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Rinpa: The Art of Japan’s Renaissance
by AsianArts,
Sunday, March 11, 2012 - 21:32


ONE OF FALL’S annual pleasures is The Big Autumn Exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum (TNM) and this year the organisers pulled out all the stops with a breath-taking show of Rinpa art in celebration of the 350th anniversary of Ogata Korin’s birth. Korin (1658-1716) is considered the leading exemplar of the Rinpa school of decorative art that was later named after him: (Korin plus ‘ha’: ‘school of’). This exhibition was divided into sections devoted to the works of early, middle and late Edo-period Rinpa artists and includes masterpieces of paintings, lacquerware, ceramics and textiles selected from Japanese and foreign collections. Continuing the theme will be another major Rinpa exhibition of the works of Korin and his brother, Kenzan (1663-1743) at the MOA Museum of Art in Atami, Izu Peninsula, during January and February.


Perhaps the most dynamic effect of the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo (now Tokyo) at the beginning of the 17th century was economic prosperity and an energetic renaissance of traditional arts. Coincidental too was the emergence of a new, urban culture as tradesmen and craftsmen catered to a booming market for luxury goods, while a city milieu of kabuki, sumo and the pleasure quarters, evolved for entertainment. Before long, the old, Eastern Imperial capital of Kyoto and the new, Western political capital of Edo developed their own completely different flavour and character; that of Kyoto being infused with the refined style of courtiers, tea masters and temple clerics, while Edo culture was brasher, more mercantile – and probably a lot more fun.


Rinpa art is associated more with Kyoto, its nobles and élite craftsmen, and an artistic tradition influenced by courtly, poetic ideals, together with the practice of Zen and the tea ceremony, and all much inspired by the area’s rich nature. The sober, monochrome aesthetics of the tea ceremony had had almost a monopoly on taste through the 15th and 16th centuries and it is as if in defiance of this – as well as to celebrate the new political stability and affluence – that extraordinarily talented artists and craftsmen began to explore a freer, more exciting use of colours, pattern and form. Foremost among these were followers of the school now known as Rinpa that has continued in recognisable form until the modern period.


Characteristic of Rinpa art is a dramatic sense of design and pattern, unusual techniques of painting and a flair for exciting composition. Drawn outlines were often ignored, and tarashikomi – the application of ink or pigment to pool on wet paper – was a chosen method for shading or colouring. Gold or silver was often used in leaf-form as background, or as a finely ground dust mixed with liquid agent for painting, and, as clients for Rinpa works tended to be well-heeled, both materials and pigments were usually of the best quality.


Hon’ami Koetsu (1558-1637) and Tawaraya Sotatsu (dates unknown) were two of the earliest artists whose works demonstrated this new style. Koetsu came from a family of sword-polishers and appraisers and become renowned as a master-calligrapher, as well as a designer of gardens, ceramic and lacquer objects. Works in the TNM exhibition show how the two often collaborated, where Sotatsu had prepared a painted scene in gold or silver, over which Koetsu brushed verses in his characteristic, free-style calligraphy. Various examples of hand-scrolls and poem-cards feature painted seasonal subjects such as deer, vines, bamboo and flocks of cranes, and even though beautiful they must have been in their original form, a new artistic level altogether is attained by the addition of calligraphy. Such layers of suggestion, hints and nuances are characteristic of Rinpa art and it is worth spending some time looking closely to absorb more of what they have to offer.


While mainly remembered for his calligraphy, Koetsu was above all a designer like most of his Rinpa followers, drawing no border between various forms of artistic expression, and in all likelihood acting as an adviser to subordinate craftsmen much as designers do today. His low-fired raku ware tea ceramics were represented in the TNM show together with several examples of lacquerware including a well-known writing box, now designated a National Treasure, the domed lid decorated with a bird’s-eye view of a black bridge over boats and stylised water ripples in gold, inscribed with a poem inlaid in silver. The design is inspired, verging on abstract, and so refreshingly distant from what was happening artistically in the rest of the world at the beginning of the 17th century that we envy those lucky to have been members of Kyoto’s artistic circles at the time and marvel at their genius. While the Rinpa artists had no enforced limits to their artistic expression, they all seemed bound by an awareness of the refined taste we associate with Kyoto – a taste for colour, line, texture and form that is recognisable to our present-day eyes and harmonises with our modern aesthetic ideals.


