The art of Rosenjin, Genius of Japanese cuisine

04 / 07 / 2013. Conference tour of the exhibition The art of Rosenjin, Genius of Japanese cuisine At the Guimet Museum, commented by Christine Shimizu, Director of the Cernuschi Museum, Chief Curator of Heritage.

Kitaôji Rosanjin (1883-1959) was an unusual character whose first years of life resemble a Dickens novel. The son of an employee of a Shinto Shrine in Kyôto and a young man in charge of cremations (who committed suicide shortly after his birth), he was abandoned by his mother who handed him over to the wife of a policeman. The latter having committed suicide, he will be collected by the beautiful family of his adoptive mother where he is not particularly welcomed. An engraving neighbor, taken with compassion for the child, adopts it again and teaches him about ten years the basics of his job. Very impressed by a sign engraved by the great painter of Kyôto, Takeuchi Seihô, Rosanjin is interested in the work of this one and discovers the calligraphy to which he forms himself as a self-taught artist. He is not admitted to the School of Municipal Art of Kyoto, but wins in a competition the first three calligraphy awards that allow him to raise some money.

Provided with this little nest egg, he leaves for Tokyo to find his mother whom he has lost sight of. With her, he moved to Korea from 1908 to 1910 and married. Back in Japan, he worked for a printer where a patron introduced him to artists from Kanazawa, in particular ceramicists. It was in this city that he discovered the technique of overglaze enamels. His passion for this material led him to bring together a collection of Chinese porcelain which he presented in a gallery which he opened in Tokyo. On the first floor of this gallery, he created a restaurant where he served his customers dishes he prepared. This place he calls "the Club of Gourmets" (Bishoku club) quickly became a fashionable place. Following this success, he opened in 1925 “the Salon de la Colline aux Etoiles” ((Hoshigaoka-Saryowhere he leads the cooks. Unhappy with the containers he finds to serve this cuisine, he decides to make himself or to direct ceramists who will put the best value in the dishes. It is on a beautiful plot of Kita Kamakura that he built three houses, old buildings moved from the Japanese countryside. Around, he builds ovens and uses the greatest potters of the time, such as Arakawa Toyozô (1894-1985), a specialist in Mino ceramics, and Kaneshige Tôyô (1896-1967), a specialist in Bizen ceramics, who help with the choice of clays and the construction of ovens.

However, Rosanjin has an irascible character and does not hesitate to chase customers that he does not consider worthy of his cooking. The restaurant declines and will eventually close. During the Second World War, he must give up the production of ceramics (fires are prohibited to avoid American bombing) and he produces lacquers. It will resume ceramics after the war, but the economic situation is difficult. Having had to sell his houses in Kita Kamakura, he opened a small shop in Tokyo in the district of Ginza where he sold his production to the American occupiers. In 1952, he met Japanese designer and ceramist of Japanese origin, Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). He helps him organize an exhibition in the United States where he goes to 1954 to present his works at the MoMA in New York. Party with 500 ceramics, he will end up giving these to American friends. During this trip, he goes through France where he asks to meet Picasso, but the two strong personalities can not get along. Back in Japan, he gets used to go to restaurants where he brings himself the ingredients he has chosen and is served in his dishes. Its ceramic still refers to traditional ceramics, while giving them a personal touch.

Japan is the country of cuisine: the number of restaurants there is impressive. Each town or village has its specialties and travelers do not fail to bring back some examples for their relatives. Japanese tourist guides always mention the best restaurants, cafes or pastry shops and this without any measure with our French guides. There are many weekly or monthly reviews devoted to restaurants and food. This passion for food is such that there is no Japanese film without a banquet scene!

Japanese cuisine is not cuisine in the Western sense of the term (requiring cooking, sauce, stewing): it preserves above all the natural taste of the ingredients. In addition to their flavor, color, fragrance, presentation and also the literary allusions to which they refer are decisive criteria for the quality of the meal.

