FOLK HERITAGE

“KINTSUGI”- JAPANESE ART OF UPCYCLING

RESTORING BROKEN POTTERY WITH GOLD

Kintsugi, also known as kintsukuroi is an age old Japanese art of repairing and restoring broken pottery with gold. It is an art to admire because it encourages the philosophy of recycling broken products and to find beauty in imperfections.

In Japanese terms, “Kint” means Golden and “sugi” means Joinery or repair. Thus “Kintsugi” means- GOLDEN JOINERY.

Kintsugi cup, Tōkyō, Japan, Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

In this art form, broken pottery or crockery is mended using gold. The areas of breakage are repaired with special tree sap lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered goldsilver, or platinum, a method similar to the maki-e (a technique for painting fine gold/silver florals and landscapes onto decorative objects, as well as crafting lacquer trays, boxes, and other items). Treating pottery with such precious metals makes them even more valuable and adds worth to a broken object which otherwise would be something to disguise.

While the process is invented and associated with Japanese craftsmanship, the technique was also applied to ceramic pieces of other origins including China, Vietnam, and Korea.

Tea bowl, Korea, Joseon dynasty, 16th century AD, Mishima-hakeme type, buncheong ware, stoneware with white engobe and translucent, greenish-gray glaze, gold lacquer – Ethnological Museum, Berlin

HISTORY AND ORIGIN OF KINTSUGI ART

There is an interesting story behind the invention of Kintsugi art from. The story dates back to 15th century Japan where kintsugi technique may have been invented accidentally.

Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the eighth shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate, once broke his favorite tea bowl and sent it to China for repair. As Ming China did not produce such high quality celadon (greenware) anymore, the bowl was sent back repaired by stapling them with awful looking metals pins. Then some local Japanese craftsmen came up with an idea. They decided to transform the cup into a valuable piece of art by filling its cracks with lacquered resin and powdered gold. This repair elevated the beauty of broken bowl and gave rise to a whole new art form.

Ashikaga Yoshimasa, (painting attributed to Tosa Mitsunobu, latter half of 15th century)

The story seems evident because it was under Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s reign when the city saw immense development in the field of art and culture including the the Noh theatre, the Chinese style of painting with ink.

IMPACT OF ZEN INFLUENCE ON KINTSUGI

The development of the Higashiyama bunka cultural movement at the time of Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s reign was heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism and started the tea ceremony (also called Sado or the Way of Tea) and ikebana (also Kado, way of flowers) traditions.

According to the record, Bakōhan Saōki (record of tea-bowl with a ‘large-locust’ clamp), such “ugliness” was considered inspirational and signifies concept of beauty in broken things in Zen-philosophy. The bowl aesthetically pleasing with locust like golden seems and the bowl was named bakōhan (“large-locust clamp”).

Japanese tea ceremony

KINTSUGI SYMBOLIZE THE SPIRIT OF “WABI-SABI”

Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese expression or rather a practice, stimulated by Buddhism particularly, Zen.

  • Wabi – refers to the beauty found in asymmetrical, uneven or unbalanced things.
  • Sabi – refers to the beauty of aged things and speaks to the impermanence of life through the passage of time.

It is derived from the Three Marks of Existence—the Buddhist teaching that all things have “impermanence” (mujō), “suffering” or damage (ku), and “non-self” ().

The spirit of wabi-sabi is well celebrated with Kintsugi where the more fragile or broken an object is, the more it can be appreciated. The arts manifesting wabi-sabi are seen to be more beautiful with age. That is the beauty of Kintsugi.

KINTSUGI PROMOTES “UPCYCLING”

Based on the beautiful practice of Wabi-Sabi, Kintsugi calls for seeing beauty in the imperfection. It also supports the Japanese idea of mottainai, conveying regret when something is wasted, as well as mushin, the acceptance of change.

Kintsugi is a thoughtful art which delivers several lessons. It is one of the most ecological and meaningful methods of beautifying broken objects. Rather than throwing away, the art or rather technique, focuses on an alternate way to reuse the article.

The technique is to join broken fragments and giving them a new, more refined aspect. Every repaired piece is unique, because of the randomness with which the ceramics break and the irregular patterns formed that are enhanced with the use of metals.

Rural cooking pot repaired with Kintsugi technique, Georgia, 19th century

KINTSUGI METHODS

There are 3 major repairing styles or methods followed in Kintsugi. Each method use gold, silver, platinum, lacquer to restore broken pottery but the final result differs depending upon the method used. Here are those 3 popular methods-

1. CRACK METHOD

This is the most common Kintsugi technique. Objects repaired using crack method are mended with lacquer or resin dusted with gold. But the lacquer use is minimum which therefore gives a shimmering vein like patterns creating excellent masterpiece.

Kintsugi pottery- Crack method, Photo by Riho Kitagawa on Unsplash

2. PIECE METHOD

The method is used when one or few of the ceramic fragments of the broken object are not available or misplaced. Then the fragment is replaced entirely by gold or gold/lacquer compound or epoxy. The end product thus reveals a good patch of epoxy.

Hand painted pottery bowl by Artist Ruthann Hurwitz

3. JOINT-CALL METHOD

This is a unique method where a non-matching but similar- shaped fragment is used to fill a missing piece of the original pottery. This creates a patchwork effect. Two contrast but aesthetically pleasing pieces are blended together to form a single unified product.

Kintsugi art

JAPANESE LACQUER- “URUSHI”

The traditional lacquer used in Kintsugi process is known as “urushi“. It is a sap of the urushi tree, or lacquer tree or the Japanese varnish tree (Rhus vernacifera), which is native to Japan and China, as well as Southeast Asia. This lacquer has been widely used by Japanese lacquer masters as glue, putty, or paint since 9000 years.

In kintsugi process urushi lacquer is used as a glue or adhesive to mend the broken ceramic pieces back together. The lacquer is also used as a putty to fill in any gaps or holes in the original vessel if present. To deal with lacquer process is a difficult part because the lacquer cannot be removed once it’s dry, and the pieces must be put into place all at once. But once dry, urushi gives a beautiful clear, hard and waterproof surface.

A kintsugi repair kit

MODERN DAY KINTSUGI

Modern ceramic artists are taking the roles of traditional lacquer masters and creating modern Kintsugi with all of their interest and efforts. Materials may vary with the current customer demands but the spirit remains the same.

Sometimes the real gold is replaced with a blend of brass, copper and zinc creating a durable realistic gold effect. Replacing urushi lacquer with simple epoxy and clear varnish also reduces production cost. This helps to meet high demand for the lower cost product. The cheaper and easier-to-buy materials make Kintsugi a popular repair technique among common crowd.

Kintsugi from Japan, Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

Overall, Kintsugi, is adorned, both as an art and as a philosophy. It has been an excellent example of Japanese craftsmanship. The art is taken hand to hand by contemporary artists. Even the essence of Kintsugi is embraced in self-help and wellness books as a philosophy of life. It is used as a metaphor for embracing flaws and imperfections. Kintsugi teaches us the reality of life, i.e. flaws both in objects and in humans. But one must honor the imperfections and deal with it to turn the ugly useless imperfections into beautiful strong and better things than ever before.

INSPIRATION: Keshiki in Tea Ceramics

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Image source: wikimedia commons and flickr

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