For those of you that think Satsuma is a type of tangerine or have been panning for a lucky gold strike on eBay, take time to visit the Pacific Asia Museum's cozy little exhibition, "Brighter than Gold: The Rich Tradition of Satsuma-ware in Japan." The exhibit, which runs until August 15, is largely the result of a generous gift from Drs. Jerome and Rose Saperstein and Drs. Paul and Judy Braun who contributed 75 pieces from their collection in 2002. The exhibition only displays 33 pieces, about half of their donations.
"Satsuma ware was collected in Europe and America because it's attractive to the eye," exhibit curator Chris Engle explained. But that doesn't mean that your every day Pasadenan can't own a piece. "We hear some of the visitors say these pieces look like something they have at home. One the reasons we wanted to do this exhibit is because Satsuma ware is something people may own and can buy."
Satsuma is in the southern region of Kyushu, the most southern of the four main islands of Japan. According to Engle, in 1867, the Shimazu daimyo took samples of ceramics they called Satsuma to the Paris Exhibition. The ceramic style attracted positive attention and soon the works were in demand by European collectors.
The works themselves aren't entirely Japanese in origin. When warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi invaded Korea in the 1590s in an ill-fated attempt to expand his power base, the Japanese became familiarized with Korean ceramics. After Toyotomi's death in 1598, the Japanese forces returned to Japan, taking with them some Korea potters. The exhibition includes an example of a subtly glazed Korean bowl with regular concentric patterns. This bowl looks like a dull country cousin beside the more glamorous and gaudy examples of Satsuma ware with its intricately detailed and often heavily gilded images.
Satsuma ware was specifically produced for the export market. Although the Dutch had traded with the Japanese even during the 200 years Japan had remained closed to other European and American nations, according to Engle, the Dutch market mainly bought blue and white porcelain ware. While some of the shapes of Satsuma ware were definitely made with the export market in mind such as a teacup with a saucer or the teapot included in the exhibit, the designs and scenes on the pieces are totally Japanese. Japanese gods and goddesses and famous battles were topics depicted as part of the decorative design as well as sculpted ceramic figures.