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Introduction

Yanagi Sōetsu and the invention of “folk crafts”: a new contextualisation

Yanagi Sōetsu et l’invention des « arts populaires » : remise en perspective
Christophe Marquet

Abstracts

Introduction to the issue on mingei undō (Folk Art movement) and its founder, Yanagi Sōetsu, which is the result of a symposium held at INALCO on January 15, 2009.

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Editor’s note

Original release: Christophe Marquet, « Yanagi Sōetsu et l’invention des « arts populaires » : remise en perspective », Cipango [En ligne], 16 | 2009, mis en ligne le 15 novembre 2011, DOI: 10.4000/cipango.371.

Full text

  • 1 Germain Viatte (ed.), L’esprit mingei au Japon (The Mingei Spirit in Japan), Actes Sud, Musée du Qu (...)

1The exhibition The Mingei Spirit in Japan,1 curated by Germain Viatte and Shiraha Akemi for the Musée du Quai Branly, provided the occasion to introduce a largely unknown section of Japanese art to the French public, as well as one aspect of the work of Yanagi Muneyoshi (also known by his pen name, Sōetsu) 柳宗悦 (1889-1961). In this respect, the exhibition was undoubtedly one of the most interesting events devoted to Japanese art to be organised in Paris in 2008.

  • 2 After studying Western art at Tokyo University of the Arts, Yanagi Sōri worked as Charlotte Perrian (...)

2The approach chosen by the exhibition’s organisers – as the subtitle “from folk craft to design” indicates – aimed to illustrate the continuity between the Folk Crafts Movement (mingei undō 民藝運動), launched in the 1920s, and modern design. A large section was thus devoted to Yanagi Sōetsu’s eldest son, the designer Yanagi Sōri 柳宗理 (1915-2011),2 and the international links established with designers such as Bruno Taut, Charlotte Perriand and Isamu Noguchi between the 1930s and 1950s.

  • 3 Fukagawa Masafumi, « Visages du “Wa”. Harmonie dans le design de produits au Japon » (The Different (...)

3Yanagi was also featured at another exhibition on Japanese design just metres away from the Musée du Quai Branly – Wa: The Spirit of Harmony and Japanese Design Today –, at the Japan Cultural Institute in Paris (Maison de la culture du Japon à Paris), lending further weight to the idea that he had initiated a rediscovery of Japanese crafts that had helped to revive modern industrial design. In fact, the catalogue for this exhibition presented Yanagi’s views on the necessary coexistence of craftsmanship and industrial design as the “archetype of the vision driving design today”.3

  • 4 Mingei. Two Centuries of Japanese Folk Art (Peabody Essex Museum, Joslyn Art Museum, Asian Art Muse (...)
  • 5 Marie-Pierre Foissy-Aufrère, Eliza Barrère, Dominique Buisson and Robert Moes, Mingei de la collect (...)

4This interpretation led the organisers of the Musée du Quai Branly exhibition to play down certain important aspects of the Folk Crafts Movement, such as its Western intellectual and aesthetic origins, its links to Buddhism and its pictorial dimension. In this respect, the exhibition differed significantly from the first two major mingei exhibitions: held in the United States from 1995 to 1997 at the instigation of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum (Nihon Mingeikan),4 and at the Museum of Asian Arts in Nice (Musée des arts asiatiques) in 2000 and based on a private collection.5

  • 6 Yuko Kikuchi, Japanese Modernisation and Mingei Theory. Cultural Nationalism and Oriental Orientali (...)
  • 7 Inaga Shigemi, “Reconsidering the Mingei Undō as a Colonial Discourse: The Politics of Visualizing (...)

