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.
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.”