UNTIL THE MOMOYAMA (1573-1615) period, Japanese artistic sensibilities were influenced by the art of China. The extravagance of Momoyama art and its taste for gold subsequently formed the foundation for a distinctive and highly decorative art. It was quintessentially Japanese in spirit and flourished into Edo (1615-1868) times as a repertoire of asymmetrical patterns and shapes, executed in rich colour and enhanced by gold and silver decoration. Appearing on paper, wood, lacquerware and ceramics, its treatment of subject matter was drawn from the classicism of Heian (794-1185) Japan, and represented a stylistic return to unique native traditions. The style was resurrected in the late 17th century by the painter Ogata Korin (1658-1716) who gave it a strong sense of design, and the term Rimpa, meaning ‘School of Rin’ was later named after him.
The ‘school’ was saved from near oblivion a hundred years later. The painter Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828), who researched Korin’s works, was intent on reviving his painting style. To mark the centenary of the latter’s demise, he published in 1815, the woodblock illustrated catalogue, Korin hyakuzu, ‘One Hundred Works by Korin’. During this feat, Hoitsu discovered the original sources for Korin’s inspiration had been two Kyoto artists, Hon’ami Koetsu (1558-1637) and Tawaraya Sotatsu (fl.1600-1640s) who preceded him by more than half a century. Hoitsu collected their signatures and seals, and published them under the title, Ogata-ryu ryaku impu, ‘Concise Collection of Seals of the Ogata Lineage’ (1815). In Japan, the term ‘lineage’ rather than ‘school’ denotes a group of artists linked through successive generations by kinship or teacher-pupil relationships. Although these references did not apply to ‘Ogata lineage’, the term lasted well into the Meiji (1868-1912) era, and reverted – after frequent name changes – to Rimpa only by the end of the 19th century.
Those individuals later considered Rimpa artists had worked as machi eshi, ‘urban professional painters’ in the 16th and 17th centuries catering to the taste of the urban elite, including merchants. Their artistic efforts were not widely understood at the time and their work became collectibles only two centuries later. Rimpa works that have survived to the present are therefore very rare since representative masterpieces are scattered among various collections in Japan and in the West. It is extremely difficult to find a comprehensive Rimpa collection spanning the three generations from Sotatsu and Korin to Hoitsu in any one holding, given the gaps between the 17th and 19th centuries. The Idemitsu Museum of Arts in Tokyo is one of the rare institutions to hold a significant and substantial number of Rimpa masterpieces in several formats -–handscrolls, paintings, screens and ceramics – that are fully representative of the ‘lineage’. They have enabled the Idemitsu to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Sakai Hoitsu’s birth by mounting the landmark exhibition, The Art of Rimpa - From Koetsu and Sotatsu to the Edo Rimpa School to trace Rimpa’s evolution from its formative period to its fruition as an exceptionally important development in Edo period art. The exhibition is in two parts. In Part 1, Glittering World of Gold, includes smaller scale works such as shikishi, ‘poem pictures’, handscrolls, paintings and fans are juxtaposed against byobu, ‘folding screens’ and fusuma, ‘sliding doors’, all of whose decorative features are reflected on Rimpa-style ceramics.
The founders of the Rimpa school, Koetsu and Sotatsu had been acquainted with the spirit of the Momoyama age, and were well-placed to transform its decorative elements. Born into a family of sword connoisseurs, Koetsu was a talented calligrapher and ‘one of the three great brushes’ of the Kan’ei (1624-1644) era. He was also a fine potter and lacquerware artist. Very little is known of Sotatsu, scion of a rich Kyoto merchant family who owned a painting enterprise as well as an ogi-ya, ‘fan shop’. It has been speculated but not verified, that Koetsu and Sotatsu were related by marriage. Sotatsu who started painting around 1600, was approached by Koetsu to create works uniting calligraphy and painting. They first worked on shikishi, ‘poem squares’ where Sotatsu’s underdesigns were over-inscribed by Koetsu’s fluid brushstrokes. The idea, which reflected literary and courtly Heian taste, was extended to the handscroll form. Enlisting the expertise of Kyoto papermakers, they revived the use of decorated paper – also a Heian practice – by adding patterns to what was essentially yamato-e, native Japanese painting. In 1602, Sotatsu had repaired the original 12th century Heike nokyo scrolls (33 decorated handscrolls of the Lotus and other sutras and a National Treasure) and was taken by their decoration. He applied gold and silver pigment washes to create lavish handscrolls, adapting the tradition of printing patterned papers with mica. Koetsu and Sotatsu’s most representative work, Waka Poems over Printed Designs of Plants and Flowers (1628) contains gold silhouettes of the willow, cherry, creeper and crabgrass inscribed with no less than 10 poems from the Heian anthology, Kokin waka shu (compiled in 905 or 914). Other handscrolls of lotuses, butterflies and fauna such as deer and cranes were similarly ‘over-inscribed’.