5Moreover, we have recently witnessed the emergence of new interpretations of the movement focusing on the ideological principles that underpinned Yanagi’s work. Notable examples include Kikuchi Yuko and Kim Brandt, authors of two publications that retrace the history of the Mingei movement in a colonial context, seeing it primarily as a kind of “cultural nationalism” or a contribution to the creation of a “modern national style”.6 Other research, such as that of Inaga Shigemi, has attempted to reveal the sequence of events that led Yanagi to “invent” an Asian aesthetic tradition in the context of colonial Japan.7

  • 8 Noriko Aso, “Mediating the Masses: Yanagi Sōetsu and Fascism”, in Alan Tansman and Marilyn Ivy (eds (...)
  • 9 Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reic (...)

6Other more radical analyses challenge the humanist interpretation of Yanagi’s work, even going as far as seeing a parallel between certain aspects of his views on folk crafts and the “fascist aesthetic” of the 1930s and wartime Europe.8 Yanagi’s views during this period are presented as those of a “reactionary modernist” – an expression used by the historian Jeffrey Herf to describe the Nazi German and Fascist Italian regimes –9 someone who rejected the individualism of modern society and criticised the “frail” nature of contemporary art.

7Whilst acknowledging such interpretations, this volume of Cipango chiefly aims to put Yanagi’s work into perspective by shedding light on those aspects of the Folk Crafts Movement overlooked by the Musée du Quai Branly exhibition. It follows a Yanagi Sōetsu-themed workshop held at INALCO on 15 January 2009, organised as part of a Centre for Japanese Studies (Centre d’Études Japonaises) seminar and attended by Germain Viatte and Shiraha Akemi.

8The majority of the papers presented at the workshop can be found here, in addition to two new research articles and a translation dealing with closely related issues. A presentation of these contributions is preceded by a brief review of the nature and implications of the Mingei movement founded by Yanagi.

Yanagi and the Folk Crafts Movement

9Yanagi Sōetsu occupied a unique position on Japan’s intellectual and artistic scene during the first half of the twentieth century. Neither an artist nor an art historian in a scholarly sense, he was often described as a “thinker” specialising in aesthetics and religious philosophy. He was above all the founding father and spokesperson of the Folk Crafts Movement, or mingei undō. The term mingei 民藝 was coined in 1925 by Yanagi and two potters, Kawai Kanjirō and Hamada Shōji, with the aim of promoting the “functional beauty” of peasant pottery produced by anonymous craftspeople.

  • 10 See his text “Mingei no shushi” 民藝の趣旨 (The Meaning of Mingei), 1933, in Yanagi Sōetsu, Mingei yonjū (...)
  • 11 For an analysis of such terminological matters see Élisabeth Frolet in Yanagi Sōetsu ou les élément (...)

10The term has been interpreted variously as “folk art” (minzoku geijutsu 民俗藝術), “peasant art” (nōmin bijutsu, 農民美術), and even “art of the people” (minshū geijutsu 民衆藝術). Yanagi refuted such interpretations,10 objecting in particular to the term “art” (bijutsu, geijutsu), which was coloured by a definition based on Western art categories imported to Japan during the Meiji era and which, in his eyes, had distorted the way ordinary objects were perceived. Yanagi understood his neologism to mean “crafts” (gei) “of the people” (min). He further advocated the use of less ambiguous and more concrete terms such as getemono 下手物 (“common object”) – a slang term used by stallholders at the flea markets he frequented in Kyoto during the 1920s – minki 民器 (“object of the people”), or even zakki 雑器 (“miscellaneous object”), though none of these enjoyed the same success as mingei.11

11In practical terms, mingei was a generic term encompassing all manner of domestic utensils and objects, furniture or even clothing and textiles crafted by hand using traditional techniques that were either lost or dying out at the beginning of the twentieth century. It mainly referred to local creations from the late Edo or early Meiji eras, although much older objects – such as stone sculptures from the Jōmon period – would later capture Yanagi’s attention for their primitiveness.

12Yanagi was quick to define mingei as being chiefly: anonymous creations, utilitarian in purpose, produced in large amounts, low in cost, plain and destined for common people, in contrast to crafts or works of art assigned to a particular artist, unique, luxurious and produced for the upper classes.

