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.