Article by Heinz Spielmann* in “New Ceramics”, November 2008
JK – JAN KOLLWITZ – JAPANESE CERAMICS – Concrete observations and general comments
His initials, which Jan Kollwitz writes on the base of his pots, his business card, invitations to exhibitions and studio flyers, are reminiscent of a Japanese character and point to the concept behind his work: Japanese ceramics (Japanische Keramik). For him, this does not mean European ceramics with a Japanese veneer but art-craft in ac- cordance with Far-Eastern precepts, serving function, follow- ing well-tried rules. It is defined rather by the masterly command of these rules than by individualism, and serves the aesthetic of every day life. Such an interpretation of one's own work differs uncompromisingly from the widespread view that ceramics is a discipline that can be realised as an autonomous art form. Kollwitz is unable to share such a view because he knows from his own family tradition which demands art must fulfil: his great grandmother was Käthe Kollwitz, who placed her art – drawing, etching and sculpture – in the service of humanity. No one who sees art bound to such ideals can be satisfied with ceramics as more or less decorative, or approaching arts-and- crafts in the worst possible sense. Instead, they will choose a less ambitious approach, which for all its modesty is more de- manding. With his attention to a timeless aesthetic for everyone, Kollwitz thus fulfils the humane definition of the purpose of his art as demanded by William Morris, realised by Bernard Leach and as is still axiomatic in Japan.
Jan Kollwitz made no compromises when he decided to quit acting and take up ceramics at the age of 23. He learned the skills from Horst Kerstan, who taught him to respect Japanese aesthet- ics. He learned Japanese and then travelled to the Far East in 1986. There, he discovered a situation in flux. Traditional pottery centres still maintained their cultural heritage; of the "ancient Kilns" of the thirteenth century, especially Seto, Tamba, Bizen, Tokoname, and after a period of stagnation, Shigaraki. Of the "new Kilns" of the 16th and 17th centuries, Hagi and Karatsu continued to flourish. Mashiko, which lived from the fame and teachings of Hamada Shoji*, had challenged these centres with a new and uncommonly fertile range of products, but the regionally defined pots from their "old" and "new" kilns had frequently be- come separated from their local roots. A younger generation had set up its studios in other locations and dealt more freely with hereditary rules, if it did not find new, individual orientation and favour sculptural ceramic art following its own guidelines. Echizen, which is the location Jan Kollwitz decided upon, was in fact one of the oldest Japanese ceramics centres, but its tradition based on large, peasant storage jars was to a great extent extinct. A circumspect prefecture administration undertook considerable efforts to revive and renew this heritage and set up a museum with old pieces, some of which had been discovered in archaeological excavations. The administration gave assistance to young potters to help them set up their studios and commissioned the building of a kiln based on the ideas of the famous Seto master Kato Tokuro, which was available to local workshops. On his arrival, Jan Kollwitz thus discovered a lively ceramics scene in a state of flux, but he also found workshops working in very different ways. He first worked with Nakamura Yukata, who together with his wife had dedicated himself to an abstract, symbolic approach to art. With all due respect to this master, Kollwitz was in search of something else, he was not interested in non-functional art – he wanted to make vessels and found support in Yamada Kazu. Yamada came from Tokoname; his father was a respected potter there and he him- self was a pupil of the great Kato Tokuro. His work clearly reveals these influences with their red and white shino glazes and their green and black oribe. But inspite of a personal friendship, the young German did not follow his teachings either, taking his orientation from Shigaraki and Iga, which is made of clay with quartz inclusions and takes its decor exclusively from the marks developing during a wood firing.
In 1988, Jan Kollwitz built an anagama kiln suited to this technique near the 13th century benedictine abbey in Cismar, with Watanabe Tatsuo from Mino in Japan. He prepared a clay body suited to his purposes by adding quartz sand, and on this basis, opened his workshop in 1990. Soon, a series of annual exhibitions began, the third of which was organised by the Schleswig-Holsteinisches Landesmuseum in the immediate vicinity of the studio. The potter has subsequently expanded his resources without fundamentally changing his aims. He has consistently refused to deviate from the canon of Japanese vessel forms, emphasising his position by using the Japanese terms such as hanaire for a vase or oke for a water jar, kame for a storage jar and suiban for a rectangular ikebana dish. He believes that even though his vessels may be made for a specific Far-Eastern purpose such as the tea ceremony, they can also serve everyday life in Europe too. For large or small vases or bowls and lidded jars, a functional purpose can be found here, too, especially among individuals looking to give form to their lives beyond convention. Jan Kollwitz has found many friends with his uncompromising approach, has established a reputation and has created a position for himself, even if it may appear somewhat exotic in an European context. At first sight, it may seem that there has been little evident development in the artist's work over the past one and a half decades. A closer inspection reveals, however, that Kollwitz has managed to obtain new, subtle nuances of colour from the kiln and the firing. Colour ranging from a warm pale brown through red-brown to black and blue-grey has become richer, ash deposits have become thicker, the apparently random distortions have become more natural. Obviously, he is someone who is not seeking sensation or superficial effect, nor easily-achieved results, variety and individual ambition; instead, he is interested in a gradual improvement in quality, in achieving artistic substance through an unwavering command of craft skills according to a conviction put forward by Goethe in his "maxims and reflections", where he stated that an able pigment grinder has often become an outstanding painter.
From the outgoing nineteenth century, Japanese ceramics had become the most important model for European ceramics. Artists endeavouring to emulate it did not, however, have a command of the technology. They imitated on a superficial level the celadons, the rice straw ash glazes, the gold lacquer repairs, for example adding copper oxides to other ingredients to obtain a glaze resembling the grey-green of celadon in an oxidising firing. Jan Kollwitz decided upon a diametrically opposed interpretation of Far-Eastern models, faithfully adopting their techniques and, in addition, taking his orientation from form and function. In an era that focuses exclusively on individuality and that spurns "learning by doing the same", an attitude now appears outmoded that was prevalent for centuries in Europe, too, making a sense of cultural identity possible in authentic folk art, whatever changes might come. Nowadays, under the influence of globalization, an insistence on cultural ressources spans great distances. Whatever the final verdict on this may be, one thing is beyond doubt: if our sense of individualism does not preserve the means with which it may express itself, if art does not have a command of its basic skills in the widest sense, it relinquishes its own foundations. Jan Kollwitz offers resistance to this in convincing fashion, thus contributing to the preservation of ressources that others can build upon. And finally, an observation on a paradox: whilst the intermediate and younger generation of artists in Japan increasingly devotes itself to Western individualism, a contemporary artist in Germany pursues an antithetical concept. It will be worthwhile observing how this situation develops.
* Prof. Dr. Heinz Spielmann was for many years the director of the Landesmuseum at Schloss Gottorf in Schleswig and then became the founding director of the Bucerius Kunst Forum, Hamburg.