  • 12 See Nina Gorgus, Le magicien des vitrines. Le muséologue Georges Henri Rivière (The Museologist Geo (...)
  • 13 See, among others, Jean Cuisenier, L’art populaire en France. Rayonnement, modèles et sources (Fren (...)
  • 14 See Nina Gorgus, « Georges Henri Rivière et l’Europe » (Georges Henri Rivière and Europe), in Jacqu (...)

13At first sight this definition emphasising the usability of objects differs little from the one used by folklorists to define folk crafts in other countries, notably in France. Take the work of Georges Henri Rivière12 at the National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, Paris (Musée des arts et traditions populaires) from the end of the 1930s, and that of his successor Jean Cuisenier, for example.13 Furthermore, let us not forget that in 1928 an International Commission on Folk Arts and Folklore14 was established in Prague and joined by Japan. Created under the aegis of the League of Nations, the commission aimed to “catalogue surviving traditions” and consider “how to protect those that still existed”.

  • 15 See Yanagi Sōetsu, “Mingeikan no seiritsu”, 民藝館の生立 (Birth of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum), 1935, p (...)

14However, Yanagi took pains to point out what distinguished his project from ethnographic museums such as the Nordiska Museum in Stockholm, which he visited in 1929 during a visit to Europe.15 His initiative differed from the ethnographic approach in that, rather than collecting a vast number of “reference works” in order to showcase a practice, history or milieu, it consisting in making a qualitative selection based on subjective aesthetic criteria. Nonetheless, the formal qualities of the object were considered from a functional perspective, thus giving rise to the well-known expression “functional beauty”, yō no bi 用の美.

  • 16 Note that the concept of the “artistic role” of ethnographic museums, in which the exhibits were a (...)

15Furthermore, one of the main objectives of Yanagi and proponents of his movement was to establish a collection of items chosen as models for creating new arts and crafts, new architecture or even a new form of figurative pictorial art.16 These latter two aspects of the movement were less successful and in consequence are probably less well known.

  • 17 See Yanagi Sōetsu, « La beauté en quête de critères » (Towards a Standard of Beauty), in Artisan et (...)

16The Mingei movement gathered momentum with a planned museum in 1926, which became a reality in 1936 with the opening of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo. Although an aesthetic, rather than a methodical and scientific, approach lay behind this endeavour, the exhibits were nonetheless selected according to a range of criteria. The pioneering nature of this privately funded undertaking must be stressed, given that it came about at a time when Japan’s national museums had no interest in folk crafts, since they did not fit into the quest to construct a national identity founded on the “aristocratic arts” promoted by these institutions. In fact, Yanagi pointed out that his offer in the late 1920s to make his collections available to the Tokyo Imperial Museum (now the Tokyo National Museum) went without a response.17

  • 18 Ibid., p. 19.

17According to Yanagi, in order to qualify as mingei the objects had to possess certain qualities, in particular by displaying an “honesty with regards their intended use”. This excluded manufactured or needlessly ornate objects. This stipulation was in part a reaction to the decline of traditional crafts and the industrial standardisation of everyday goods since the Meiji era.18

18Nevertheless, although mingei – according to Yanagi – had to possess this practical value rather than simply being objects for aesthetic appreciation, they were not merely utilitarian. They were also required to fulfil a “criterion of beauty”, thus introducing a certain ambiguity into Yanagi’s project. As with so-called “primitive art”, this raised the question of the object’s autonomy and recognition of its artistic value beyond its practical value. Moreover, the involvement of artists making what were often expensive creations – including several individuals who were designated Living National Treasures after the war – is one of the movement’s many contradictions.

19The establishment of the emblematic term mingei aimed to encompass a novel movement combining a reinterpretation, or rediscovery, of the crafts of the past with a promotion of contemporary design, with one enriching the other. This quest to invent a craft tradition can also be considered in light of its role in re-evaluating the history of Japanese art by taking into account its most popular forms.