However, Koetsu and Sotatsu’s collaboration peaked around the early decades of the 1600s before they parted company. Sotatsu went on to develop his skills as an artist, excelling in fan paintings. Very few of these have been preserved since many fans were discarded after they were torn. Only fans in good condition were mounted on semmen haritsuke byobu, ‘screens pasted with fans’ where more than 220 samples might be found. Although Sotatsu’s screens bear three of his personal seals, including Inen, Taito and one unread seal, not all fans came from his hand. Some were apparently produced at a ‘Tawaraya’ workshop under his charge. Sometimes only fan outlines were delineated on screens, and then painted over and filled in with colour. Those known as semmen chirashi-zu byobu, ‘screens with scattered fans’ and semmen nagashi-zu byobo, ‘screens with fans on flowing water’ attest to Sotatsu’s spectacular use of gold and silver washes.
Sotatsu’s most famous work, Screen pasted with Fans alone contains 48 fans whose subjects were derived from the classic Hogen Heiji monogatari, ‘Tales of the Hogen and Heiji Disturbances’. It is in the Imperial collection and forms the basis for an eightfold classification of the genre. Six types discovered since World War II allow a further division into three categories; flowers and grasses from nature, figural subjects drawn from the classics and other subjects. Sotatsu conceived an important technique on his screens: A progressive flattening of three-dimensional space on the picture plane which was enhanced by the alignment of motifs. It is best expressed in the flowers and grasses category. Moon and Autumnal Grasses, which is wholly covered in gold leaf, has a now tarnished silver moon on one screen hovering above the bush clover, pampas grass and Chinese bellflowers painted as flat colours to suggest transience on an autumn moor. Sotatsu later increased his variety of flowers, grouping them according to season. The dense specimens lined up as two registers on Flowers and Grasses of the Four Seasons are exceptional. This arrangement has no unity because the screens were designed to be interchangeable.
Sotatsu had been considered a machi eshi, ‘urban professional painter’, until 1622. He experienced a career turning point when the Yogen-in temple of Kyoto commissioned him to make fusuma, ‘sliding doors’, with gold leaf. On its completion around the mid-1620s, he was conferred the honorary rank, Hokkyo, ‘bridge of the law’. One of three categories of titles – Hokkyo, Hogen and Hoin – Hokkyo was a monastic tradition wherein monks – expected in the course of duty to create temple-related artworks – were recognised for their abilities. The practice was later extended to include other artists and artisans. To mark his coming of age, Sotatsu signed his work thereafter with Hokkyo Sotatsu and Sotatsu Hokkyo using the seals, Taisei or Taiseiken.
More than half a century later, Ogata Korin discovered the work of Koetsu and Sotatsu. His family was of samurai ancestry, but became merchants and owned a drapery shop in Kyoto. Korin who was already in his thirties, went on as Sotatsu’s heir apparent, to become the finest exponent of Kyoto court art. His style focused on the purely visual aspects of nature. Flowers, plants and trees were subjected to a bold patterning whose dramatic designs reflected the splendour of the Genroku (1688-1704) age. Its most representative artist, Korin is synonymous with the Irises screens where he managed, using only two flat colours - indigo blue and green – to create a powerful, asymmetrical composition. His affinity with the Kyoto art of lacquerware also left an indelible mark on his work. Korin’s preparatory maki-e, lacquer painting of a plum tree for instance, formed the basis for the left screen of Blossoming Red and White Plum Blossoms (circa 1712-13). The stark red and white plum trees bearing violently twisting branches defy previous conventions. Their scale on the screen has been exaggerated. Korin’s pupil, Fukae Roshu produced the stylistically different falling branch on the right screen. Elements added later include the surface decoration of azure swirling stream eddies known as ‘Korin waves’. The tarashikomi method adapted from painting – wherein wet colours are diffused to create a ‘bleeding effect’ – was captured in green and black on the surrounding rocks, plants and tree trunks.
