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Tea Utensils Under Wraps at the Freer Gallery of Art
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Tea Utensils Under Wraps at the Freer Gallery of Art
June 21 to January 4, 2004

Everyone who owns dishes shares the same challenge. How do you store and protect them when they're not in use? In Japan, where tea ceremony vessels may be treasured works of art, this issue takes on a different dimension and the challenge becomes an opportunity. Some particularly significant and decorative storage solutions are on display together with their contents in a small exhibit opening on June 22 at the Freer Gallery of Art. "Tea Utensils Under Wraps" runs through Jan. 4, 2004.

"In Japan," says curator Louise Cort, "the tea utensil is the core of a much larger package of bags, boxes and wrappers that protect it but also define its identity and significance. Especially old and important objects may rest within several concentric boxes provided by successive owners. The variety and quality of the packaging materials reflect the status of the utensils within and the personal tastes of their owners, constituting a sort of material manifestation of the utensil histories."

Storage boxes are typically made to measure from lightweight and fire-resistant paulownia wood. Not surprisingly, the box lid usually bears handwritten documentation of the object within. This may, however, also include information about the identity of previous owners, many of whom commissioned box inscriptions from tea masters or other professional connoisseurs.

Textiles also play important roles in storing and adorning tea utensils. A square of silk or cotton or a drawstring bag padded with silk batting characteristically protects the utensil in its box, where additional paper authentication documents may also be stored. When displayed in the tea room, containers for powdered tea may be placed in bags tailored from scraps of precious Chinese silk. During storage, squares of Indian block-printed cotton or handspun cotton cloth are favored for wrapping the entire package into a secure bundle, the contents of which are identified by an inscribed wooden tag.

Objects on view, which are gifts to the Freer Gallery of Art from Peggy and Richard M. Danziger, include:

  • a cryptomeria-wood incense container housed in a paulownia-wood box accented with a dark band of persimmon wood and wrapped in a square of yellow handspun cotton. Originally a boss attached to a massive, eighth-century wooden temple door in the old capitol city of Nara, the object was converted into an incense container by collector Hosomi Kokoan (1901-1978).
  • a Seto tea caddy (ca. 1580-1605, Momoyama period) for tea powder used for the preparation of thick tea. In the tea room, the caddy would have been displayed in one of the two bags made from Chinese-style brocaded silk. The jar and its bags fit into three compartments in a paulownia-wood box.
  • a black Seto tea bowl (ca. 1580-1605, Momoyama period) stored in a padded silk crepe bag and housed in an uninscribed black-lacquered paulownia-wood box that is wrapped in a square of block-printed Indian cotton, lined with gray silk.
  • a bamboo tea scoop made by the warrior Furuta Oribe (1544-1615). Tea participants often made their own tea scoops with the assistance of a bamboo craftsman. Scoops made by respected tea masters, such as this one, became revered heirlooms. Later owners provided bamboo cases for the scoops. The case in turn is enclosed in a tailored cotton bag and rests in a paulownia-wood box with a yellow silk wrapper.
  • a turned wood, black lacquer tea container, or "natsume" made by lacquer specialist Sei'ami (active late 16th century, Momoyama period) This type of container held powdered tea for the informal preparation of thin tea. A bag sewn from Indian block-printed cotton encloses the clear-lacquered wooden storage box, which fits into an outer box of paulownia wood.
  • a poetry card mounted on hanging scroll used for display in the alcove of a tea ceremony room. Calligraphy by Emperor Go-Yozei (1571 - 1617, reigned 1586 - 1611) of a poem by Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241, Momoyama period). The paulownia-wood storage box is of more recent date.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries' Web site at

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