  • 19 Martha Longenecker is the author of, among others, Mingei of Japan. The Legacy of the Founders. Sōe (...)

20The Folk Crafts Movement continues its activities today thanks to a network of regional associations located across Japan and some thirty or more affiliated museums, all of which come under the umbrella of the Japan Folk Crafts Association (Nihon mingei kyōkai 日本民藝協会). Note that it also enjoys an international reputation due to the concept having been exported, as it were, particularly to the United States. One pertinent example is the experiment carried out by the Mingei International Museum, founded in San Diego (California) in 1978 by Martha Longenecker,19 a potter and professor of art at the University of San Diego who worked in Japan with Hamada Shōji and was acquainted with Yanagi. By applying the ideas of the Folk Crafts Movement, this non-profit public institution is “dedicated to the understanding and appreciation of “art of the people” (mingei) from all cultures of the world” and organises many high quality exhibitions in this field.

Contributions to this volume

21The Folk Crafts Movement can be analysed from a variety of perspectives: its contribution to modern design – which is the approach favoured by the Musée du Quai Branly exhibition – its reinterpretation of Japanese art (in particular from the Edo period), and its aesthetic or even social dimension. It raises a number of questions, such as its relationship with ethnology or its position concerning colonialism. While it does not claim to respond to each of these questions, this volume attempts to shed light on matters of recent debate.

  • 20 The hybrid nature of the Mingei movement was highlighted by Élisabeth Frolet in « Yanagi Sōetsu et (...)

22Michael Lucken re-explores the important issue of the movement’s intellectual and aesthetic origins, for although it seems possible to speak of an abrupt change in Yanagi’s interests in the mid-1910s, when he began to turn his eye towards Korean folk art, his models remained for the most part Western. The Mingei movement has often been presented as anti-modern, the antithesis of the Western concept of individualist art. However, it should be remembered that this reinterpretation of the Japanese artistic tradition was based partly on ideas taken from late nineteenth-century European thinkers such as William Morris – founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement – and on the themes covered by art magazines like The Studio.20

23Yanagi’s fascination for various forms of figurative folk arts – from Korean paintings to Ōtsu-e to votive plaques – is tackled by Christophe Marquet. At first glance this field of art may seem the furthest removed from the Folk Crafts Movement’s criteria of functionality and anonymity. However, Yanagi’s approach had the virtue of revealing an entire set of works disregarded by scholarly research for being “popular prints”, and studying their characteristics, function and history.

24François Macé examines the vital role played by Yanagi at the beginning of the 1920s in rediscovering Mokujiki 木喰 (1718-1810), an eighteenth-century monk and sculptor who had been ignored previously by Buddhist art historians because his work “did not conform to the criteria of beauty”. This discovery, coming just before the concept of mingei was developed, demonstrates the nature of Yanagi’s research method and above all his keen and pertinent eye, capable of finding a “new beauty in the ugly”, a beauty that did not reside in technical virtuosity.

25Finally, the early 1940s’ debate between Yanagi Sōetsu and the prominent folklorist Yanagita Kunio 柳田國男 (1875-1962) is analysed in detail by Damien Kunik. It provides a clearer understanding of the methodological and ideological differences separating folk studies from the Folk Crafts Movement, which were occasionally confused at the time, no doubt because both in part took an interest in the same type of objects. At the same time, it is clear just how much both movements helped reappraise the contribution of ordinary people (min) to Japanese culture in general, and this during a period that bookended the Second World War. Kunik, in association with Jean-Michel Butel, also provides a translation of Yanagi and Yanagita’s only public debate (broadcast on the radio in 1940), thus enabling readers to judge the nature of the debate between these two intellectuals and their respective stances concerning the materials common to both of their fields of investigation.