Korin’s gold and silver designs on flowers grew increasingly stylised. The original composition of pink and white flowers on the gold leaf screens, Fuyo, ‘Rose Mallows’, had been designed to be complementary. They were painted over with a silver wash since tarnished, a technique derived from Sotatsu’s Chinese Lions at the Yogen-in. However, the mass of flowers blossoming vividly on the right screen’s base are not matched by the isolated clusters of bouquets on the left. This is because the present screens were assembled from fragments of the original, which has been dispersed.
Korin’s mentor, Sotatsu had a talent that knew no bounds. After parting professionally with Koetsu, he reinvigorated his practice of sumi-e, ‘ink painting’ as well as polychrome work, by turning increasingly to classical themes. Large-scale examples on folding screens include Dragons and Clouds and Black Pines and Japanese Cypresses. By the late Edo period, Sotatsu’s ink paintings were affectionately referred to as kage-boshi o utsushita mono, ‘things drawn as shadow pictures’. They had a broad popular appeal and were also called ‘subjects painted with flat planes instead of outlines’. Sotatsu’s smaller ink paintings were inspired by Daoist and Buddhist worthies taken from the late Ming (1368-1644) printed illustrated book, Xianfo qizong, (Senbutsu kiso in Japanese). Its subjects included the Immortals, Xiama (Gama) and Tieguai (Tekkai), the monks, Hanshan and Shide (Kanzan and Jittoku) and the legends of Xu You (Kyo Yu) and Chao Fu (So Ho) familiar to Japan. The mythical Chinese emperor Yandi, known as Shennong, God of Agriculture, (Shinno) since he imparted agricultural techniques, was also believed to be the founder of traditional Chinese medicine. Sotatsu used a moist brush to portray him with prominent features befitting his status as a revered Daoist immortal and had the work inscribed by the Ming artist, Wang Jiannan (O Kennan d.1645) who migrated to Japan during the Keicho (1596-1615) era.
Taking a leaf from Sotatsu’s work are a series of Korin’s paintings of mendicant figures prescribing good luck and fortune. Korin was about forty-four when he, too, was conferred the Hokkyo rank in 1701. The hanging scroll, Hotei kicking a Ball, in ink and light colours might be dated, however, to his early career. The composition has been carefully structured and its elements aligned. The ball contrasts with the monk’s rotund body; his sack, zuda-bukuro, a round form sits below him, augmented by Korin’s centralised signature and seal at the painting’s base.
Korin’s younger brother, the renowned potter Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743) was the foremost exponent of Rimpa-style ceramics. He transmitted the decorative use of colour, gold and silver from paper, wood and lacquerware to clay. His motifs of flowers and grasses, plants and fauna from the natural world were heightened by a formal design. Like his brother, Kenzan paid homage to Sotatsu. Lidded Box with a Design of Pine Trees and Waves is an Important Cultural Property imitating a lacquer box form. Both its outside and inside patterns owe a direct debt to Sotatsu’s Matsushima, ‘Pine Islands’, screens, invoking the sacred theme, hamamatsu zu, ‘pine trees on a seashore’. The outside lid surface features pine trees in white slip, underglaze cobalt blue and gold and silver enamels – and is a rare instance of Kenzan’s use of silver. Depicted inside are complementary stylised ‘Korin waves’ in underglaze cobalt blue and gold on white slip. Kenzan’s Bowl with Pampas Grass and Butterflies is likewise a bold graphic tribute to Sotatsu’s autumn moor grasses. A special flared bowl identified with what Kenzan called soribachi bears the pattern of Maple Leaves on the Tatsuta River. It has a rarefied quality and is particularly prized because its overglaze polychrome enamels have become intrinsic to its overall shape. Design and form are one. It reveals the abiding allure of Rimpa, the distinctive Edo period art that also left its mark on artistic endeavours in the West. By YVONNE TAN
The Art of Rimpa - From Koetsu and Sotatsu, to the Edo Rimpa School: Part 1 Glittering World of Gold is at the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, 1-1 Marunouchi 3-Chome, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0005 from 8 January to 6 February, www.idemitsu.co.jp/museum