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The 2004 Kumano German Tour

by Peter Ujlaki

From November 7, 2004, to January 9, 2005, a major exhibition of Kumano's works was held at the Keramikmuseum Westerwald in Hoehr-Grenzhausen, Germany.

I wrote the following as a personal record; however, it occurred to me that other people who know the Bear of Echizen might also be interested, so I expanded it a bit for this website. I apologize for its length, but it is not crazy to think that Kumano's visit might one day be seen as an important milestone in the development of ceramic consciousness in Germany.


sake cup 4949Kumano and I flew from Osaka to Frankfurt on November 4, 2004 (no incidents involving K smoking in the toilet this time!), where we were soon joined by Bernhard Braumann, a diplomat and pottery connoisseur, and Cornelia Nagel, a raku potter. For ten days we were the core of Team Kumano — Germany Tour 2004. Bernhard had been the driving force who had struggled through many frustrating delays to bring Kumano's works to Germany for a major solo exhibition, and Cornelia is an old friend of ours who took charge of the actual driving, as well as the photography. I was along to assist Kumano as liaison and interpreter.

The first few days the four of us stayed in a "fitness" hotel in the cute village of Grenzhausen, nestled in a misty valley dominated by a small thirteenth-century castle tower. The hotel boasted a spa with a selection of unisex saunas, and that led to our first little cultural incident. In deference to Japanese sensibility, Bernhard had packed swim trunks for Kumano and me. He handed them to us in the men's dressing room, and the three of us entered the Turkish sauna. After a few minutes, a female concierge walked in and announced that some patrons were complaining. Bernhard mollified her with some words about the need for cross-cultural understanding, and she left.

Soon we moved on to the Finnish sauna, where an attendant periodically snaps a large towel to thrust hot herb-scented air at you. This was very pleasant, but all of a sudden a male concierge-cum-bouncer barged in and, with no discussion, threw us out. It seems that patrons who cover their genitalia in such unisex situations are presumed by Germans to be voyeurs ... or so Bernhard explained to me rather matter-of-factly, and rather late.

Other cultural misunderstandings involved Kumano and me not taking our hats off quickly enough when going inside buildings, as well as the two of us being unaware of the EU-wide rule that fresh towels are not provided in your hotel room unless you throw the dirty wet ones to the floor.


The Keramikmuseum Westerwald

sake cup 4956The exhibition at Keramikmuseum Westerwald, Germany's premier pottery museum located in Hoehr-Grenzhausen (close to Grenzhausen but a much larger town), opened on November 7th, 2004, and it was a hit from the very first moments. Showing up for the occasion were local dignitaries, collectors, well-known potters (Uwe Loellman, Thomas Bohle, Dierk Stuckenschmidt), and a few old friends of Kumano's who had made their way from Paris (Francoise and Stephan) and London (Penny and Douglas). After welcomes by the museum's director Monika Gass, the local mayor, and BB, the Bear tickled the crowd with 10 minutes of highly animated remarks, ably translated by Barbara Lohoff, another old friend.

Following the ceremony the visitors poured into the display area and it soon became clear that, despite the dreadful state of the German economy, not one of Kumano's 60 pieces would be returning to Japan when the show closed on January 9th. By the end of the morning, the unprecedented Japanese prices notwithstanding, about one-third of the works had found overjoyed (even tearful) buyers, while another third were earmarked for the gallery of Europe's preeminent Japanese art dealer. This gentleman, who spent many hours hovering over the pieces, proclaimed that the originality and power of Kumano's work set him apart in the pottery world and that his works belonged alongside those of Brancusi and other great sculptural artists. All in all a nice little Sunday morning.

That night Grenzhausen celebrated Halloween in the center of town, with carved pumpkins, hordes of kids carrying home-made paper lanterns, and of course hot spiced wine and sausages, which Kumano loved.

The next day, Kumano conducted a day-long workshop at one of Hoehr-Grenzhausen's technical schools. He started by making everyone take off their shoes and socks so that they could learn how to work the clay with their feet. This was but the first of many surprises for the students and teachers that day, who had never met a potter like this before. Later, after tasting the clay, the Bear took to the wheel and proceeded to throw one of his signature tabi-makura vases. Following lunch, the clearly excited students had the chance to be coached one on one at the wheel. It turns out that Kumano is a patient and caring teacher, very gentle and very encouraging. The deep divides of language and culture were bridged with aplomb.