26This text suggests that the folklorist Yanagita sided with descriptive science and refused to entangle himself in political debate (at least with regards to his research), since his movement did not intend to “influence culture”. In fact, the reality is more complicated, although Yanagita’s stance does reveal a difference between the two disciplines. While not completely lacking a scientific aspiration, Yanagi considered the Folk Crafts Movement above all as a means of establishing aesthetic standards. His activities implied value judgments and making selections. In contrast, the approach of folklorists and archaeologists was to make observations based on a study of the materials.

27This volume concludes with Coralie Castel’s critical analysis of three Japanese art exhibitions held in Paris in 2008 – including the Musée du Quai Branly exhibition – focusing on the ideas and representations conveyed with regards to “Japanese identity”.

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Notes

1 Germain Viatte (ed.), L’esprit mingei au Japon (The Mingei Spirit in Japan), Actes Sud, Musée du Quai Branly, 2008. Catalogue for the exhibition The Mingei Spirit in Japan. From Folk Craft to Design, presented in the Musée du Quai Branly garden gallery from 30 September 2008 to 11 January 2009.

2 After studying Western art at Tokyo University of the Arts, Yanagi Sōri worked as Charlotte Perriand’s assistant between 1940 and 1942. In 1950 he set up the Yanagi Industrial Design Institute (Yanagi indasutoriaru dezain kenkyūjo) where he created numerous everyday objects using traditional techniques and reflecting the mingei spirit. In 1977 he took charge of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum (Mingeikan) founded by his father in Tokyo. See the exhibition catalogue Yanagi Sōri. Seikatsu no naka no dezain 柳宗理  生活のなかのデザイン (Yanagi Sōri. Design in Everyday Life), The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 2007, and in particular the essay by Kida Takuya 木田拓也, entitled “Yanagi Sōri no dezain to mingei” 柳宗理のデザインと民藝 (Mingei and the Designs of Yanagi Sōri), pp. 12-14.

3 Fukagawa Masafumi, « Visages du “Wa”. Harmonie dans le design de produits au Japon » (The Different Faces of ‘Wa’. Harmony in Japanese Product Design) in Kashiwagi Hiroshi et al., Wa: l’harmonie au quotidien. Design japonais d’aujourd’hui (Wa: The Spirit of Harmony and Japanese Design Today), Paris, Maison de la culture du Japon à Paris, 2008, p. 23.

4 Mingei. Two Centuries of Japanese Folk Art (Peabody Essex Museum, Joslyn Art Museum, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Fort Worth Museum of Science and History), The Japan Folk Crafts Museum, 1995. This exhibition aimed to present the various aspects of Japanese folk crafts through a 140-piece collection dating from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, classified according to their medium (textile, pottery, lacquerware, wood, metal and painting).

5 Marie-Pierre Foissy-Aufrère, Eliza Barrère, Dominique Buisson and Robert Moes, Mingei de la collection Montgomery. Beauté du quotidien au Japon (Mingei from the Montgomery Collection. Everyday Beauty in Japan), Nice, Musée des arts asiatiques, 2000.

6 Yuko Kikuchi, Japanese Modernisation and Mingei Theory. Cultural Nationalism and Oriental Orientalism, New York, Routledge Curzon, 2004; Kim Brandt, Kingdom of Beauty. Mingei and the Politics of Folk Art in Imperial Japan, Durham, Duke University Press, 2007. See the review of this last book in Cipango. Cahiers d’études japonaises, n°16, p. 149-155. (http://cipango.revues.org/270)

7 Inaga Shigemi, “Reconsidering the Mingei Undō as a Colonial Discourse: The Politics of Visualizing Asian ‘Folk Craft’”, Asiatische Studien, 1999, vol. 53, no. 2, pp. 219-230.

