We are bombed with messages and images that propose beauty and perfection as a style or a goal, which often generates envy towards the so-called successes of others, creating an endless chain of attitudes aimed at overtaking and excess.
Although there are canons to describe art, beauty on top of being an attribute definitively linked to personal taste, is also ephemeral, under different perspectives. The concept of the ephemeral is literally linked to time, objects considered beautiful in past eras are not necessarily still beautiful in later eras: time brings along experience and personal evolution, and while fashions quickly change without any profound reason, therefore bringing us to a false approach to beauty, and in an exclusively personal capacity, with the aggravating circumstance of the unthinking-mass effect, experience instead leads to seeing and considering things in a completely different way, to appreciate details that maybe we there are canons didn’t even realize that we always had under our eyes. The trend is not to dwell on what is not beautiful or at least pleasant, and if something hurts someone sensibility, aesthetic or else, one falls into hasty judgment and a quick shift of attention is brought elsewhere, where often the mass is deliberately directed.
But the essence of beauty is everywhere, it can be searched for or serendipitously discovered, and so often quite far from what one might think, but much closer to us, the only forgers of the ability to see beauty, from the result of what we have lived and of what we are capable of reading or evoking in things.
Transcending beauty and aesthetics, kintsugi is the art of mending with gold, a typical Japanese art applied to pottery which, when it breaks, is repaired with a lacquer, called urushi, mixed with gold, silver or platinum powder. The result is an object similar to the original one, which has lost its beauty and perfection and conspicuously and proudly displays the scars of the adverse fortune.
I like to think of this art as a practical extension of the concept of the heroic defeat, which in Japan boasts examples throughout the centuries of its history with characters still revered today despite having passed to the world of the most tragically not on the winning side, but who have anyway been able to stir feelings for their virtues such as honor, loyalty, strength and determination. A defeat that in the Western culture is always seen with a negative connotation, but which in reality hides much more than that superficial vision of things and people because everyone wants, or would like, to be like cine-television or web virtual heroes, and therefore embody shared mass fantasies tending to represent ideals often devoid of any substance.
On the opposite, kintsugi is an art that enhances imperfections, praises the beauty that emanates from experience and not from appearance. Technically, it is an art that aims to repair broken ceramic objects, providing then a new life, through the application of gilded or otherwise precious material, which allows the pieces to be glued again, creating a new and unique object, further rendering the idea of the transformation of the now apparently useless item into a unique one. Metaphorically, it transforms a problem not only into a solution, but into an instance of unique beauty, and therefore can often be associated with deeper concepts related to life, psychology, personal experience, through the practice of recomposing the pieces, real or not, of something broken.
Kintsugi is an art known since the Muromachi period, in the mid-1400s, when Japanese potters were called by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa to fix a broken tenmoku cup, artisans who applied the aesthetics of wabi sabi to glue the broken pieces with lacquer urushi and covered the breaking lines with gold dust: the cup became a unique object, particularly appreciated by the shogun, as it had not only been repaired but had taken on a new life full of its imperfections and therefore full of beauty.
About the perception of beauty Shozo Kato sensei, Kendo 8-dan e Iaido 7-dan, expressed the following:
“Western beauty is radiance, majesty, grandness and broadness. In comparison, Eastern beauty is desolateness, humility, hidden beauty.”(watch his video on https://hakushikan-kendo-nj.com/about-shozo-kato-sensei)
Actually, although “desolateness” is used in the subtitles, Kato sensei actually used the term wabi sabi.
So kintsugi art is therefore not only an artistic concept but it embodies the deep roots of Zen philosophy and the concepts related to wabi-sabi, expressing in a unique and practical way concepts such as
- mushin, without mind, which expresses the ability to let go, forgetting worries, freeing the mind from the search for perfection;
- mujo, which can be translated as impermanence, or the transitory existence without exceptions, evanescent and inconstant: all things are destined for an end and accepting this condition means having a serene and aware approach to life;
- mono no aware,the empathy towards objects, a sad and profound melancholy for things, through which by appreciating their decadence one is able to admire their beauty.
Another fundamental concept for better understanding kintsugi is mottainai, a term dear to the Japanese people, with much more subtle nuances than the simpler term waste, in fact implying that feeling of guilt and regret not only for having wasted something, but also for not having allowed something or someone to reach its fullest potential. This concept derives from Shintoism, for which every living being and every object has a spirit, and therefore not making the most out of something and not appreciating it would be a lack of respect for the being or for the object itself, finally indicating regret for the loss of something important. According to another interpretation, the term refers to the Buddhist concept of non-substance, according to which nothing exists and happens autonomously, but everything exists thanks to the support given by everything else which it relates with. Considering both interpretations, the concept of mottainai therefore encompasses and expresses the deepest and most rooted meaning in the Japanese language of humility, gratitude and the feeling that nothing should be taken for granted.
From a technique perspective, kintsugi can be grouped into three categories known as
- hibi or crack, where simple cracks are repaired;
- kake no kintsugi rei or example of golden repair (of the missing piece), where the missing piece is custom created, made entirely of lacquer and gold;
- yobitsugi or invitation to fix/join, where a piece from another very similar porcelain is used but still not the original one.
In general, the materials used are the aforementioned urushi lacquer, extracted from the native plant Toxicodendron vernicifluum, rice or wheat flour, tonoko, gold and silver dust. The drying process of the lacquer, which is used as a glue for ceramics, as a filler and as an adhesive for gold dust, takes place in a warm environment at around 25°C with relative humidity around 70-80%, while the drying time varies from three days to a week. The crack lines are first filled and sanded, and then finished with a brush with red urushi lacquer on which the gold dust is then dropped. Urushi lacquer, particularly difficult to be found outside Japan, paved the way for a more modern application of kintsugi with the replacement of epoxy resins, while the precious powders were replaced with simple coloured pigments. Kintsugi has lost some of its artistic and philosophical charm, remaining an almost exclusively Japanese practice, but on the other hand it could spread as an art throughout the modern world, giving life to numerous currents and artists who gave new life to old broken objects, perhaps with less profound meanings but not too far from the original.
The deepest values behind the practical art require a particular state of mind which should lead the practitioner to analyze without judgment why something is broken, and to accept its fate, being able to see the brilliant opportunities that there may be in regenerating it: it is therefore a metaphor of care and transformation, which enhances the experience instead of wasting it, as mistakes and failures can be the most important and effective part on the path of personal growth and maturation.
In a society that so often extols and rewards perfection and excess, embracing what is old and battered may seem odd, but practicing the age-old art of kintsugi becomes a reminder to stay positive when things fall apart and to celebrate life’s flaws and missteps.