Japanese bamboo art: A living tradition

Editorial Staff Art

Basket weaving is one of the most ancient of all decorative crafts. It is thought that the idea to create vessels by interweaving twigs was conceived around the same time as the idea to chip shards of flint into arrowheads. Fragments of Neolithic-age pottery reveal that long before the invention of the wheel, potters molded clay around woven basket forms, while remnants of other Stone Age pottery bear surface decoration imitating basketwork. Though fired pottery is more durable than baskets, thanks to the arid climate of ancient Egypt many of the world’s oldest baskets and basket fragments have been unearthed there, dating some three thousand years before Christ. Indeed, wherever there were twigs, reeds, tall grasses, or other weavable plants, basketry thrived.

  • Fig. 1. Called “Mountain Path,” this early work by Tanabe Chikuunsai II (1910-2000) is accompanied by its kiri-wood tomobako storage box, inscribed, signed and sealed by the artist. Known as hanakago (flower basket), bamboo baskets are traditionally used in the venerable Japanese art of ikebana, or flower arrangement. ,500. All photographs courtesy of Erik Thomsen, New York. 

  • Fig. 2. Signed by the bamboo artist Kôkôsai, this entry-level basket is priced at ,500. 

  • Fig. 3. Chikuunsai II wove this elegant feather-light basket out of bamboo he split into astonishingly fine strips. ,900. 

  • Fig. 4. This Chikuunsai II basket of the 1940s evokes Samurai culture in its shape and in the split arrow shafts used for the vertical elements. ,000. 

  • Fig. 5. Titled Senjō, or “One Thousand Lines,” this exceptional examplefrom a series of baskets made c. 1941 by Iizuka Rōkansai (1890 -1958), recently sold for ,000. On one end the artist incised “Rōkansai kore saku” (Rōkansai made this). The signature and the red oval seal on the accompanying sugiwood tomobako are those Rōkansai used between 1936 and 1949. 

Some of history’s most beautiful bas­kets were produced in Japan, where the craft of plaiting bamboo was initially practiced on a utilitarian level during the Jômon period (10,000-300 bc). Bamboo, a grass, proliferates in hundreds of varieties throughout Japan, and while many varieties were-and still are-used in furniture and house construction, in culi­nary and medicinal preparations, and for other purposes, relatively few varieties were deemed suitable for basket weav­ing. “Among these is madake,” says Erik Thomsen, a prominent New York dealer in Japanese fine and contemporary art. “It is a larger diameter bamboo with a very straight grain that lends itself to splitting into fine strands for plaiting.” Another is houbi-chiku, usually of a small diameter, that a century ago or more was used to construct and finish farmhouse ceilings. “Over time these pieces aged while the fumes from heating and cooking imparted a fine, nat­ural patina that is highly treasured now,” Thomsen says, adding that “houbi-chiku is often salvaged from old farmhouses and can be used whole or split for plaiting.”

Thomsen’s large inventory of Japanese baskets is one of the finest in the country. He explains that “baskets were imported from China from the sixteenth century on. And while the Japanese were inspired by these Chinese designs, they achieved further perfection as well as a distinc­tively Japanese design vocabulary. Where Chinese baskets, like Chinese porcelain, tend to express a striving for balance and symmetry through perfection of form and detail, the Japanese aesthetic flows from the philosophy of wabi-sabi,” the accep­tance of transience and imperfection. “The Japanese tend to prize visual ir­regularity over symmetry, and the effects of chance in nature, as in the natural ash glaze on old pottery, or the irregular form of the teabowl and the twisting shape of Bonsai trees,” Thomsen says.

A vivid example of the wabi-sabi aes­thetic is the basket in Figure 1. Entitled “Mountain Path” it dates from the 1930s, the youthful work of the master basket artist Tanabe Chikuunsai II. Instead of Chinese-style formality, the deliberately rustic appearance of the openwork to­gether with the muscular twisting of the strands forming the handle convey a mesmerizing sense of tension, while the crisscrossing bamboo elements of the body create an almost kaleidoscopic network of triangular interstices of light. In common with fine works of Japanese art, fine Japanese art baskets were tradi­tionally accompanied by wooden tomo­bako boxes, each especially fitted to store the basket when not in use, and inscribed and signed by the artist. “Mountain Path” comes with its original kiri-wood tomo­bako. $8,500.00.

For all its rustic vigor, “Mountain Path” displays the intricate craftsmanship and beauty inherent in Japanese bamboo art, whose language, Thomsen notes, expresses the interweaving of Japanese and Chinese cultures. “Karamono literally means ‘Chinese things’ or objects that either came from China or were made in the Chinese taste,” he explains, “as opposed towamono or ‘Japanese things.'” Rooted in the traditional admiration the Japanese have for Chinese art, karamono commonly refers to objects related to the tea ceremony, such as baskets, ceramics, paintings, and lacquerware. “Among the features Japanese karamono baskets share with Chinese originals,” Thomsen says, “are precise pleat­ing with regular repeating patterns and symmetrical shapes.”

