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Get to Know Mingei, the Japanese Folk Art Movement You’ve Never Heard Of

The Seattle Art Museum exhibition Exceptionally Ordinary: Mingei 1920–2020 explores the artistry behind everyday objects.

By Rachel Gallaher

Wrapping cloth (uchikui) mounted as a hanging scroll, early 20th century, Japanese, cotton fabric (tsutsugaki), 45 5/8 x 29 3/4 in. Gift of Elizabeth Bayley Willis in honor of Dr. Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961), 91.78

When mingei—the Japanese folk art movement that emphasized the beauty of handmade everyday objects—emerged in the 1920s and ’30s, all of its most popular practitioners were anonymous.

Founded by collector and philosopher Yanagi Sōetsu after a trip to Korea in 1916, mingei, which translates as “arts of the people,” centered around the production of inexpensive, utilitarian items such as ceramic bowls, textiles, teapots, and furniture. That anonymity, as shown in the exhibition Exceptionally Ordinary: Mingei 1920–2020, opening at the Seattle Art Museum today, put the focus squarely on craftsmanship.

“Think of it like taking a ceramic pot you use in the kitchen and moving it to the living room to display as art,” says Xiaojin Wu, SAM’s curator of Japanese and Korean art, who organized the exhibition along with SAM curatorial intern, Maria Phoutrides. “Yanagi really helped promote craft to the level of fine art.”

Obos I, 1956, George Tsutakawa, teak, 23 1/4 x 9 3/4 in. x 8 7/8 in. Gift of Seattle Art Museum Guild, 79.7 © George Tsutakawa Estate

Aside from their practicality and low cost, mingei objects were meant to be used by everybody, and made by hand, sometimes in batches. Sōetsu traveled to the United States in the 1950s, teamed up with a group of American artists, and traveled the country with them to promote mingei. Sōetsu’s ideas caught on, especially among ceramicists, and, according to Wu, “had a big impact on [American] collecting. Before the middle of the 20th century, museums would collect paintings and sculptures that were considered fine art. But it’s only fairly recently that they started taking on functional pieces as part of their collections.”

SAM’s Japanese collection has a sizable mingei textile collection, and much of the show is drawn from it. Many pieces come from around the Seattle area, including a wood table and chair and a bamboo lamp made by late local sculptor George Tsutakawa, primarily known for his oversized bronze sculptures and fountains. “The [furniture] has a simple, smart design; it’s made from mundane materials and functional for daily use,” Wu says. “It is very aligned with the mingei philosophy.” Additional work ranges from an 18th-century ceramic pot once owned by Sōetsu to a paper light designed by contemporary artisan Yuri Kinoshita specifically for the exhibit. “The notion of art keeps expanding,” Wu says. “The mingei movement has had a big impact on the idea of living with art and incorporating it into daily life.”


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