Review: Brighter than Gold - A Japanese Ceramic Tradition Formed by Foreign Aesthetics

Written by Purple Tigress
Published August 11, 2005

For those of you that think Satsuma is a type of tangerine or have been panning for a lucky gold strike on eBay, take time to visit the Pacific Asia Museum's cozy little exhibition, "Brighter than Gold: The Rich Tradition of Satsuma-ware in Japan." The exhibit, which runs until August 15, is largely the result of a generous gift from Drs. Jerome and Rose Saperstein and Drs. Paul and Judy Braun who contributed 75 pieces from their collection in 2002. The exhibition only displays 33 pieces, about half of their donations.

"Satsuma ware was collected in Europe and America because it's attractive to the eye," exhibit curator Chris Engle explained. But that doesn't mean that your every day Pasadenan can't own a piece. "We hear some of the visitors say these pieces look like something they have at home. One the reasons we wanted to do this exhibit is because Satsuma ware is something people may own and can buy."

Satsuma is in the southern region of Kyushu, the most southern of the four main islands of Japan. According to Engle, in 1867, the Shimazu daimyo took samples of ceramics they called Satsuma to the Paris Exhibition. The ceramic style attracted positive attention and soon the works were in demand by European collectors.

The works themselves aren't entirely Japanese in origin. When warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi invaded Korea in the 1590s in an ill-fated attempt to expand his power base, the Japanese became familiarized with Korean ceramics. After Toyotomi's death in 1598, the Japanese forces returned to Japan, taking with them some Korea potters. The exhibition includes an example of a subtly glazed Korean bowl with regular concentric patterns. This bowl looks like a dull country cousin beside the more glamorous and gaudy examples of Satsuma ware with its intricately detailed and often heavily gilded images.

Satsuma ware was specifically produced for the export market. Although the Dutch had traded with the Japanese even during the 200 years Japan had remained closed to other European and American nations, according to Engle, the Dutch market mainly bought blue and white porcelain ware. While some of the shapes of Satsuma ware were definitely made with the export market in mind such as a teacup with a saucer or the teapot included in the exhibit, the designs and scenes on the pieces are totally Japanese. Japanese gods and goddesses and famous battles were topics depicted as part of the decorative design as well as sculpted ceramic figures.

Yet the buyer didn't need to know that the jolly looking man with a belly wasn't the Japanese Santa Claus but Daikoku, the god of luck, to appreciate this ceramic piece. Daikoku shares his space with some other gods and goddesses in one corner of the exhibition. A few of the urns are the size of a small child including one that displays a scene from an unidentified battle. Another has had an intricate pattern cut out, a particularly hazardous feat since this also threatens the structural integrity of the clay. The exhibit also includes some unusual pieces such as the Meiji period panel.

In time, when it became clear that the export market was profitable, more kilns opened up and not all of them were in Satsuma. Some were outside of Kyushu. On display are pieces from these kilns, including the famous one in Kyoto, Kinkozan. According to Engle, this particular kiln produced Satsuma style ware during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Still some of the other pieces from other kilns such as the covered urns would be highly attractive to collectors.

So what defines Satsuma ware if not the place it is made? According to Engle, Satsuma ware are "painted with designs that attract the viewer. Many of the pieces are over the top, so busy and so detailed. This was because the kilns needed to outshine each other." The use of the gold isn't unique to Satsuma ware either. Price and value are determined by the kiln and sometimes the actual ceramicist although Engle says individual potters didn't sign their work until the 19th century. How elaborate a design is or how rare a design or form is also effects the price. Japanese themselves didn't begin to value Satsuma ware until about 50 years ago.

Unlike Japanese swords that can be easily faked, with some signed by famous makers who pre-date the actual sword or some swords are actually make in China, Satsuma ware is not usually faked because of the time and effort the excessive detail would require.

If seeing this modest exhibit excites your fancy, Satsuma pieces can easily be found on eBay. Engle correctly predicted that 500-odd pieces would be up for auction. How do you narrow down the field? Engle advised that while buying is best when you can actually see the item because photos can never do justice to the details, the most commonly sought after pieces are from the Kinkozan in Kyoto and Yabu Meizan kiln in Osaka. The most famous artist, Engle continued, would probably be Hotonda although pieces from other artists and other kilns could be just as valuable. If what you see at the exhibit and online excites your interest, then Engle suggests you might try to pick up the book, "Satsuma: Masterpieces From the World's Important Collections by Louis Lawrence."

So drop by see the glittering ceramic pieces that have enchanted Europeans and Americans for over a century. You might just get gold fever and decide to acquire Satsuma somewhere or you might discover you already have a few or know someone who does.

The Pacific Asia Museum is located at 46 N. Los Robles Ave. Admission for adults is $7; students and seniors are $5. For general exhibition information, call (626) 449-2742 or go to The exhibit ends August 15.

Former theater critic for the LA Weekly and Los Angeles Times and currently an editing slave at a dot-com.
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Review: Brighter than Gold - A Japanese Ceramic Tradition Formed by Foreign Aesthetics
Published: August 11, 2005
Type: Review
Section: Culture
Filed Under: Culture: Arts
Writer: Purple Tigress
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#1 — August 11, 2005 @ 09:21AM — Aaman [URL]

Interestingly, baroque started and spread in the 1600s in Europe at about the same time as satsuma.

Would you believe there is no wikipedia entry for satsuma ware? I suggest you create one with this fine content

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