Take a moment to reflect on the act of naming. Americans name themselves, of course, as well as pets, homes, communities, golf courses, and boats. Some people like to name their trucks, usually depicted in giant letters. But Americans would probably not name a very old jar.
However, aesthetes in 15th and 16th-century Japan did, indeed, bestow a name — a rather ethereal name chosen from poetry — on an antique tea-leaf storage jar: “Chigusa.”
This extraordinary object — with a name that translates as “thousand grasses” — has inspired the newest exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum: “Chigusa and the Art of Tea,” which recently opened and continues through Sunday, February 1. Co-curated by Andrew M. Watsky, professor of Japanese art history and archaeology at Princeton University, and Caru Liu, the museum’s curator of Asian art, the exhibit explores the ways of appreciating, displaying, using, and documenting this prestigious Chinese antique-turned-tea-jar.
“In an unusual way, the exhibit is about one object, this tea storage jar, which is 40 centimeters tall,” Watsky says. “But is it really about just one thing? In this way (the exhibit) challenges your ideas.”
Through the example of Chigusa, this exhibition will, for the first time in an American museum context, reveal how tea practice in Japan created a kind of performance art or culture of seeing, using, and ascribing meaning to practical objects.
Chigusa was produced in China in the late 13th or late 14th century and was thought of as merely utilitarian there. However, Chigusa spent the next 700 years in Japan, where it was elevated to an exceptional status. Its name distinguishes it from all other tea jars and thus has enabled scholars, such as Watsky, to trace its history as a revered object within the Japanese tea tradition. Additional tea culture accessories and archival materials accumulated over the course of Chigusa’s long life enhance and expand the exhibition.
Those “accessories” can be thought of as gifts Chigusa’s admirers would have given it, and include textile “clothing,” exquisite storage boxes, and even poetry. It’s a bit like the ancient Egyptians burying their royalty with the fine things they loved, with the major difference being that Chigusa was never buried.
“For centuries Chigusa has been very much used in the practice of tea,” says Watsky, explaining that he does not use the term “tea ceremony.”
“The Japanese term for the ceremony is ‘chanoyu,’” he says. “Most people seeing the exhibit are not speakers of Japanese, but I hope the new word they take away is this one, ‘chanoyu.’ This was a very important cultural practice and goes all the way back to the 15th century, and it still goes on today.”
The sumptuous, 288-page book, “Chigusa and the Art of Tea,” co-edited by Watsky and Louise Allison Cort, curator of ceramics at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer and Sackler galleries, accompanies the exhibit.
On Thursday, October 16, Cort will present a public lecture, “Chigusa, a Much-Admired Jar Full of Tea,” at 5:30 p.m., at the museum, with a reception to follow. The related symposium, “Contextualizing Chigusa: the Arts in and Around Tea in 16th Century Japan,” will be held Friday and Saturday, November 7 and 8, at locations around the Princeton campus. This will be a gathering of major international scholars, who will present original research on areas of Japanese art that intersect with the world of Chigusa, including painting, calligraphy, ceramics, and textiles.
Also, in honor of the exhibition, the PUAM welcomes Nobuko Manabe of the Omotesenke School of Tea, who will offer a glimpse into Japanese tea culture on Sunday, November 9, at 3 p.m. at the museum.
“The tea practice has changed a lot over the centuries, according to the nature of people,” Watsky says. “It’s not (and was never) just sitting around drinking tea; there are a whole range of activities that are focused around the enjoyment of tea — how you receive the tea, how you drink it, even the room where ‘chanoyu’ takes place — which would be carefully designed to facilitate this activity — was important.”
“This exhibit is focused on the 16th century, one of the high points of the tea practice,” he adds. “I think of it as the avant-garde performance practice of the day, and the people involved in this practice were well trained.”
Watsky is teaching an undergraduate seminar this fall titled “Tea, Large Jars, Warriors, and Merchants in 16th Century Japan.” The seminar will use the exhibition as a laboratory for the study of Japanese art, each week focusing on a different aspect of tea culture.
Certainly the warrior class in 16th century Japan was involved in “chanoyu,” but so was the mercantile class. Leaders of both classes were the most involved in the tea practice because it took money to collect the things to honor and give to Chigusa.
“You also needed time to fully appreciate and participate in the tea practice,” Watsky says. “These were well-connected, wealthy people of two different classes, who didn’t usually hang out together. But tea was a common ground for them, something in which they shared an interest and love, and they could demonstrate their culture and learning.”
“You wouldn’t sit and talk business, you’d talk about the objects, the tea, and whatnot, and this created social bonds,” he says. “We can even track people going back and forth from this tea practice to that tea practice: it was a social activity but a very serious one.”
Absorbing the beauty and meaning of the exhibition might bring to mind at least one remarkable contrast to modern American throw-away culture: the endurance and resilience of Chigusa itself, which is centuries old, was frequently used, but has held up amazingly well.
“It’s been very well taken care of,” Watsky says. “In the 16th century, the ‘Tea Men’ — it was a male-only activity then, but is now enjoyed by men and women — were so serious about this, they even kept tea diaries. We have numerous individual diary entries about using this jar. When you read the writing from 400 years ago, you can understand what they saw, admired, and thought about when they were looking at Chigusa.”
“It might seem esoteric, but in 16th-century Japan, it was just what cultured people did,” he says. “Other activities a cultural person would do might include painting, calligraphy, writing poetry, or going to the theater.”
A busy lecturer as well as a prolific author of scholarly articles about Japanese art and culture, Watsky grew up in Westchester County, where his father was in the roofing business and his mother was a career counselor; neither had much curiosity about the Far East, but always encouraged their son in his interests, he says.
Watsky graduated in 1979, with a bachelor’s degree in art history, from Oberlin College in Ohio, and then traveled to Japan after college as an Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association Fellow. “I ended up staying in Japan for six years, and I guess I fell in love with Japan and its art — especially 16th-century art, which spoke to me on a visceral level,” Watsky says.
He earned a master’s degree in Japanese art and archaeology from Princeton University in 1990, then a Ph.D. in the same field of study in 1994.
In the late 1980s Watsky was a curatorial assistant/assistant curator of the exhibit, “Japan: the Shaping of Daimyo Culture, 1185-1868,” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. That was followed by joining the art history faculty at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, from 1994 to June, 2008, and, in 2006, spending six months as the Atsumi visiting associate professor in Japanese art in the art history and archaeology department at Columbia University. He joined the Princeton faculty in 2008 and serves as both professor of Japanese art history and director of graduate studies.
“Since living in Japan, I’ve always had a close connection to it, both personally and professionally,” Watsky says. “I’ve devoted most of my professional life to studying and teaching 16th-century Japanese art, and ‘chanoyu’ is big part of this.”
Chigusa and the Art of Tea, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University. Through Sunday, February 1.
Chigusa, a Much-Admired Jar Full of Tea, Princeton University Art Museum. Public lecture by Louise Allison Cort. Reception follows. Thursday, October 16, 5:30 p.m.
Contextualizing Chigusa: the Arts in and Around Tea in 16th Century Japan, 101 McCormick Hall. Symposium. Registration required. Friday, November 7, 4:30 p.m., and Saturday, November 8, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Nobuko Manabe of the Omotesenke School of Tea, Princeton University Art Museum. A glimpse into Japanese tea culture. Sunday, November 9, 3 p.m.
For more information, 609-258-3788 or www.artmuseum.princeton.edu.