Kawai Kanjiro was born in 1890 in Yasugi, Shimane Prefecture. He graduated from Matsue Middle School in 1910 and enrolled in the ceramic engineering program at the Tokyo Higher Polytechnic School (present-day Tokyo Institute of Technology). It was here that he met his lifelong friend, Hamada Shoji.
Kawai further developed his ceramics skills at the Kyoto Research Institute for Ceramics. In 1920, he inherited Kiyomizu Rokubei’s kiln shed on Gojozaka Street in Kyoto, and he converted it into a workshop and residence. Already branded a genius after his first solo exhibition, Kawai went on to craft numerous acclaimed works using techniques inspired by the intricate production processes found in ancient Chinese and Korean pottery. Despite his success, Kawai gradually lost interest in this style. In 1924, he was introduced to Yanagi Soetsu by his friend Hamada and, inspired by Yanagi, completely transformed his style; he began to craft works that were sturdier and more utilitarian. The three men went on to initiate the mingei folk arts movement and, in 1936, established the Japan Folk Crafts Museum; Kawai was appointed a board member. Following the Second World War, Kawai established a distinctive style characterized by bright, colorful glazes, a sense of heft, and decorative variety. Although he continued to focus on utilitarian designs, he never did so at the expense of his immense and uninhibited creativity. This is the reason why, fifty years after his death, Kawai continues to receive praise around the world for his work.
In addition to works from the collection of Kawai Kanjiro’s House—a museum converted from Kawai’s Kyoto home—this exhibition will display ceramic works from other collections, as well as woodcarvings, books, and furnishings. The ceramic works on loan from Yamaguchi University are particularly notable, as they have never before been publicly displayed in Japan. Together, the items will offer a comprehensive overview of Kawai’s work and provide insight into his deep spirituality. The exhibition will also feature a special display of Kawai’s works in the Panasonic Collection that were purchased by Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita. The display includes a Panapet R-8 transistor radio, which was launched around the time that Matsushita nominated Kawai for an Order of Culture award; Matsushita gifted Kawai with a Panapet R-8 to mark the occasion.
By the time he was in middle school, Kawai had already decided to pursue ceramics as a career. Instead of apprenticing under a master, however, Kawai enrolled in a ceramic engineering program in high school and then built up a solid scientific foundation in ceramics at the Kyoto Research Institute of Ceramics. It was this foundation that allowed Kawai to produce such remarkable works up to his death in 1966, at the age of 76. Kawai went through three distinct phases in his ceramics work. The first phase saw Kawai paying homage to ancient Chinese and Korean pottery. In the second phase, he was focused on utilitarian beauty, an approach that complemented his activities in the mingei folk arts movement. The final phase, which began following the Second World War, was marked by a freely flowing creativity. The works that Kawai produced in each phase are so distinct from each other that one might initially conclude they were crafted by different artists. However, they all possess the same physical and aesthetic richness that defines the world of clay Kawai developed over his lifetime.
Following the Second World War, Kawai began to extend his craft to woodcarvings. From the age of 60 to 70, Kawai produced nearly 100 woodcarvings with the help of Takeo Matsuhisa—who went on to become Horin Matsuhisa, a renowned sculptor of wooden statues for Kyoto’s Buddhist temples. His subjects ranged from the recognizable to the abstract. Kawai titled the works either “Wooden Statue” or “Wooden Mask,” a decision intended to allow people to freely interpret each work’s meaning. Kawai developed an interest in wood at 47, during the construction of his house (currently the Kawai Kanjiro’s House museum). Using some leftover wood, Kawai created his first woodcarvings. The house itself could be described as Kawai’s magnum opus of wood: not only did he design it himself—and bring his brother’s hometown carpentry team to Kyoto to build the house—he also designed many of the furnishings. In the process, he created a workspace that reflected his own aesthetic interests in every aspect.
Kawai’s career as a writer goes back to his days submitting articles to his school newspaper. His writings can also be found in Kogei, the magazine he established with his colleagues in the mingei folk arts movement, and the many books he published. He also wrote several poem-like adages that were collected into a book, Inochi no Mado (Window into life), when Kawai was 58. Each adage condenses Kawai’s spirituality and philosophies into beautifully composed prose. Kawai’s first adages were collected in Hi no Kizo (The gifts of fire), which Kawai self-published at the age of 26. Comparing the two books, one can see how Kawai’s writings matured over the course of thirty years. Following the publication of Inochi no Mado, Kawai continued writing adages. Towards the end of his life, their forms were further condensed into simple phrases of just four or five kanji characters. Kawai never indicated how these phrases were pronounced, leaving it entirely up to the reader.