HEIAN KOUZAN (平安香山) Part 1
There are 3 potters in Japan whose work is considered the pinnacle of Japanese design and aesthetics in Bonsai pottery: Heian Tofukuji, Yusen Tsukinowa, and Heian Kouzan; also known as the “Big Three”.
Born April 28, 1905, Heian Kouzan comes from a long line of Seto potters going back more than 12 generations. By 1918, at the age of 13, he was already making an income with Bonsai and pottery. By 1948, at the age of 33, he was famous. He passed away in 1990.
Heian KouOu(Kouzan Senior) and Heian Kouzan (Jr.) at the second Gafu Ten exhibition, in 1978, where a special display was presented of Kouzan pots, I believe in celebration of the upcoming “Charisma” book which was first published in 1979.
Kouzan’s work is known for relatively thin walled and delicate construction, despite which his pots are mathematically precise, with strong straight lines and corners. For this, he earned the nickname “The Razor”. In many ways, this makes him the opposite of Tofukuji, whose pots are often wonky, rustic, and warm; everything but mathematically precise! Kouzan is perhaps best known for glazed pots, his most famous being blues, chicken blood reds, and greens. However, his work is very diverse, and includes carved decoration and window motifs as well as painted pieces.
A few salient points should be poised about Kouzan pots. Pre-war pots use a white clay, while post war pots use reddish clays. This makes white clay Kouzan more valuable and rare, as they were made before he became famous and are early work.
In 1973, handing the family pottery name off to his son, Kouzan changed his trade name to “KouOu”(香翁), or “Old Man Kou”. Some of his best work comes from the 1973-1990 “KouOu” period, especially unglazed pieces, as this is the era when Shohin bonsai took root, along with “deadwood style” conifers. Other than his son, Kouzan took only one apprentice in his life: contemporary potter Horie Bikoh.
In this article we’ll take a look at the glazed and painted works of Kouzan, and in the next post, unglazed pots and the work of the second generation, Shin-Kouzan.
GLAZED POTS BY HEIAN KOUZAN
We’ll start off with this white clay pre war pot from my collection. The braided rim, called something like a “hemp rope decoration” in Japanese, is a Kouzan signature adornment. At around 80 years old, this pot really shows some nice patina.
While my tiny green glazed pot is pretty nice, it’s not extremely valuable like this piece. This pot is considered some of Kouzan’s finest glaze and clay work, and the price reflects it at around $6500.
A blue glazed “KouOu” featured in “Charisma”, the book dedicated to the pottery of Heian Kouzan and Yusen Tsukinowa. This one comes from my friend and frequent contributor to the site, Matthew H. Ouwinga of Kaede Bonsai En. The varying shades of blue in the pot are very pretty, and the precise, clean lines of the pot characteristic of Kouzan’s style.
Another from Matt Ouwinga’s collection, showing another of Kouzan’s signature go to adornments: geometrics. Kouzan’s use of geometric pattern has a light and airy feel to it, giving the pot a delicate appearance. The patina is also outstanding.
A third from Kaede Bonsai En. This is my favorite of the lot (though I wouldn’t kick the other two out of bed for eating crackers [What, YOU don’t sleep with your pots…ahem]). The deep rich indigo glaze is clean and pure, and the roughly mokko shape pot is unique yet easily usable. It would suit a Japanese Winterberry (Ilex serrata, Umemodoki).
This pot is formerly of Matt’s collection (although the old photo is the original sales photo from unimpeachable pottery and bonsai dealers Yorozuen), and has a real history. It’s a great learning tool. While most Kouzan signatures are as precise as his clay work, around 10-15% of verifiably real Kouzan that I’ve seen have some smudging and “bleed” in the porcelain and sometsuke signature. It’s a common error to jump to conclusions with a smudged signature, but the fact is that it’s much more likely that signatures on forgeries are clean, yet unlike Kouzan’s real signature kanji style. As a matter of fact, most of the likely forgeries I’ve seen have much cleaner signatures than Kouzan! Kouzan Jr’s porcelain signature is also a bit cleaner than Senior. Anyway, this pot is definitely a real Kouzan, independently verified by some of the top authenticators in the biz. The bleed and subsequent smudge of the signature occurred before firing, I believe.
