The free exhibition recreates the world of 16th-Century Japan chanoyu ("art of tea") through an ordinary storage jar -- from China -- that is one of the most revered objects of this Japanese tradition.
Far more than a jar, it serves as a major contribution to understanding Japanese aesthetics, history, and culture.
The jar has not only a name, "Chigusa" ("myriad of flowers", mentioned in at least five Japanese poems), but also centuries of diaries about it, written by generations of connoisseurs called "tea men".
"Tea men looked at 'Chigusa' and found beauty even in its flaws," said Louise Allison Cort, curator of ceramics at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. "This ability to value imperfections in objects made by the human hand is one of the great contributions of Japanese tea culture to the world."
"It's not meant to be a 'knock-you-over-the-head eye candy," said the exhibit's co-curator Andrew M. Watsky, professor of Japanese art history at Princeton University.
However, the noted Japanese art historian added, "Japan appreciated Chigusa as the epitome, the exemplar of that aesthetic," evaluating a jar according to the glaze, the clay, shape, and size. "They took very seriously the art of looking, evaluating, discussing, and enjoying it, as part of the pleasure of tea."
One tea diarist compared an overlap of the mottled amber-caramel-brown glaze on Chigusa, to the overlapping folds of a kimono. Another observer in 1586 admired its reddish clay and large size, about 16.5 inches, termed it "meibutsu" ("celebrated tea object").
One gallery is devoted to a tea room in a Japanese home, to show how Chigusa and various objects fit into a space -- "like a 3-D sculpture". The jar has the place of greatest importance, and is surrounded by a white and blue porcelain bowl for fresh water among other bowls, a calligraphy scroll, and other objects.
"The tea rooms were like museums in a sense, for aesthetic enjoyment," Cort told me at a press preview. "The tea ceremony was not religious, although there's a current idea that it's closely related to Zen Buddhism."
"Tea is a living activity, it's still going on today," Watsky pointed out.
The room also shows "dressing" the jar for display. It has sky-blue silk cords and net bag, a maroon and gold brocade covering for the mouth of the jar, and a small mat. An entrancing video shows a "tea teacher" dressing the jar at the Sackler last July.
The exhibit also has a mid-15th century mouth cover made by Chigusa's earliest owner in China, Cort noted. A wall text shows all its known owners, from the first in 1458 to its current owner, the Freer Gallery of Art (Freer | Sackler are the Smithsonian's Asian art museums). The jar, with gold-brocaded textiles, silk cords, three large boxes, and paper documents, was bought in 2009 at auction (for $662,500 at Christie's New York).
One of the most ancient items is a late 13th century calligraphy scroll, a text of Buddhist doctrine by esteemed Chinese monks who had lived and taught in Japan.
And one of the most exquisite objects is a tea jar depicting seven flying black mynah birds, with subtle touches of silver, green, and red.
In contrast, the Chigusa is an example of beauty being in the eye of the beholder.
"I find it so interesting about Chigusa, this concept of beauty as something we construct because some people say it's beautiful," Watsky told me. "There's nothing inherently beautiful about it, but in Japan, they've thought so for centuries."
Feb. 22 at noon: Tea master talk and tea brewing demonstration, part of "Trunk Show: DoMatcha" by DoMatcha™, a leading producer of matcha, the whisked Japanese green tea made from leaves of the kind that Chigusa would have held. There will also be a book signing of "Chigusa and the Art of Tea", co-edited by Cort and Watsky.
March 23 and April 6 at various times: Traditional Omotesenke tea presentation, including the preparation of matcha.
At the preview, we were treated to DoMatcha (meaning "the journey of matcha"). It tasted like freshness itself, and was both calming, energizing, and uplifting.
The same can be said of this unique, historic exhibit.
For more info: "Chigusa and the Art of Tea", Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, on the National Mall, 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., Washington, D.C. Feb. 22-July 27. Smithsonian information, 202-633-1000. Free. Related events. Following its U.S. debut, Chigusa will be on display at the Princeton University Art Museum from Oct. 11–Feb. 1, 2015. "Chigusa and the Art of Tea", a beautifully illustrated collection of essays about Chigusa's 700-year-history, is co-edited by Louise Allison Cort and Andrew M. Watsky, published by the Freer and Sackler, and distributed by the University of Washington Press.