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The Art of Rimpa: Reincarnating the World of Beauty
by administrator,
Friday, March 2, 2012 - 15:25


IT IS LARGELY DUE to the efforts of the 19th-century Japanese artist, Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828), that the almost forgotten art of Rimpa was revived. Hoitsu, who hailed from Edo (present-day Tokyo), was the second son of the Lord of Himeji and of samurai stock. He seemed to have been familiar with the folding screens of Kyoto-born Ogata Korin (1658-1716) after whom Rimpa, ‘school of Rin’ was named, since a fifth- generation ancestor had engaged the latter’s services. Hoitsu had impeccable artistic credentials. Enrolled to study painting in 1797 under the venerable Bunnyo Shonin at the Nishi Honganji temple in Kyoto, he was conferred the honorary rank of Gondai Sozu, given to those of illustrious background. Although adept at both the Kano school style of Kano Takanobu as well as the ‘bird and flower’ style of Shen Nanpin of the Nagasaki school, it was the oeuvre of Korin that really moved him. Around 1807, Hoitsu began to research Korin’s works in earnest, going on to compile the first volume of Korin Hyakuzu (One Hundred Works of Korin) in 1815, followed by a second in 1826.

 Hoitsu was a creature of the Edo urban culture of the ‘Kasei’ period, an acronym derived from the Bunka (1804-1818) and Bunsei (1818-1830) eras of Edo Japan (1615-1868). It was consumed by a thriving arts culture, a wholesale reaction to the sumptuary laws of the preceding Kansei (1789-1801) period when creative activity was stifled. The Kasei era witnessed a fruition of the native Japanese arts, accompanied by a wide range of literary pursuits. Its novels and plays became all-time favourites, sustaining a notable publishing industry. Stage and theatre dictated fashion, their thespians immortalised by ukiyo-e, woodblock prints. Public hunger for the latter also fuelled an emerging print medium. Hokusai’s famous Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji first appeared in 1823, followed by Hiroshige’s Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Highway in 1832. One of the hallmarks of the Kasei period was accelerated Western learning. The first book on European-style anatomy was published in Japanese as the scientific study of botany and the production of copper-plate engraving made rapid advances.

In this heady climate, Rimpa art from Kyoto found its place in Edo. The 17th-century folding screens of Kyoto’s machi eshi, ‘urban professional painters’ had dazzled the eye with gold and glitter. Their spontaneous, highly decorative works of flat colours were geared towards the merchant elite. Edo Rimpa art of the 19th century however exercised restraint. Hoitsu was an artist of samurai warrior extraction. His most prominent pupil, Suzuki Kiitsu (1796-1858) was both retainer and disciple, and their master-pupil relationship was a legendary first in the annals of Rimpa history. They worked cautiously in the capital under the constant eye of the eleventh Tokugawa shogun Ienari, who despite official retirement, wielded undiminished power. Still, Edo Rimpa art conveyed the style of the Kasei era. It appealed increasingly to the mind. One of its defining features was the widespread choice of silver leaf ground over gold where precision on its flowers, birds and insects reflected the new-found interest in botany.

This year marks the 250th anniversary of Sakai Hoitsu’s birth. The Idemitsu Museum of Arts in Tokyo is commemorating the occasion by staging the important two-part exhibition, The Art of Rimpa - From Koetsu and Sotatsu to the Edo Rimpa School (see Asian Art Newspaper, January 2011). The sequel, Part Two, Reincarnating the World of Beauty places the focus on Hoitsu and Kiitsu, masters of the 19th-century Edo Rimpa school. According to Yatsunami Hirokazu, its chief curator, in charge of ceramics and crafts, ‘The Idemitsu’s collection of Rimpa art was compiled in the last two decades and is therefore ‘relatively young’.  However our holding of Hoitsu’s screens is fully representative of his style and includes seminal works that until recently, were believed destroyed or lost during World War II.’