Base of the pot showing the damaged porcelain and sometsuke signature. It is noteworthy that the porcelain has been smudged and the streak remains, something that would have to happen before firing, as opposed to being smudged up with sandpaper to hide a poor forgery.
I’ve seen a lot of Kouzan signature pots with similar pre-fire damage, the above are three that are representative of the different kinds of signature damage I’ve often seen on real Kouzans.
An example of what I believe is likely a forged Kouzan signature. Note that the arm is significantly longer on the right than the left, this is a dead stylistic giveaway. Not all forged Kouzan will have this, but it’s a trademark of what I believe to be one very prolific forger. It also bears mentioning that the line style is significantly cleaner with less bleed than real Kouzans.
A book Kouzan, in the Antique bulb pot style he’s famous for. This style of pottery is often seen on antique Chinese bulb pots without drainage, Kouzan imitated these pots for bonsai. The clay work is superb. A really spectacular piece. The glaze itself is one Kouzan is famous for, considered by many to be the closest anyone has come to the very light blue glaze of the best antique Chinese blues (Kinyo), for this reason, pots with this glaze are often refered to as “KouKinYo” shorthand for something like “Kouzan Light Blue in the Antique Cantonese Style”.
The image of the pot from the super deluxe pottery encyclopedia “Bijutsu Bonkei.”. Note how the lighting in the two photos completely changes the pot’s feel.
A quartet of deeper antique mirror shape with fancy cut feet, in 4 different glazes, from the KouOu period. Kouzan didn't use molds in his late work, to my knowledge, but did in his earlier pieces. Many later pieces marked KouOu are actually Kouzan Jr pots, with the glaze and/or painting work done by Kouzan Sr. The light robins egg blue and rich red are nice, and representative of Kouzan's glaze profile, but I have a soft spot for yellows!
A very nice stamped early work Kouzan. The original glaze looks to have been yellow, or maybe cream, it’s tough to tell under all that patina! The feet from the underside are full triangle cut from the bottom.
A uniquely glazed green taller rectangle with hints of blue. Kouzan’s precision can easily be seen from the strong lines and corners in this pot. This is an early piece, created in the climbing kiln (noborigama) which can produce such “Yohen”-kiln changed glazes.
A square with carved window motifs. The glaze on this pot is especially nice. This is perhaps Kouzan’s most duplicated style. I’ve seen homage pots in this style from several major potters. If you look back to the picture above of Kouzan and Jr Kouzan, you’ll see That Senior is holding a similar pot in “KoKinYo”. These are my favorites of Kouzan’s signature style pots.
Kouzan homage pot by Bigei. I’ve seen a bunch of these from Bigei, mostly unglazed but some burnished like this one. Given Bigei’s love of precision and detail, it’s unsurprising to see Homages to “The Razor Kouzan”.
Kouzan homage pot from 奥貫昭仁(Okunuti Shojin?). This potter seems to have made his motif nothing but Kouzan homage pots, mostly these carved panel pots and some in Kouzan’s most famous glaze colors: Buckwheat, Chicken Blood, and green oil droplets (how cool do the glaze names sound translated, eh?).
A cream glazed Kouzan with incredible patina. Cream glazed Kouzan are uncommon in and of themselves, ones with this level of patina more so. Simply lovely.
A taller “KouKinYo” rectangle. The glaze is delicate and pure, the lightest of blues. From this piece it’s easy to see why Kouzan’s light blues are so desirable! The lack of patina is indicative of its time spent on a shelf. With the Big 3, it’s tough to say which makes a pot more valuable: heavy patina or none whatsoever, though it’s certain that anything in between is less valuable! One of the things that makes Tofukuji, Yusen, and Kouzan pots so valuable is their ease of use and excellence in presenting bonsai at its best. Ergo, almost all have been used. Consequently, completely unused, virgin pieces, can fetch some higher prices than heavily patinaed ones. Not something you could ever use, but a collection dream!