8 Noriko Aso, “Mediating the Masses: Yanagi Sōetsu and Fascism”, in Alan Tansman and Marilyn Ivy (eds.), The Culture of Japanese Fascism, Durham, Duke University Press, 2009, pp  139-154; Alan Tansman, The Aesthetics of Japanese Fascism, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2009, and in particular, “A Vision of Beautiful Things: Yanagi Sōetsu”, pp. 107-118.

9 Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984.

10 See his text “Mingei no shushi” 民藝の趣旨 (The Meaning of Mingei), 1933, in Yanagi Sōetsu, Mingei yonjū-nen 民藝四十年 (Four Decades of the Folk Crafts Movement), Tokyo, 1958, reissued by Iwanami Shoten, Iwanami Bunko collection, 1984, pp. 159-173. This text was translated into French by Anne Bayard-Sakai in L’esprit mingei au Japon (The Mingei Spirit in Japan), op cit., p. 13-24.

11 For an analysis of such terminological matters see Élisabeth Frolet in Yanagi Sōetsu ou les éléments d’une renaissance artistique au Japon (Yanagi Sōetsu: Elements of an Artistic Revival in Japan), Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne, 1986, p. 74-76.

12 See Nina Gorgus, Le magicien des vitrines. Le muséologue Georges Henri Rivière (The Museologist Georges Henri Rivière: Showcase Magician), Paris, Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2003.

13 See, among others, Jean Cuisenier, L’art populaire en France. Rayonnement, modèles et sources (French Folk Art, its Influence, Models and Origins), Fribourg, Office du Livre, 1975.

14 See Nina Gorgus, « Georges Henri Rivière et l’Europe » (Georges Henri Rivière and Europe), in Jacqueline Christophe, Denis-Michel Boëll and Régis Meyran, Du folklore à l’ethnologie (From Folklore to Ethnology), Paris, Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2009, p. 370. In 1964 the commission became the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore.

15 See Yanagi Sōetsu, “Mingeikan no seiritsu”, 民藝館の生立 (Birth of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum), 1935, published in Yanagi Sōetsu Zenshū 柳宗悦全集 (The Complete Works of Yanagi Sōetsu, referred to hereafter as YSZ), vol. 16, Tokyo, Chikuma Shobō, 1981, pp. 52-53.

16 Note that the concept of the “artistic role” of ethnographic museums, in which the exhibits were a source of inspiration for artists and helped to disseminate unknown techniques, was not dissimilar to the plan developed by Georges Henri Rivière in 1931. See Nina Gorgus, Le magicien des vitrines, op cit., p. 55.

17 See Yanagi Sōetsu, « La beauté en quête de critères » (Towards a Standard of Beauty), in Artisan et inconnu. La beauté dans l’esthétique japonaise (published in English as The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty), adapted by Bernard Leach, translated by Mathilde Bellaigue, Paris, L’Asiathèque, 1992, p. 17.

18 Ibid., p. 19.

19 Martha Longenecker is the author of, among others, Mingei of Japan. The Legacy of the Founders. Sōetsu Yanagi, Shōji Yamada, Kanjirō Kawai, San Diego, Mingei International Museum, 2006.

20 The hybrid nature of the Mingei movement was highlighted by Élisabeth Frolet in « Yanagi Sōetsu et son mouvement d’art populaire, le mingei undō. Le rôle ambigu de l’Europe et de sa modernité dans la formation d’un mouvement artistique japonais dans les années 30 » (Yanagi Sōetsu and his Folk Crafts Movement, mingei undō. The Ambiguous Role of Europe and its Modernity in Creating a Japanese Art Movement in the 1930s), Gazette des Beaux-Arts, vol. 109, no 1417, February 1987, p. 87-96.

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References

Electronic reference

Christophe Marquet, « Yanagi Sōetsu and the invention of “folk crafts”: a new contextualisation », Cipango - French Journal of Japanese Studies [Online], 1 | 2012, Online since 24 May 2013, connection on 25 May 2017. URL : http://cjs.revues.org/244 ; DOI : 10.4000/cjs.244

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