Foremost among them are Wind God and Thunder God and Red and White Plum Blossoms, two works that entered the Idemitsu’s collection only in 1993 and are now prominently displayed. Their rediscovery has been timely. It has led to a critical assessment of Hoitsu’s painting techniques, his debt to Korin and to the evolution of his own signature style. Many of his masterpieces were signed with Hoitsu hitsu meaning ‘painted by Hoitsu’ using the seal Bunsen, ‘well-versed in literature’. Wind God and Thunder God (circa early 1820s), after Korin’s of the same name, is the most important work Hoitsu made in homage to his mentor, and establish his commitment to the Rimpa school. He believed Korin’s work (circa 1710s) was original, and seemed unaware that it was after screens by Tawaraya Sotatsu (fl.1600-1640s), one of the school’s founders. The faithful copy Hoitsu painted almost a century afterwards represented a basic continuity of Korin’s style although some of its finer details were changed. While Korin’s tenbu, ‘celestial deities’ were imposing, Hoitsu humanised his subjects as they soared across the skies. The green Wind God with his looped white streamer and the white Thunder God amidst swirling green ribbons have a slightly comic disposition, suggesting influences from the ukiyo-e, woodblock print.

Hoitsu’s Red and White Plum Blossoms (Bunsei era, 1818-1830) also defers to Korin. The pair of six-fold screens is Hoitsu’s largest and most monumental work and was intended to be highly symbolic. He elected to work on a silver leaf ground - as opposed to his mentor’s gold - wherein he simplified the characteristic ‘Korin plum’. The static quality of the latter’s single flowering tree gave way to two large disparate branches sweeping realistically upwards. Hoitsu used them to introduce a new element, the passing of time: The gnarled branch of mature red plum flowers on the right contrasting with that of freshly opened white buds on the left.

Building on the foundations laid by Sotatsu and Korin, Hoitsu found his forte too in the naturalism of the flowers-and-grasses genre. The Idemitsu’s pair of two-fold screens, Summer and Autumn Grasses is believed to be Hoitsu’s preparatory study for the final version, an Important Cultural Property now in the Tokyo National Museum. Dated 1821 (Bunsei 4), 11th month, 9th day, when it was presented to the patron, the Hitotsubashi Tokugawa family as a draft design, it is almost identical to the finished pair, circa 1822, mounted at the back of Korin’s Wind God and Thunder God in that family’s possession. Two important documents found on the reverse of the preparatory screens contain valuable information. They indicate, among other things, that the work on ‘silver background’ was produced ‘at the behest of Lord Hitotsubashi, Tokugawa Harusada (1751-1827)’ with specific  instructions; ‘the Thunder God and Wind God on the front painted by Korin’ to correspond to ‘rain on summer grasses and wind in autumn grasses’ at the back. The study was later passed down to Hoitsu’s pupil, Tanaka Hoji.

Hoitsu managed to fulfil the mandate. An elite samurai artist, he was well-versed in poetry, made evident by his Bunsen seal. He was partial to a special literary pastime in haikai poetry, called tsukeai, a ‘stringing together’ word-play that linked preceding verses with succeeding ones. Hoitsu transplanted the device from poetry to painting as a visual allegory connecting Summer and Autumn Grasses with Korin’s Wind God and Thunder God. His final selection of a silver leaf ground over Korin’s gold was deliberately subdued. On the coarse paper of the draft, he responded to rain brought by the Thunder God by painting summer grasses fully drenched behind him. A deferential rivulet of ‘Korin waves’ was crafted on the top right corner. Correspondingly, the Wind God’s fury would leave autumn grasses at the back strained to breaking point. His placement of ominaeshi blossoms, ‘one of seven autumnal flowers’ on the screen surface was symbolic. ‘It was a motif to unify the two-fold screens and suggest the transition from the summer to the autumn,’  Mr Yatsunami comments. The draft’s overall composition and exquisite draughtsmanship were a tribute to the naturalism of the Maruyama-Shijo school of Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795) of late 18th-century Kyoto. In the event, the finished Summer and Autumn Grasses exceeded all expectations, and became far better known than Korin’s work behind it.

‘In Japanese museums,’ Mr Yatsunami explains, ‘folding screens are stored in the folded format. Therefore Korin’s Wind God and Thunder God are folded inwardly with Hoitsu’s Summer and Autumn Grasses exposed without. Screen paintings in front are usually the work of a notable artist and the back is normally mounted with decorative paper. Occasionally, both sides might be executed at the same time if a patron wanted to use them for two different seasons or two separate occasions. But in this case, the back was altered only several generations later to accommodate the work of Hoitsu.’ It is not known when the two screen surfaces were separated. Hoitsu certainly would not have imagined that this would happen. ‘The separation means we may never see his work as intended in the original,’ Mr Yatsunami explains. ‘This is because when mounted at the back of Korin’s work, the v-shaped convex projection of the screens was changed to the v-shaped concave. Therefore in the event of separation, what Hoitsu meant us to view was reversed.’

