The story of Chigusa is the remarkable tale of how an ordinary Chinese storage jar, over the course of several centuries and generations of connoisseurs, rose to become one of the most revered objects of Japan’s chanoyu, or “art of tea.” On view Feb. 22–July 27 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, “Chigusa and the Art of Tea” introduces visitors to the renowned object—on view in the U.S. for the first time—as seen through the eyes of the 16th-century tea men who celebrated it.
Chigusa originated as one of countless utilitarian ceramics crafted in southern China during the 13th or 14th century and was shipped to Japan as a container for a commercial product. Once in Japan, however, its use as a tea-leaf storage jar endowed it with special status, and over the years it became a highly desirable antique. The bestowing of a personal name—Chigusa (“thousand grasses” or “myriad things”), an evocative phrase from Japanese poetry—was a sign of additional respect and reverence.
During the 16th century, the “art of tea” evolved into a major aesthetic and cultural pastime in Japan. Circles of influential tea connoisseurs imbued high status to meibutsu, or celebrated objects, through such practices as naming, adorning and close observation. Tea diaries kept by these enthusiasts recorded not just Chigusa’s name but also detailed descriptions of its physical attributes and accessories, allowing contemporary scholars to see the jar through their eyes.
In “Chigusa and the Art of Tea,” Chigusa holds court alongside other cherished objects, including calligraphy by Chinese monks, Chinese and Korean tea bowls and Japanese stoneware water jars and wooden vessels that were used and enjoyed during this formative time of Japanese tea culture. In order to create the intimate feel of a 16th-century tea gathering, part of the exhibition space recreates a Japanese tea room, complete with tatami mats.
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day (closed Dec. 25), and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other public events, visit www.asia.si.edu.