The restraint of Japanese basket design may mislead the uninitiated to believe that the art is simple. In truth mastering the art demands years of training. The weaving of a single basket takes months of meticulous labor, from the delib­eration over the design, through the selection of raw mate­rials and the complex plaiting and finishing processes.

The collecting market 

Though the craft of basketry is centuries old, baskets as an art form represent a relatively new collecting field, and though a few art baskets date from the mid-nineteenth century, most are later. “They were avidly collected in Japan during the first half of the twentieth century,” Thomsen says, “when many of the best examples were being made. Americans began to collect them more widely after discov­ering their sculptural forms and fascinating woven textures in the 1999 Asia Society exhibition Bamboo Masterworks: Japanese Baskets from the Lloyd Cotsen Collection.”

The price range for art baskets is wide, and prices are based on the design and appeal of the shape, as well as the quality of the workmanship, the intricacy of the weaving, and the specific artist. “An unsigned basket in good condition fetches from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand,” Thomsen says. Most signed baskets in good condition are priced in the four-figure range. Rare works in excellent condition by important artists with their original signedtomobako storage box can command $40,000 and more. Rare works by artists such as Iizuka Ro-kansai and Chikuunsai I can command equally high prices. 

Thomsen explains that “the name Chikuunsai relates to the Tanabe family, one of the most important basket-weaving dynasties of Japan. Chikuunsai I lived from 1877 to 1937; in 1991 his son, Chikuunsai II, passed on the artist name to his oldest son, Chikuunsai III (1940-); Chikuunsai III’s son, Tanabe (Takeo) Shōchiku (1973-), continues the lineage as the fourth-generation bamboo maker of the Tanabe family,” though, ac­cording to Thomsen, he hasn’t been given the Chikuunsai artist name as yet. But to look at the extraordinary work he is doing, it won’t be long (an illuminating video is available at youtube.com/watch?v=xM44IR-t6nU).

Good, better, even better, and the best

Plaited by the lesser-known bamboo artist Kôkôsai, who was active in the early twentieth century, the attractive densely woven “full-moon” design in Figure 2 dates from the 1930s and is a good entry-level piece for new collectors. Its price ($3,500) reflects the fact that it lacks its tomobako. It can either stand on its substantial base or hang from the small loop at the top.

The very fine basket in Figure 3 was made in the 1940s by Chikuunsai II. Its graceful vase shape, with its long body and waisted, flaring neck, culminates with an arching handle comprised of four bound lengths of fine bamboo fastened to the body with rattan. Between the fastening points of the handle two similar lengths of fine bamboo bisect the body vertically, visually defining and physically strengthening the profile while lending a visual counterpoint to the handle. Signed on the bottom, it includes its original signed and in­scribed tomobako storage box. $8,900. 

Another work by Chikuunsai II, the basket in Figure 4, made during the 1940s, employs split shafts of antique arrows as vertical elements. Japanese craftsmen lacquered arrows in dif­ferent colors to identify different archers in competitions, and here the original colors glow through the beautiful old patina. The entire basket is a deliberate evocation of the Samurai culture; in addition to the arrows, its shape mimics the shape of a storage box for Samurai armor. Signed on the bottom, it includes its original inscribed and signed tomobako storage box. $16,000.

The elegant basket in Figure 5, recently purchased by a collector for $45,000, is one of a series made about 1941 by Iizuka Rōkansai and is called Senjō or “One Thousand Lines.” Rōkansai used smoked madake bamboo to make the basket, splitting the trunks into narrow strips and arranging them vertically in parallel lines. The long strips are bent twice to form the opposite sides and the bottom; the bamboo used for the two ends continues further up to form the long handle. All strips meet in the bottom at right angles and instead of being plaited are knotted together, a less common technique. The bamboo nodes are arranged to be visible on the bottom and on the two ends, but not on the sides. The rim is reinforced with wider bamboo strips and thin bamboo branches.

The basket comes with its original fitted sugi-wood tomo­bako, which is inscribed on the top of the beveled lid “Hanakago” (flower basket). Inside the lid, Rōkansai inscribed the title of the basket, along with “Rōkansai saku” and sealed it “Rōkansai.” “Rōkansai is widely acknowledged as the great­est Japanese basket maker of the twentieth century,” Thom­sen notes. “The sixth son of the basket maker Hōsai I, he started out making intricate baskets in the karamono-style but went on to develop many new ideas and techniques. As a pio­neer of modern bamboo crafts he exerted great influence on numerous postwar bamboo artists. Rôkansai’s works are in the collections of the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art and the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, among other institutions.” 

Displaying and caring for baskets

Their restrained shapes, colors, and complex plaited pat­terns lend Japanese baskets great decorative versatility, and in addition to complementing traditional Japanese set­tings they easily harmonize with collections of contempo­rary and folk art, not to mention arts and crafts interiors and mid-twentieth-century design. “Bamboo, rattan, and the various woods used in basket weaving are resilient materi­als,” Thomsen observes. “When displaying them, though, avoid direct sunlight. If you need to dust them, carefully use a soft, dry brush.”