Artist revived legendary pottery

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TEHRAN, Iran — Lusterware is beautiful pottery with a metallic sheen that sparkles in the light, but the technique for making it was almost lost to the world.

The technique of making lusterware involves first painting patterns of people or animals on its surface with silver or copper pigments, and then firing it at a low temperature. The technique was created around the ninth century in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and introduced to Persia (now Iran) in the 12th century, where it flourished. However, lusterware suddenly disappeared around the 17th century. Persian pottery lost its shine, and the world appeared to have lost the art of making lusterware.

Japanese ceramic artist Takuo Kato significantly contributed to reviving its beauty.

One of the locations where its luster was restored is Rey, in the suburbs of Tehran. Rey is an ancient city that was prosperous during the Seljuk Empire (1038-1194), which mainly dominated Iran and Iraq. Some fragments of lusterware were discovered in the city’s desert.

Born in Tajimi, Kato was a successor of the Kobe kiln, the distinguished kiln of Mino pottery that has continued since the Edo period (1603-1867).

Kato visited Iran 40 times over the span of 15 years after his mid-40s. He set up a tent on the sand at night and sipped on whiskey he had brought secretly into the tent. He excavated old kiln sites and areas around the remains in the Kashan desert in central Iran at more than 50 locations with the sole purpose of collecting fragments of lusterware.

What motivated the ceramic artist from the Far East to visit the Middle East so often?

Born in Tajimi, Kato was sent to China during World War II, but was back at home during the atomic bombing in Hiroshima at the end of the war. He struggled for 10 years with leukemia.

His grandson, Ryotaro, 38, said, “(My grandfather) likely felt he could not live long and so felt determined to leave something behind.” Around that time, Kato learned of the existence of Persian pottery. He visited the National Museum of Iran and looked at lusterware.

In a book Kato wrote about lusterware, he described his August 1961 encounter with the pottery: “I was shocked and moved by the lusterware shining brilliantly. Automatically, I thought I should revive the pottery with my own hands.”

Behzad Azhdari, chairman of the Iran pottery association, who teaches lusterware production, said Kato must have been enchanted by the pottery from the moment he saw it. Kato, who thought that his life would not last long, might have pursued the brilliance of lusterware unconsciously.

Kato brought lusterware fragments that he had personally excavated back to Japan and measured their pigments’ metallic components. He checked old documents, collected traditions of lusterware’s production methods and experimented with the kiln and creating his own versions. After more than 10 years of experimentation, he established a superb manufacturing method and revived lusterware.

He wrote: “I yearned for something that no one worked on. Without having the extraordinary dream of reviving lusterware, I could not have worked so hard.”

In July, eight years after Kato died at the age of 87, Kato’s lusterware was exhibited in the great lusterware exhibition held in Tehran. Kato’s son, Kobe, who is also a ceramic artist, felt it was as if his father was coming home.

In Iran, lusterware has been created based on traditions, but it is nearly impossible to perfectly replicate them. Kato’s works, which Azhdari described as “perfect,” are believed to be the closest in the world to the originals.

Kato, who created more than 4,000 lusterware works, was designated a living national treasure in 1995.

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