Inspired by the monumental painting of the Momoyama period (1573–1615) Rinpa painters also turned their hands to making large screen paintings with gold or silver background, that were used for delineating space in grand households and castles.  Nature has always provided a wealth of inspiration for writers and artists and the Rinpa artists made spectacular screens showing trees, grasses and flowers painted in compositions that demonstrate their strong sense of design. Internationally celebrated – and now almost one of the icons that come to mind when we think of Japan – are the famous iris screens by Ogata Korin, normally displayed at the Nezu Museum (closed since 2006 for reconstruction and scheduled to re-open next year), depicting clumps of blue iris on a gold background in an almost musical arrangement. Look carefully and see that some of the iris clumps are identical as if applied with a rubber stamp, blurring the separation of painting and pattern. While displayed flat in the TNM show, they are best displayed as they would have been in a traditional tatami room, half-folded with the hinges at 90 degree angles, giving a three-dimensional quality to the design. When standing this way, the screens can be viewed face-on or from a 45 degree angle from either side. It is worth taking the two or three steps to do this because then one can see how cleverly Korin thought out the design; from either left or right, a total of six panels (three of each six-panel screen) can be seen, and then one notices that even the clumps of iris visible on the odd panels form a perfectly-balanced composition together.


Another aspect of Rinpa art is the juxtaposition of realism and stylisation that can be startling, but also inspired and successful. In the TNM show we could see a small piece of paper, just a wrapper for some incense with the fold creases still visible, decorated by Ogata Korin with a design of vine leaves on a background of gold leaf, painted in dark grey, green and blue – a mixture of natural and unnatural colours here used to delightful effect. Korin’s brother, Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743) is celebrated as an artist who explored the design possibilities of Rinpa painting on the three-dimensional, often curved surfaces of ceramics.  Until Korin’s death, the two brothers often collaborated, with Korin painting the ceramic works made by Kenzan. These works, (and those made exclusively by Kenzan), demonstrate the Rinpa artists’ understanding of the possibilities and limitation of three-dimensional designs and how they calculated them to look interesting from all angles.


In the same TNM show were a well-known pair of two-panel screens by Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828), who was born into the family of feudal lords at Himeji Castle. As the second son he was fortunate to enjoy inherited wealth largely unencumbered by heavy responsibility and could afford to study various schools of painting, including ukiyo-e under Utagawa Toyoharu (1735-1814). In addition to his élite classical education, he  enjoyed lively urban life and became familiar with the demi-monde culture of the Kabuki theatre and pleasure quarters of Edo.  He was nevertheless much influenced by paintings of Ogata Korin in his own Sakai family collection and eventually settled into the elegant Rinpa style of painting for which he is famous.  These screens which are in the permanent collection of the TNM, show summer and autumn grasses and flowers blown in the wind – a couple of leaves air-born – depicted to graphic effect on a slightly-tarnished background of silver-leaf. But what raises the composition to something visually extraordinary is a stylised stream of water painted in blue and gold at the top-right of the right-hand screen to challenge our normal standards of perspective. This painting, rightly designated as an Important Cultural Property, captures the poignancy we associate with Autumn when the leaves are falling – harbinger as it is of the coming winter – together with the water depicted as a design element. The effect of the latter is like that of a catalyst, intensifying the feeling of the wind-blown foliage.


The TNM show was about beauty and every object displayed was a rewarding, visual delight. Don’t let me start on the TNM’s flat, overhead lighting, nevertheless – to be fair – at least some thought was employed in the illumination of an unusual and beautiful small screen painted on two layers of silk by Suzuki Kiitsu (1796-1858). The back layer is faintly painted with a design of waves that appears only when the light is subdued and at a certain angle. The front layer is richly painted with the flowers and grasses of late summer when Kyoto’s heat is most trying: kuzu vines, morning glory, nadeshiko pinks, bush clover etc. with the veins of leaves delineated in gold and calculated to glow in the gloom of pre-electricity buildings. The effect is very subtle and the curators cleverly arranged the lighting, (in this display only), to brighten and dim like the changing light of the day. It is easy to imagine the languor of a hot, breathless September afternoon in the old capital, the drill of cicadas, the hovering smoke of incense to thwart mosquitos, a torpor easing gradually at dusk, as the waves become visible on the screen evoking a blissful cool. BY MICHAEL DUNN


For information on the Rinpa exhibition at MOA Museum of Art, Atami, www.moaart, and exhibitions at the Tokyo National Museum,



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