A pre-war white clay pot with a darker blue glaze. The glaze on this one is interesting, as it seems to darken towards the base. A glance through a couple of Gafu Ten albums will show you many darker blue Kouzans, the friend of Red fruiting varieties everywhere.
A multilayered red Kouzan in a square cascade style. The different reds: blobby surface and inner crackle, are very unusual, especially from Kouzan, whose M.O., as you can see in this post, is single color and understated. For this reason, this probably is early work, and created in the climbing kiln before Kouzan began using gas or electric.
A very deep blue cloud footed shallow rectangle with inner lip. This is one of the three most often seen glaze colors from Kouzan, along with red and light blue.
A really interesting pinkish glaze with top and bottom hemp rope, outer attached feet, and killer patina, most apparent on the rim. The varying shades to this pot are really pretty and feminine, I’m not sure what I’d plant in it. Perhaps something elegant, thin trunked, slanted and weeping, with purple berries, a Crimson Glory Vine (Yamabudou) or a Japanese Beautyberry (Murasaki Shikibui)?
A more muted and understated Kouzan Red. Simple and elegant, with clean lines. Everything Kouzan is all about. The very subtle drip in the glaze presents a wave only noticeable with a closer look.
A really nicely glazed cream oval with bottom band, inner lip, and cut feet. The thin cream glaze is expertly done, and the patina is really starting to give this pot a dignified air.
And we’ll finish up looking at glazed Kouzans with this simple and elegant green crackle. A simple and beautiful pot, awash with wabi sabi, a picture of understated elegance, showing how much Kouzan dedicated his life to “creating ‘pots bonsai can grow in'” and not pots that showcase himself.
PAINTED POTS BY HEIAN KOUZAN
A panel painted Kouzan square. While not as detailed or impressively painted as, say, a Yusen or Gekkou, Kouzan’s painted pots have their own unique charm. Sometimes they are a little too precise and astringent, and seem overly formal, but at other times they are simple and elegant, with marvelous use of negative space and detail, like this piece.
A collaboration piece in gold enamel, pot by KouOu, painting by KouSyu(?). The gold overglaze enamel is subtle and the image well rendered, a good collaboration piece. This is the only collaboration piece I have on file, and why I included it. For more on Kouzan collaborations, I highly recommend the article translated by Peter Warren from Kinbon in the Bonsai Focus (March / April 2013), it’s got some great images and stories about Kouzan, and features several collaboration pots between Kouzan and Jr, as well as others!
Three views of a more astringently painted cascade with landscapes and traditional geometrics. While this pot is beautiful, it’s a good candidate to show what I mean about Kouzan’s rather formal painting style. The overall impression the piece gives, at least to me, is rather rigid.
A Kouzan Suiban, the interior painted with a landscape scene. Presented as a contrast to the above, in this scene Kouzan’s line style comes across as charming rather than formal.
A Porcelain band painted sometsuke rectangle over brownish red clay. The tree is rendered interestingly, with near arabesque foliage.
A really interesting painted or dyed pot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this glaze technique painted before. The glaze is what is referred to as “apricot skin,” and has been used in some really beautiful pots by Imaoka Machinao, in this, the standard apricot color and also in gold and silver. The landscape itself is very well rendered, especially considering the technique and glaze. An interesting and very unique piece. This one is currently available for sale from Yorozuen on EBay, and the price, I think, is a steal at a hair over a grand, US. 5 years ago you would have expected to pay 3 times that, and a decade ago 5 times….two decades ago during the economic boom? Maybe 10.
Detail of the apricot skin glaze.
Article and photographs published with kind permission of Michael Ryan Bell.