contemporary art, according to Nana Onishi, who planned the exhibition.

“His pure white, well-honed worldview is both a traditional craft and a contemporary art,” Onishi said about Inoue’s works.

She believes Inoue’s personal background, such as his war experiences and his life of struggling to master white porcelain, are part of his works’ attraction.

“I think the fascinating story behind his works will be well received in the U.S.,” she said.