The Japanese meal is seated on the floor in front of a small table-tray (ozen). This custom is already present in the XNUMXth century: at the imperial court, the trays are made of lacquered wood, while the people eat on a simple wooden board. From the XNUMXth century, a table service inspired by that of the court, known as the honzen ryori or “main course meal”. Used until the XNUMXst century, this formal style is especially present in wedding meals and ceremonies. It consists of a main table-top (honzen) with bowls of soup and rice, condiments and side dishes, and side table-trays (often 2) also featuring grilled, boiled or raw dishes. The number (in Japanese: okazu) of soups and side dishes varied depending on the circumstances of the meal, so that the word okazu became synonymous with side dish. This word is still in use today. The three platters are served at the same time in front of the guest. The number of side dishes (okazu) is often symbolic and refers to the poetic metric (5-5-3 or 7-5-3 digits) or to a glitz figure: the 7-5-3 group, for example, is reminiscent of 3's older children's party , 5 and 7 years (Shichigosan), these ages corresponding to three stages of life. For example, 3 trays on one 7 dishes, on the other 5 dishes and on the third 3 dishes, each tray being provided with soup. A meal of great importance can thus include a large number of small dishes. At the beginning of the meal nine sake cups are served accompanied by appetizers. The dishes also carry symbols either because of their name or because of their homonymy with a word of auspiciousness.

Two ladies taking a meal assisted by a maid.

As in many countries, there is a table etiquette in Japan. The way to hold, to handle the chopsticks, the order of tasting dishes are codified. They are the subject of a manual for women published in 1801. For example, it is necessary to alternate the food by grabbing with its chopsticks one or two bites of rice, then of one of the solid ingredients which is in the soup, to start with the dish on the left of the plate and by the vegetarian dishes, take a bite of fish, a bite of rice, etc. Each tray has a soup. This serves as a drink during the meal, as sake or tea are traditionally served before or after the meal. This ends with a green tea service and possibly sake.

The meal kaiseki is nowadays still served in good restaurants in Japan. The term kaiseki corresponds to 2 homophone words and refers to two forms of meal: the first is the Kaiseki Ryori 会 席 which means sitting meeting meal and the kaiseki 懐 石 which can be translated "a stone for the stomach". The latter refers to the simple meal that is served during the tea ceremony. He recalls that the Zen monks introduced a hot stone in their kimono to resist the cold during their long meditations and that this one prevented them from feeling hunger. The platter could have small side dishes alongside the rice and soup: the presence of a hot dish showed that the kitchen was next to the tea ceremony room and therefore was a proof of frugality. Nowadays, it still has 15 dishes! The first kaiseki refers to the meetings organized by the shoguns in their reception halls and included a large number of platters: there were 19 of them during the reception given by the shogun Tokugawa at the Nijô palace in Kyoto when the emperor came in 1626. they were arranged over a length of 40 meters !.

In Japan, fish is the basis of the diet along with vegetables, in any form of presentation: raw, grilled, boiled. The meat diet was quite limited until the arrival of Westerners in the mid-2th century. Thus we distinguished the animals with XNUMX legs (birds) whose tasting was allowed, animals with four legs whose meat was taboo. Farm animals were prohibited for consumption, as were wild animals (deer, bears for example). However, at certain times it is probable that there was a certain tolerance towards the latter category, because the peasants had to get rid of the animals which ravaged their crops. The first restaurants appeared in the XNUMXth century, but it was not until the end of this century to see stalls serving raw meat, then boiled, as well as game then referred to as "mountain whale", a term "elegant" to designate deer or bear !.


Breakfast at Tamahan Ryokan, Kyoto. © Michael Maggs

Ozen tray. © Richard Mosdell

The exhibition presents a number of ceramic and lacquerware containers needed for table service, particularly in the restaurants Rosanjin frequented. It opens with ceramics decorated with polychrome enamels and gold covered in the spirit of the production of Kenzan and Ninsei in Kyôto in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and in the style of decorative painting of the school Rimpa. The decor of the pieces refers to poems related to the seasons, such as autumn (maple leaves), spring (cherry blossoms) or winter (camellias). The ceramics follow a style renewed by artists of Kyôto in the nineteenth century as Takahashi Dôhachi.