That night, after only a brief break (spent drinking in a 400 year-old gasthaus with his London friends), Kumano was whisked to the other side of H-G where he delivered a lecture to students at a different institute. For close to two hours he stood in front of a blackboard and described the distribution pattern of good clay on the planet, and — using audience members as props — anagama kiln dynamics. Kumano wowed the crowd with his energy, humor, and enthusiasm for a subject for which he clearly has a preternatural understanding. The young Germans also seemed to appreciate his tendency to speak in metaphor about fire and the other elements, and to wax mystical about pottery-making, a tone few had ever heard before with regard to their locally under-appreciated field.

Tuesday morning Kumano led the workshop participants and lecture audience through a tour of his exhibition. Just as at the opening party, many knelt down and caressed individual pieces. (This is something not usually allowed in a museum but Kumano and Monika gladly let it happen.) Others stood motionless for long minutes in front of certain works, and a few students were seen wiping away tears.

After the tour we returned to the second institute in order to see in the daytime their newly-built anagama. It was designed by a famed kiln builder, but Kumano was not thrilled with it for several reasons, including placement, shape, size, and materials used. I interpreted all this for the professor-in-charge and feared the Bear might have ruffled some feathers, but minutes later he received a joint invitation to be a guest lecturer in H-G for the month of May in 2006!

Soon it was time for Team Kumano to leave Westerwald and start our tour. Throughout our time in H-G, Monika and her dedicated staff (and family) had treated us with wonderful hospitality, and all deserve a huge arigato!


The Tour

teabowl 5082Our first stop was a brief one in Cologne, to meet with the head of the Japan Foundation in Europe, and to have a re-union dinner in a fifteenth-century underground space with old potter friends Carola and Heinz Suess. We then drove on, late at night and through a snowstorm — Cornelia's worst nightmare — in an attempt to get as close as possible to Kassel. 

Kassel harbors yet another technical institute, and Kumano had been invited there for a lecture and to spend a day with the ceramic students. Once again, the Bear talked about how to find good clay and dared the students — a rather international group, actually — to open their senses and expand their thinking about clay and fire. A few working potters in the audience seemed skeptical of Kumano's approach, but one young woman asked in depth about the spirit world surrounding his kiln in Japan!

From the Westerwald Museum we borrowed one exceptional piece, a large platter called "Baltic Sea." At this point in the talk we took "Baltic Sea" out of its box and simply placed it on the table. A loud collective gasp ensued and, almost like a scene from a Biblical epic, there was a sudden lunge toward the work and an out-thrusting of hands to touch it. Those of us in the room with long familiarity with Kumano's work smiled at one another, perhaps each of us remembering the time we first encountered the power and beauty of a major creation of his.

In Kassel, too, Kumano helped students with techniques at the wheel. He told me on the plane back to Japan that some of the tips he gave out at this time, and earlier in Hoehr-Grenzhausen, had been hard-won discoveries that he had been saving to pass on to his son. It seems that Umi-san, now in Tokyo Art University, has recently expressed interest in sculpture more than pottery, however, so papa now feels a little freer to share his secrets with the world.

The day ended with the students laying out a classic German smorgasbord. True to national stereotype, there were days when breakfast, lunch, and dinner all consisted of minor variations on the themes of blood sausage, liver pate, ham and cheese, and mountains of bread, and this was one of them. Bernhard and Cornelia didn't seem to mind the repetition, but Kumano and I traded looks. Nonetheless, the scene with all of us gathered around the giant table was very pleasant and, yes, gemuectlich.

After dinner two professors showed us their research into how the ancient Eqyptians produced low-fire artifacts with a lustrous "Nile Blue" coloring. The explanation was fascinating, especially to Kumano, who of course has an attraction to strong blues.

The next morning we toured the restored district of Kassel where the lady lived who related numerous fairy tales to the Brothers Grimm. Many of the large houses have in modern times been divided in two, with each family painting and decorating their half in strikingly different ways. Altogether very charming but a little schizy.

