can art be taught? utsushi the art of the faithful replica

Is this utsushi?

In the recent Western art world innovation and creative genius has been admired beyond all other attributes yet it is rare that it can stand alone without previously putting years in to mastering technique. Often we feel we are admiring genius but in fact it is as much the mastery that is impressive. If we look at related fields of music or sport it is important to put the years hard graft in to practice before we can do things that others admire. I have never heard of a musical genius that picked up a violin and make sweet music without first spending a few years learning to play it and often the best sportspeople are also the ones that work hardest on the practice field. David Beckham and Johny Wilkinson both kicked far more practice free kicks than most.

In the art world it seems to me we do not value the practice and right from the very first training at school we try to teach that artistic spark instead of teaching basic technique and trusting that the the individual will find a way to express themselves once they have mastered techniques.

In Japanese tradition things are different. Technique and those that master it are honoured. I want to share a film showing mastery of technique. This is Ford Hallam making an ‘utsushi” that is a faithful copy of an old masterpiece in this case a tsuba or sword hilt. In the film Ford says of utsushi “don’t seek to copy the ancients, rather seek what they sought”

and this is the second film of the process with the finished piece.

Now I was very interested in this idea of utsushi. I thought it may describe what I do. I gain inspiration from a certain type of wonderful free workmanship which was common in medieval times but is very rare today. I rarely try to produce precise replicas, in fact with this free workmanship is is almost impossible to do so. This is a medieval bowl from Lubeck in Germany. To someone who does not understand it may just appear rough. If it was entered in a turning competition today it would be marked as defective because there is clear and obvious tearout and “poor finish” yet I adore this bowl.

Here is the underside of the bowl showing equally broad coarse cuts. The turner who made this bowl made it at incredible speed, the axe was very sharp with just a tiny nick in the edge showing on the tool signature seen on the centre of the three axe facets near the rim. My guess is that this bowl was made with one pass of the tool on the exterior, maybe ten treadles of the lathe, less than a minute, the inside I am guessing was a couple of minutes at most. The bowl was valued enough for the owner to brand it and has seen a lot of use. The burn in the internal base is a common feature on medieval bowls and my reading is that in the days before matches folk popped next door for some embers to light the fire and sometimes didn’t fish them out of the bowl before it scorched.
Now I love this bowl and like Ford Hallam said I don’t want to copy it I want to make bowls with the same character, I want to be as good and as fast and as free. These very coarse bowls don’t sell well today but there are more finely finished bowls which I try to capture the spirit of which people do still like today. In fact my second ever blog post looked at tool marks and discussed this porringer. It is not a mm perfect copy of the original rather I aim for work which I can feel about the same way as I feel about the original. So is it an utsushi?

I am always wary of using Japanese terms, without a full understanding of the language. I asked Euan the potter what his take on the term utsushi was and he replied;

“Utsushi is the noun of the verb “Utsusu”, which means to move something from one place to another. The traditional learning method in japan is to copy the masters work and methods and “Steal” skills. Once you have mastered them you can go a step beyond your master. Particularly in Calligraphy the copying(utsushi) of a master work, striving to replicate not only the look of the calligraphy but the movement which made it and the spirit in which it was made, is a vital learning tool. The closest that I can parallel it to in western culture is the copying of illuminated manuscripts and bibles in medieaval monasteries. The “Copies” were as valid an expression of faith and art as the originals. “On Ko Chi Shin”温故知新 is a Japanese proverb which means to eek new wisdom by studying ancient things. Utsushi is a faithful copy of the original, which encompasses the spirit in which it was made. It is therefore as much a reinterpretation, or in the sense of music, a cover version. Utsushi does, however, refer to the faithful reproduction of a specific work, not a series of works done in the same style. A series of teabowls in the Raku style, however similar to original raku pieces, are not the same as the Utsushi of a specific Raku bowl, which is as accurate in every sense as the maker can achieve.
As such, I would think that your bowls are what they are, not utsushi and certainly not copies. Your quaichs are quaichs, a vessel for a specific purpose, as valid an original expression as the ancient versions, and I would think they are a renaissance of functional art. Were you to make a faithful copy of a museum piece, using it as an expression of your personal love of the material and the craft, that would be an Utsushi.”

5 Responses to can art be taught? utsushi the art of the faithful replica

  1. Anuttama February 20, 2011 at 3:58 am #

    Thank you very much! That was wonderful,William BuddEatonville, WA

  2. afterthegoldrush February 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm #

    Thanks for another great post Robin – the level of craftsmanship shown is truly amazing.I'm also intrigued by some of these Japanese philosophical concepts/questions and the subtle differences in meaning, intention and action. I think you are right too – in that art as it is taught in school seems to only relate directly with some kind of inner 'genius' (whatever that is) and therefore only seems to value the rather obviously talented. People just don't seem to 'get' the fact that there's an awful lot of graft that goes into becoming good at something and that the journey from beginner onwards, wherever it might lead you, might just change the way you relate to craft/art/materials in ways you never imagined at the start.Love the blog – thought it was about time I commented!Matt Southward

  3. Beth February 20, 2011 at 9:12 pm #

    There's a really interesting book being serialised on Radio 4 at the moment called 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother'. It's about a Chinese-American mother and the way she brings up her children which is, basically, to make them practice piano and violin hour upon hour, every day. Western-centric child psychologists are up in arms about this way of parenting but her argument is that people find joy in doing things when they are able to do them well, and you can't do anything well without practice. Despite being an arch liberal, I did agree with lots of things that she said. I'm glad she wasn't my mother though…

  4. marie February 21, 2011 at 12:18 pm #

    Hi Robin, I started following your blog a few months agoI'm now reading Soetsu Yanagi `The Unknown craftsman – a Japanese insight into Beauty`, as slow as I can, and its very substance is holding my heartI thought I should adress a wide MERCI to you :)and this morning, the videos you give us to watch are neat!!..I looked at the original old piece again, at the original tiger, after the film, and can see its smaller proportion into the whole piece. Now both pieces form a strong unity that they hold in themselves..Marie (Edinburgh)

  5. William de Wyke February 23, 2011 at 6:12 am #

    Hi Robin,Thank you for this. I downloaded the high-def versions of that video a while ago and have watched it several times since. I don't know if you've ever lit a fire with a flint, steel and charcloth but I suspect that the burns in the bottom of bowls are from the small piles of tinder you need to have in a very sheltered place to kindle a flame like that rather than from people going door to door with embers. A bowl would be the perfect receptacle for a tiny pile of straw or where you could blow the glow from the charcloth carefully into flame without it blowing away and transfer it to the laid fire you're trying to light.