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Craftsmen in the “jail of beauty”

“The people of Kyoto live in a 'jail of beauty’" so wrote Ernest Francisco Fenollosa, Harvard graduate who arrived in Japan in 1878. The philosopher, later gaining a lectureship at Tokyo University, became one of the first international spokesmen for traditional Japanese art. At the time, Japan’s indigenous art faced gradual decay, having been pushed aside and forgotten by wholesale modernization and a rejection and shunning of all things old, particularly Buddhist. In his lifework of explaining the significance of Japanese aesthetics to the wider world, the city of Kyoto played a key role.

By deconstructing the many manifestations of beauty he discovered in Kyoto, Fenollosa sought to understand the essence of this island nation in the Orient called Japan. His interests were not merely limited to temples and shrines, paintings, antiquities, and art objects hidden away in the mansions of the aristocracy. Rather, Fenollosa immersed himself in the daily lives of the Kyoto people. And what he discovered in the every-day objects of commoners was astounding beauty.

To him, the ornamental elements of these crafts had achieved a level of unique artistry not found elsewhere. Moreover, this artistry had achieved functionality because of the minimalism of the environment in which it arose. Its functionality in turn acquired ornamental beauty as a result of the highly sophisticated craftsmanship employed in its creation.

All of this had been achieved, Fenollosa marveled, by nameless craftsman down the centuries.

Craftsmanship: the fusion of function, ornament, and art only hand-wrought objects can achieve.

At first, it seemed to the American philosopher that the Japanese appeared to live their lives in a dark, threadbare, and inconvenient prison. But coming to Kyoto, he realized how generously their prisons had been ornamented by craftsmanship, how magnificently rich this “jail of beauty” in fact was.

After the war, the Japanese learned concepts of “disposable”, “mechanization”, and “mass production” from America. Placing faith in these modern processes as if they were gods, the Japanese have acquired their own bright, rich, and free world. Or perhaps they merely think they have acquired such a world. The people of Kyoto may celebrate the advent of such a world - telling themselves: “Lucky me!” But only to a degree. In reality they continue to chain themselves, voluntarily, to the shackles of the “jail of beauty”.

 “Disposbales” may be shiny and new, but can one expect genuine ornamental beauty from such items? Luxury items made of “mechanization”, however expensive, can never contain true artistry. The freedom to “mass produce” can only be ad hoc, far from the precise functionality of tailored crafts.

If these things be true, what reason is there to leave this “jail of beauty”?

The people of Kyoto have long placed more value in the joy of using spiritually than the ecstasy of consuming physically. Fenollosa died in 1908 during his visit to London. Hundred years hence, we are proud to be able to re-introduce to the world the pith and marrow of Kyoto, the very charm which drew this philosopher to the “jail of beauty”.

So it brings us the greatest pleasure to be able to present, not the ruins of a long-dead Japanism, but the living beauty of now, created in the hands of the Kyoto craftsmen of today.


Karacho + Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hampu

We would like to make special mention of two “craftsmen” working in karakami paper and canvas bags. The two crafts are in no way related, but both share common features: the longer one uses the items, the more warmth and attachment they bring; both are the products of extremely sophisticated, original, and delicate craftsmanship; finally, both traditions are steeped in the aesthetics of this city and could only have arisen in Kyoto.

 The exquisite karakami paper of “Karacho”, illuminated by Japanese candles and natural light to draw out their sumptuous colors, provides the element of this exhibition. In this uniquely orchestrated space, an assortment of Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hampu’s works, from heavy duty bags to pochettes will be on display . Other supporting companies will also be presenting their works, offering a multilayered experience to the visitor.

The people of Kyoto do not simply throw out a plate which cracks. With lacquer and gold dust, they meld together fragments to recreate an equally beautiful plate as before. There is charm in the old. “Karacho” karakami paper, bleached by sun and warped by heat and moisture, gradually acquire calming colours and texture, even stains, over time. That is also their precise charm. The Japanese call this “putting on jidai” - jidai loosely should be understood as a term encompassing era and history.

“Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hampu” bags are not merely sturdy and long-lasting. Its distilled designs are said to have influenced numerous eminent fashion houses including Louis Vuitton. After two, three decades, a Hanpu bag which has “put on much jidai” becomes an irreplaceable and cherished item. Nor can one forget the almost perfect repair services offered by the bag-maker at only actual cost.

We hope that visitors can sense the artistry of the universe of “Karacho” derived from skilled craftsmanship. From the bags of “Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hampu”, we hope visitors can be exposed to the marvelous functionality of such craftsmanship. The collaboration of both traditions in this exhibit should demonstrate ornamental beauty made possible only in such handiwork; these are the potentials of craftsmanship in Kyoto - “city that lives in the now”.

Exhibition details

Jail of Beauty
Time: 2007 November 6th (Tuesday) - November 10th (Saturday)

Time: November 6th (Tue) by invitation only
November 7th (Wed) 10:00-17:00
November 8th (Thurs) 10:00-17:00
November 9th (Fri) 10:00-20:00
November 10th (Sat) 10:00-15:00

Place: Gallery Forty-Seven, 47 Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3PB

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