Next stop was Hildesheim and the Nile Museum. It is there that the Kassel professors' research is currently on exhibit, along with a stunning collection of lapis lazuli objects from the U.K. Kumano pored over the exhibits for hours. We also visited the cathedral in Hildesheim, and then started the long drive to the Berlin area and the chance to recuperate for a day in the splendid Potsdam house of Bernhard and his family.

We needed the break because the trip thus far, though exhilarating, had been hard at times. Our rhythms were thrown off by erratic schedules (lunch was often delayed until sunset), sleeping arrangements were not always the best, and all of us suffered from coughs and sore throats. The only thing that held us together was Bernhard's stash of chocolate bars, a trick he says he uses often with heads of state in his job as Chief of Protocol.

Nonetheless, so resigned was he to a tight schedule that Kumano automatically packed his bags the next morning and waited by the door. I guess I had not communicated to him clearly enough that we had a day off from serious travel. It made me realize how lost he must have been for hours every day in the car with nothing but German and English swimming around him.

Kumano voted to visit the Pergamon Museum in former East Berlin (more lapis lazuli!), and we also viewed an incredible exhibition in a neighboring museum of 10,000 years of Jordanian culture. This was followed by an abbreviated version of Bernhard's famous driving tour of new Berlin. Kumano, we learned anew — he spent a day in Berlin in 2000 — is a bit of an expert on the Wall and Checkpoint Charlie, as well as the Potsdam Agreement, Trabants, old Benzes, and so on.

In the evening we met up with Beate Michel, yet another old friend of Kumano's, from Kiel. Normally she injects a lot of life into the entourage, but she lost her voice soon after arriving and what we mostly heard from her for the next few days were pitiful little squawks.

The following morning we set out straight north for the Baltic Coast, which was frigid but beautiful. The smoked eel we snacked on by the roadside was the culinary treat of the 10 days in Germany, and I took two back home with me to Japan. (Customs insisted on X-raying them!)

We spent the night at the home of a struggling potter, who took us the next morning to Schloss Mitsuko, a chateau near Rostock that, with the help of Bernhard, is slowly being developed into a Japanese culture center. (Mitsuko is the wife of a Kyoto-based German painter who bought the chateau.) Its three floors are full of Japanese art and craft, and a large Japanese garden with ponds and a Shinto gate lies adjacent. In this relatively untrafficked corner of former East Germany the whole thing is rather incongruous, and quite special. The original plan had the center being built near Berlin, but the site's neighbors, if you can believe it, protested.

From the Japanese schloss we drove a huge distance to attend the last day of firing of a recently revived anagama. It is a major collaborative effort of six potters and fourteen assistants. Already the word way back in H-G (where the collective will have a group show in 2005) is that the group was experiencing some problems and could use an intervention from the Japanese master.

Hence, for the whole preceding week Kumano had fretted over this big challenge, and he had girded himself emotionally for the intensity of firing a strange kiln. When we finally got there, however, close to sunset, the encounter was awkward and exceedingly anticlimactic.

From the point of view of the collective, the firing was going well enough. After smelling the chimney and looking into the fire, Kumano ventured some ideas about improving the temperature and the ash flow, but the independently-minded "Ossie" (East German) potters were cool to the idea of changing anything. They didn't want too high a heat because they had no confidence their clay could withstand it and they couldn't afford failures. In addition, the effects they were sure to get already without disrupting the routine, several told me, "were good enough for their needs."

The mood lightened palpably when "Baltic Sea" was brought out for viewing. But, though they fondled it and posed for pictures around it, I think the poor German potters saw the platter (and Kumano by extension) as an alien visitor from an unimaginable wood-fire universe rather than an achievable goal to aspire to.

I couldn't help but be struck again by the huge gap between the interest we saw for Kumano's profoundly risk-taking philosophy with students, and the skepticism of working potters who face the everyday reality of the German marketplace. Even if some wood-firers were to take up the challenge implied by Kumano's lifework, would collectors pay the necessary additional cost?

According to the Frankfurt art dealer, maybe not the normal pottery collectors, no, but certainly those who understand and respond when they find ceramic work that has crossed over into the realm of fine art. It's going to be interesting to monitor the ripple effect of Kumano's presence in Germany this past year, and of course fun to think about his month-long foray in 2006.

Please stay posted as Kumano goes international. I hope to take him to the US in a few years.

   Other writings:

Kumano's Musings
Kumano's Philosophy
The Bear Revisited
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