Black robe, white mist Art of the Japanese Buddhist nun Rengetsu
8 September 2007 – 27 January 2008
Rengetsu and Japanese tea traditions
Otagaki Rengetsu 'When white chrysanthemums'' hanging scroll [kakemono] 1867 calligraphy, painting Museum DKM/Stifung DKM, Duisburg, Germany more detail
Rengetsu created vessels for two types of tea drinking – teacups and teapots for sencha, steeped leaf green tea, and large teabowls for serving matcha, powdered green tea, in the chanoyu tea ceremony. Chanoyu, the best-known Japanese tea ceremony, originated in Kyoto in the fifteenth century as an elite activity. Although it had become quite widely practised by Rengetsu’s time, many objected to its strict aristocratic formalities.
Otagaki Rengetsu 'This genteman' sencha tea set 1830-75 glazed stoneware, incised calligraphy Private collection, Switzerland more detail
Sencha drinking was introduced by the Chinese scholar monks who founded the Obaku Zen sect in Japan in the seventeenth century. They drank the tea socially, as well as in ritual, partly in opposition to the pretension of chanoyu. By the nineteenth century, sencha too had acquired a chanoyu-style ceremony. Nevertheless, the educated, including women, continued to enjoy sencha in a relaxed manner. Its consumption frequently accompanied pursuits such as poetry composition and painting. Many of Rengetsu’s sencha wares were for informal use, with five cups rather than the six required for formal tea service. About the teapots she created for drinking sencha, Rengetsu wrote:
Since I was poor, and there was nothing I could do, I dabbled with clay, making kibisho (sencha teapots). One at a time, they were very humble and the shapes were unrefined. The poems I carved on them I wrote when I had a moment free. I never had much free time.
(trans. Lee Johnson)
The popularity of her unorthodox poetry-inscribed tea ceramics reflected a fashion for art created by the eccentric and scholarly.
Patricia J Graham introduces the Japanese tea ceremony, and the tea ceramics created by Renegtsu for both styles of tea, in her chapter in Black robe, white mist: Art of the Japanese Buddhist nun Rengetsu.
Black Robe, white mist was on show at the National Gallery of Australia 8 September 2007 – 27 January 2008