Those Beautiful Images We Know So Well, Shown In Context
Rinpa: The Aesthetics of the Capital, at the Kyoto National Museum
Review by Emily Sano, October 20, 2015
The abundant exhibitions at many museums in major cities and the national museums provide one of the special treats of visiting Japan in the autumn. This year is no exception, but visitors need to know that thisyear's most significant exhibit for the traditional Japanese arts is Rinpa: The Aesthetics of the Capital,at theKyoto National Museum. The exhibition, which opened on October 10, will last only six weeks, until November23, 2015. While the excellent catalogue lists 175 objects, many are on view for shorter periods of time, and some displays change every week on Mondays during the run of the exhibition.
The term Rinpa-which is combined from the second character in Korin's name and the character for "school"or "style"-was coined in modern times and did not exist during the Edo period. Though sometimes describedas a school, Rinpa is less a direct lineage of teachers and their disciples than a lineage of personal artisticinfluence: Sotatsu's work inspired Korin, whose oeuvre, in turn, influenced Hoitsu. Of course, these three artistsnever actually met: most artists working in the Rinpa mode discovered the aesthetic for themselves andpursued it out of admiration for their artistic predecessors.
"Rinpa and Kyoto," English preface, p. V)
One of the most familiar of Japanese decorative styles,Rinpa(also spelled Rimpa, which this reviewer prefers, but I will stay with the Museum's spelling)includes works commonly viewed as the epitome of the arts of Japan. Even in reproduction, masterworks by the painter Sotatsu, dazzle viewers with works like the monumental screens of pine trees and small islands (Matsushima) at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., or the stunning screens of clusters of blooming purple irises at the Nezu Museum by Korin-the artist forwhom the genre is named.
For a style ubiquitous in Japan, it comes as a surprise to learn that the current exhibition is the first major show of Rinpa held in the city where the school originated. The museum mounted the show as a special exhibition to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Rinpa's origins. In 1615, the first Tokugawa Shogun,Ieyasu (1543-1616), gave a tract of land in Takagamine, northwest of Kyoto to the renowned calligrapher andsword connoisseur, Hon'ami Koetsu (1558-1637). Koetsu then established a village called Koetsu-cho with avariety of craftsmen and others who followed Nichiren Buddhism. Those metal workers, potters, lacquerers,and painters surrounding Koetsu, whose aesthetic preferences drew upon classical Heian period (794-1185) artand literary traditions, form the basis of the revivalist decorative style that we know as Rinpa. Nature and classical literature provide the subject matter of Rinpa works, and they possess a decorative sensibilitymarked by abstracted design elements and distinctive techniques.
Significantly, the 175 piece exhibition traces the transmission of the Rinpa aesthetic from its inception through the Edo period (1615-1868). While Koetsu established the framework, three master artists who lived andworked at different periods in early modern Japan best represent the Rinpa tradition: Tawaraya Sotatsu(active early 1600s), Ogata Korin (1658-1716), and Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828).
Beautiful works by Koetsu and his fellow Rinpa founder Sotatsu open the exhibition. A sword and a selection of teabowls and lacquerwares reflect Koetsu's skills . But the outstanding collaborative masterpiece comes further into the show in the "Anthology with Cranes" (also known as "The Crane Scroll"). Sotatsu painted thisthirteen and a half meter long scroll in silver and gold, depicting flying and pacingcranes, rhythmically interspersed with clouds and waves, that serve as the dramaticbackdrop to the elegantly brushed poems from the anthology of theThirty-sixImmortal Poets- a diverse group of individuals from different eras whose work wascompiled in about the year 1010. Happily for the visitor, this scroll will remain onview for the duration of the show. As a bonus, the show presents several otherexamples of Sotatsu's painting in a variety of formats, including fans, small albumleaves, pictorial handscrolls, panel paintings, ink hanging scrolls, and screens. Hisbrilliantly abstract Ivy Lane in deep green and gold is breathtaking-indeed, anaesthetic marvel of simplified landscape in which a mere suggestion of the the ivycarries the idea of the Ivy Lane, a scene from the Tales of Ise.
While we know very little about Sotatsu, his distinguished follower, Ogata Korin,had a well documented life. Born into a wealthy Kyoto family of kimono purveyors, a downturn in the business necessitated that Korin earn a living on hisown. Needless to say, the world of Japanese art is much the better for thatturn of fate. While the Kyoto show omits some iconic masterpieces of Korin's painting-the Nezu's above-mentioned Iris screens and the Red and White PlumTrees from the MOA collection in Atami-it includes enough of his works to demonstrate his genius. Among the shows offerings, one findshis inimitable flowerscreens, scenes drawn from classical literature(such as Heian period"Tales of Ise")portraits, ink paintings of animals and legendary figures, incense wrappers, lacquerwares, and textiles. Indeed, one wonders how, evengiven his privileged background, Korin learned todraw and paint so well, on top of which that he couldappear as a fully formed artist in this thirties.