 The foremost exponent of Korin’s work, Hoitsu did not entirely dispense with the more conventional ‘bird and flower’ genre also popular in the Kasei era. His skill is evident in Birds and Flowers of the Twelve Months (Bunsei era, 1818-1830), another important recent discovery found preserved in its original mounting. The pair of six-fold screens containing 12 paintings was a favourite subject in his repertoire, four complete sets of which are known. The style and signature forms on this particular set however suggest they were executed in Hoitsu’s final years when he integrated elements of asymmetry in their overall composition. The right screen includes cherry blossoms, peonies, irises and azaleas. Chrysanthemums, cranes and water-fowls fill the left. The repertoire of birds, flowers and insects was painted in brilliant colour. Wet paint layers were superimposed via the tarashikomi method to create volume and outlined by sumi, black ink. Their realism and technical details attest to Hoitsu’s familiarity with aspects of scientific botanical drawing permeating 19th-century Edo. The reverse side holds a badge to the master-pupil ethos. A complementary ‘bird and flower’ composition, Bamboo and Sparrows was later painted in sumi by another Hoitsu pupil, Yamada Hogyoku.

Hoitsu’s principal resident pupil, Suzuki Kiitsu, who entered the fray at the age of eighteen, was an Edo native. He was later adopted as one of Hoitsu’s retainers. Several of Kiitsu’s extant works are almost exact copies of his master’s; he was said to have regularly painted in the latter’s name and also in his place. Kiitsu however went on to establish his own personal style. Betraying this progression are his signatures. They range from the early Seisei Kiitsu, deferring to one of Korin’s names, Seisei, to the more individualistic Kiitsu hitsu, ‘painted by Kiitsu’. His signatures were paired with a variety of seals, Teihakushi, Shukurin, Joun and Isando. Kiitsu also executed a six-fold gold leaf screen uniting two plant motifs with two seasons. Cherry Blossom and Maples (circa late 1830s to early 1840s), is a daring ‘cropped’ composition owing an obvious debt to Korin. A decorative spray of white cherry blossoms were painted pressed flat against the base on the right. Only the half-tree-trunks and roots of the autumnal maple emerge on the left. The tarashikomi method was used to generate colour in both subjects, their immediacy reversing the underlying seasonal metaphors: With the advent of autumn, the maple’s red foliage would eclipse the flowerless cherry tree.

Kiitsu’s two-fold screen, Pampas Grass finally made him his own man. This visually arresting work executed around 1840, is a bird’s eye view of a field of grasses construed as a landscape. Kiitsu’s clumps of grasses painted on a silver leaf ground, are but gradations of black ink strokes. The cloud of mist swirling diagonally across them was designed to imply transience. Pampas Grass has a timelessness. ‘It testifies to Kiitsu’s mastery and manipulation of single colour composition,’ Mr Yatsunami says. On 19th-century Japanese landscape painting, supporting poems and literary references were de rigueur; and although conspicuously lacking here, the work remained relevant to the genre’s development well after Kiitsu’s time.

Both Hoitsu and Kiitsu were the true arbiters of taste and style in late Edo Japan. Kindred spirits with an eye for lyrical beauty and technical perfection, they conveyed through their art the traditional love of nature that was at Rimpa’s core. They also had an unwavering commitment to the Edo Rimpa ‘school’. It remained intrinsically Japanese, a native art with little outside influences, deferring to the spirit of its founders, Koetsu (1558-1637) and Sotatsu and to that developed by Korin. In retrospect, the school was an important transition to the succeeding generations of Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-1926) and early Showa (1926-1989) artists, challenged by the forces of European fixed-point perspective and shading. Their efforts gradually surfaced as nihonga, ‘Japanese painting’ whose sensibilities looked beyond the world of Rimpa art.


The Art of Rimpa - From Koetsu and Sotatsu to the Edo Rimpa School: Part 2 Reincarnating the World of Beauty is at the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, 1-1 Marunouchi 3-Chome, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0005, until 21 March.



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