Kitaoji Rosanjin was a troubled genius. He mastered and re-invigorated Japanese art and ceramics. He also married at least five times. Joe Earle investigates
In December 1952, Kitaoji Rosanjin – one of Japan's leading chefs, ceramic artists, and calligraphers – was down on his luck. Japan's extreme version of postwar austerity wasn't suiting him at all. A polymath, contrarian, mostly self-taught genius, he tried to pretend that the world hadn't changed, maintaining his gourmet lifestyle and inveterate art-collecting habit to the point where regular department-store exhibitions of his pots weren't enough to stop him falling into debt. So he was delighted to receive an unexpected commission to create wall decorations for the dining and smoking rooms of the Andrew Dillon, a Panamanian bulk tanker. These two long-lost masterpieces, works on a larger scale than anything else Rosanjin did, will be offered for sale at Bonhams New Bond Street in November.
If you've ever sat down to a Japanese meal and found yourself so captivated by the beauty and variety of the ceramic dishes used to serve the food that you can hardly bear to pick up your chopsticks and actually eat anything, then you've already experienced the legacy of Kitaoji Rosanjin. Born in 1883, but abandoned shortly afterwards by his mother, Rosanjin was entrusted to the care of a poor farming family. He received little formal education after the age of ten, but went on to become perhaps the most famous chef of 1930s Japan. His reputation rests in part on things we take for granted today in Japanese cuisine, such as using the best, freshest ingredients and matching the menu to the season, but he's perhaps even better known, and celebrated, for his belief that "serving dishes are the meal's apparel". A serious student of ceramic history who helped bring about the rebirth of several ancient kilns, and the self-taught maker, it is claimed, of more than 200,000 cups, plates, and bowls in every possible shape, style, and technique, Rosanjin was twice offered the title Living National Treasure for his revival of the Oribe style, but twice turned the honour down. Not only was he suspicious of public recognition, he was interested not so much in pots per se as in the synergy between fine cuisine and ceramic art.
Rosanjin was an astonishingly quick and voracious learner, unafraid of tackling the most demanding academic subjects. Supporting himself by painting Western-style signboards, he started to study calligraphy at age 16 and by age 21 had won first prize at the new official national art exhibition with a work in which 1,000 different Chinese characters were written just once each. He showed unusual interest in food even as a boy of ten, started his training in formal, multi-course kaiseki cooking when he was 33, and three years later first served his own cuisine to clients of an art shop he'd opened in Tokyo. He started off using unglazed pots supplied by others, sometimes reshaping them slightly before firing and always adding his own brush paintings, but when the great Tokyo and Yokohama earthquake of 1923 destroyed his entire stock, he began to design and decorate his own wares and in 1925 opened the Hoshigaoka (Star Hill) restaurant in Tokyo. Hoshigaoka rapidly earned a reputation for tranquil ambience, and superior, natural cuisine, as well as for the range and spontaneous beauty of its ceramic tableware. Yet despite its success, for unexplained reasons Rosanjin was forced out of the business in 1936. Perhaps there were financial reasons for his departure, since he was never one to overly concern himself with money matters, but his tempestuous, often boorish personality must also have played a part in the rift. His hardscrabble, disrupted childhood made him distrustful of others and he once declared that the words 'human love' carried no special meaning for him. His feelings about himself were summed up by the title, Doppo (Walking Alone), that he chose for a magazine he published. It expressed both pride in his achievements and sorrow at his inability to form long-term relationships; he married at least five times.
Rosanjin's combative, often arrogant side was reflected in his reactions to Western culture. As Sidney Cardozo and Masaaki Hirano relate in their book, The Art of Rosanjin, the polymath made his first and only trip to the United States and Europe in 1954, at the age of 71, and his goal was clearly not to learn anything new but to demonstrate the superiority of things Japanese in general and his ceramics and cooking in particular. He made liberal gifts of his pots to museums and art schools which, one suspects, had little choice but to accept them, given his "irrepressible personality", as the official record of his visit to New York's Japan Society puts it. Toward the end of his short tour he went on to France, where he had two collisions with bastions of European culture. Given Rosanjin's assertion that "the ability to jumble everything together in one pan, as in Western cooking, counts for nothing", his visit to La Tour d'Argent, Paris's most venerated restaurant, was never going to be a success. Invited into the kitchen to watch the chef prepare pressed duck – La Tour's signature dish – he exclaimed "That's no way to cook a duck", and started doing it himself. Rosanjin also travelled to Vallauris to present Picasso with one of his pots. Picasso was probably not the first and certainly not the last European celebrity to make the mistake of spending longer admiring the beautifully finished paulownia-wood storage box than the ceramic masterpiece within, producing an explosive reaction from Rosanjin: "Not the box, not the box, you simple child! What I made is inside the box."
These encounters, just like two masterpieces by Rosanjin, date from the period in the early 1950s when Japanese artists were beginning to recover from the shock of defeat in World War II and express a renewed sense of confidence in their own culture. By December 1952, Rosanjin's gourmet lifestyle had reduced him to poverty, so the commission to decorate the dining and smoking rooms of the bulk tanker, Andrew Dillon, was heaven-sent. Working with tremendous energy and at a frenetic pace, he completed Sakura in 20 days and Fuji in only five. Both works were exhibited at Takashimaya Department Store in May 1953, after which they were installed in the ship and left Japan for the next 56 years.
More than ten feet wide, Sakura, is dominated by an ancient cherry tree in full bloom stretching across a series of plain wood panels scattered with gold leaf. Having first drawn the tree design freehand and without a preliminary sketch – a typical demonstration of his skill and personality – Rosanjin then painstakingly carved the plank with recesses which he filled with glazed ceramics and shell for the petals and leaves, and lead for the trunk and branches, using urushi (lacquer) to hold these inlays in place. Finally, with a mixture of urushi and oil paint, he added four birds flying amongst the branches. Although ceramic and lead inlay had been practised in Japan for more than three centuries, Rosanjin employed the technique on a much larger scale than had ever been attempted before, to brilliant decorative effect. Fuji was painted with a mixture of urushi and oil paint applied to a luxurious gold-painted ground. Once he had completed the image of Japan's most famous mountain, Rosanjin waited for the urushi to dry, then added trees and other details to complete a majestic, soaring composition that both refers to and transcends the Japanese landscape screen-painting tradition.
The Andrew Dillon had an eventful history, twice changing hands and names before she was eventually broken up in 1980, when the screens were rediscovered and preserved. In 2000, they were installed at the head office of a shipping company in Lisbon, before they made a triumphant homecoming to mark the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Portugal. The first such works by Rosanjin ever offered at auction, these two spirited and beautiful compositions express both his flamboyant personality and his acute aesthetic sense.
Joe Earle is Senior Consultant for Bonhams Japanese Department.