Sakai Hoitsu, the third master artist to follow in the footsteps of his Rinpa predecessors, also had a privileged Korin youth. Born during the mid-Edoperiod as the younger brother of the feudal lord of Himeji (just west of Kobe), Hoitsu admired the workof Korin. In 1815, to honor the one hundred year anniversary of Korin's death, he published "One Hundred Paintings by Korin" (Korin hyaku-zu ), a woodblock printed album that reproduced the master's work. By so doing, he perpetuated the Rinpa style to a later age, and at the same time established his own lineage to the great master. Many of Hoitsu's works resemble those of Korin in subjects and style, but this show also demonstrates that he had his own sensibilities that deserve recognitionin their own right. The screen pair in silver leaf called Summer and Autumn Plants from the Tokyo National Museum, a composition unique to Hoitsu, as far as we know, secures his reputation as an acclaimedindependent artist.
Interestingly, the Kyoto National Museum's exhibition features several sets of paintings by two or more of the master painters depicting the same subject, presented together for comparison. Together for the first time in 75 years, one sees the National Treasure screens Wind God and Thunder God by Sotatsu, as well the important Korin screens Wind God and Thunder God screens (Important Cultural Property) and a screen of the samesubject by Hoitsu. The organizers consciously make a point of demonstrating how, while copies of famous worksare made as a method of study, as they are in the West, in Japan these copies garner high regard from thecognoscenti both as homage to the original artist and completely acceptable as works of art in their ownright.
The inclusion of many pieces produced by lesser known artists working in familiar styles. emphasizes the Rinpa tradition's richness. Ogata Kenzan, the potter, painter, and younger brother of Korin, frequently collaborated with his brother. The exhibition contains many fine examples of ceramic sets made by Kenzan and painted by Korin. The versatile painter Watanabe Shiko (1683-1755) created a handsome pair of hanging scrolls with floralmotifs, works recently re-discovered after having disappeared for most of the 20th century. The show alsocontains a screen by Fukae Roshu (1699-1757) that uses the "Ivy Lane" motif from the Tales of Ise, followinga small album leaf painting (regrettably not included in this show) originally made by Sotatsu. Works byNakamura Hochu, a gifted and original painter from Osaka, include paintings that emphasize simple forms and compositions that use thesame palette as Rinpa paintings, as well as the distinctive puddled inktechnique called tarashikomi. Lastly, two important screen pairs bySuzuki Kiitsu (1796-1858), whose work more closely resembles that ofHoitsu than Sotatsu or Korin, present contrasting moods with skilledbrushwork. One, from the collection of the Nezu Museum, shows alandscape with strong motif of trees and a rushing stream; the second,belonging to the American collectors Joe and Etsuko Price, shows adelicate curtain of willow branches and leaves and a heron in flight.
Significantly, the show does not include any work by an artist recognizedas part of the Rinpa tradition, but whose work dates from more recent times: Kamisaka Sekka (1866-1942). While he enjoys an enthusiastic following among some collectors, the show's contents adhere to therecognized dates of the Edo period.
The Rinpa show catalogue fully illustrates and documents the exhibited works in Japanese. Happily for the English l anguage reader, the Kyoto National Museum went further than most Japanese museums by providing inEnglish the Foreword, Preface, check list of exhibits, as well as a lively essay by the important scholar, Professor Motoaki Kono. Emeritus professor of art history at Tokyo University, and former chair of thegoverning board of the journal,Kokka, Kono's highly personal account of his enduring love for Rinpa istestament to the power of art and a joy to read.
Overall, the ambitious Rinpa: the Aesthetics of the Capital exhibition is well worth a trip to Kyoto before theend of November. Deeply satisfying to view, it reacquaints the viewer with so many familiar, old friends butbrings many together for the first time in living memory. Students of Japanese art will know many of theworks well, and the show includes every type of material these artists touched. But the show creates afreshness through its organization of the material and a presentation that clarifies some of the subject matterand the repetition that occurs. In sum, the exhibition highlights the strengths and individual characteristics ofeach artist on display, while placing them in context along the continuum of the arc of Rinpa works.
The Pilkington Anglo-Japanese Cultural Foundation is most grateful to the Kyoto National Museum and its PressOffice for providing the photographic illustrations for this Review.