In order to adapt dishes to the meal kaiseki or in the service of sushi, Rôsanjin opts for materials from various sources. He thus resurrects traditional decorations and cooking techniques, such as the porcelain lands of Arita or the sandstone lands of Shigaraki and Bizen.



Bowl with cherry blossom patterns and red maple leaves. The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. © Yoneda Tasaburo

Square dish with patterns of reeds and birds in flight. Stoneware style Oribe. Private photo collection Sotaro Hirose © DR.

Rosanjin's favorite pieces are those from the Seto-Mino, Shigaraki and Bizen ovens. These ovens, whose origins date back to medieval times, produced from the fourteenth century pieces for the tea ceremony whose forms, decorations and surfaces show great innovation. In order to respect the tradition, Rosanjin realized his dishes or lacquers by set of five pieces (unobtrusive figure unlike the 4 figure which has for the same name an ideogram meaning death).

Rosanjin also adopts the Oribe style (named after a grand master of the late 16th century tea ceremony) of Mino ceramics. To do this, he is happy to use the process of " the division of the body " which contrasts a green plain surface with a surface adorned with a pictorial motif on sandstones, Kitaoji Rosanjin's favorite material. Copper sulphate produces this greenish tone. Inspired by the shino ceramics produced in Mino's ovens in the sixteenth century, he uses iron oxide to create reddish effects, combining white engobes and a covered color.

While some pieces respect the traditional forms, the imperceptible voluntary deformations are the mark of Rosanjin. The colors, meanwhile, are more alive than on the old pieces. The technique of making ceramics kiseto ("Yellow Seto"), also from Mino, was found by the potter Arakawa Tôyôzô whom Rosanjin calls upon for the realization of his pieces. These have a yellowish color slightly spattered with copper sulfate which produces a green tint.

The art of the table in Japan consists in harmonizing the dishes and the dishes, but it must also harmonize these two elements with the season, the tastes and the status of the guests. Thus, each meal is an individualized work of art. Rosanjin used to say that “the dishes are the kimonos of the kitchen”. Indeed, the food enhances the container and conversely the latter is exalted by the ingredients that are presented there, like a woman dressed in her finery.

Other ceramics presented in the exhibition recalls the formation of Rosanjin in Kanazawa where he had learned the techniques of decorations in polychrome enamels red, green and yellow ovens Kutani.


Orange-covered flat style shino. Private collection. © Christie's

Lacquered bowls for soup with sun and moon patterns. Tokyo, private collection. Photo Sotaro Hirose © DR.jpg

But it is also the sandstones of Bizen which are presented in various forms. Rosanjin had asked Kaneshige Tôyô (later named Living National Treasure) to build on his land in Kita Kamakura a furnace of a particular type, necessary for firing the sandstones of Bizen. He was thus able to obtain the famous decorations of "cords of fire": the room was swaddled in rice straw; and, when fired, the alkali in the straw combined with the iron in the clay to leave reddish traces. It was also the "sesame seed" decoration that he used, characterized by its small yellowish dots of wood ash.

The lacquers produced by Rosanjin during the war still evoke his passage in Kanazawa city where this technique is still particularly preserved. As the city is a gold mining center, the sets are characterized by the use of gold leaves. Lacquer bowls are used to serve soup, while ceramic bowls contain rice. Monochrome decors are often preferred in the tea ceremony, while polychrome pieces harmonize with other pieces in the service. kaiseki.

One of the most beautiful pieces in the exhibition reproduces, in large size, a shell in the style of the production of Hagi ovens. But, in the folds of the shell, masses of translucent enamel give depth to the object and the illusion of being in front of a pond. What could be nicer than that to present raw fish!

Ceramist, painter and calligrapher, Rosanjin knew how to use his talent to combine these arts in his porcelain work. Sake bottles and cups give an idea of ​​this, although Rosanjin was well known to dislike sake and prefer beer to it!

“The cuisine, while taking nature as its motive

and by satisfying the most primitive desire of human beings,

sublimates this know-how at the level of art. "

Kitaoji Rosanjin


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