Humble tea vessel in a class of its own at Princeton museum

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A 700-year-old jar at the Princeton University Museum of Art holds insight into modern art squabbles.

If you passed it in a junk shop, you might not give it a second look. But in the university museum gallery, it is literally on a pedestal, under a vitrine, lit dramatically in an otherwise darkened room.

 

The bulbous, top-heavy jar was once used for storing tea leaves. It’s about 16 inches high and slightly lopsided. It’s imperfect brown glaze has cracks and bubbles from the firing.

It is called Chigusa — a word borrowed from ancient Japanese poetry meaning, roughly, “a thousand flowers” — and is revered above all others, considered the most beautiful object within the tradition of Japanese tea.

“Chigusa was considered one of the very best of its type within tea from the 15th or 16th century, and onward,” said Andrew Watsky, professor of Japanese art history at Princeton. “It was considered the epitome of beauty.”

The jar was not made to be an art object, nor to be a tea jar, nor was it made in Japan. Chigusa was manufactured in China in the 13th or 14th century as a utilitarian jar to hold anything its owner cared to put in it.

Practitioners of the Japanese tea ceremony — a ritual of making and drinking tea — saw such singular beauty in this jar that it has been written about in glowing terms for 500 years.

“The glaze is a single layer and resembles the wood-grain pattern known as uzurame (quail-feather grain),” wrote the 16th century tea practitioner Matsuya Hisayoshi in his tea diary. “The glaze has the effect known as uchiai, like overlapping panels.”

Chigusa embodies the quietly intense aesthetic of tea, as well as issues surrounding modern abstract and primitive art: it’s just a jar, and not a remarkably pretty one. Chigusa was elevated to high sophistication by Japanese tea practitioners who have studied it for centuries.

“It proves the point that every aesthetic is a construction,” said Watsky. “Within tea practice, the taking of objects seriously, and looking at them and treasuring them for their visual qualities and their history — Chigusa epitomizes that aspect of tea.”

Watsky guest-curated an exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum about Chigusa and the accouterments it has gathered over the centuries, including letters, decorations, and boxes. The jar was recently sold at auction for $660,000 to the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art, where it will live after the current exhibition at Princeton closes Feb. 1.

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