Nihonga exhibit blossoming

by Kazuko Ide

To be able to admire paintings by the nation’s top 120 nihonga artists in the confines of a single room sounds quite remarkable. Yet when the new assembly building of Zojoji Temple in Tokyo opens its doors in the spring of 2001, the coffered ceiling of its hall will be adorned with that number of Japanese-style paintings of the flowers and plants of the four seasons.

The colorful array of works, painted in 50-cm circles, is on display at the Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi department store through Aug. 29. The exhibition space is alive with flowers galore: iris, morning glory and lotus, not to mention the cherry and the plum, captured by generations of artists, from the renowned 104-year-old master Yuki Ogura to those in their 30s. While the peony seemed to be the favorite subject, some artists have focused on birds, maple leaves, Mount Fuji, even frolicking frogs.

Red and white camellias were the choice for Ogura while Shoko Uemura, who is seven years her junior, chose the hibiscus. Matazo Kayama selected the autumn flora whereas the youngest Hiroyuki Naka painted the white peony. The selection of artists was made by Susumu Suzuki, honorary chief curator of Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, and representatives of the temple. According to Toshifumi Sakamoto of the Project Department of Kyodo News Service, one of the organizers of the exhibition, the artists, regardless of their different affiliated art groups, agreed to collaborate for a nominal fee “for the benefit of the temple.” Ogura was the first to hand in her work in July 1998.

Zojoji Temple, located in Shiba Park near Tokyo Tower, reached its zenith during the Edo Period when it was the family temple of the Tokugawa shoguns. Originally founded in 1393, the temple is one of the major headquarters of the Jodo sect.

Dedicating works of art to temples has been a long-standing practice. According to Suzuki, painting the coffered ceilings with flower motifs is a practice dating back to the 7th century. At the assembly building of Zojoji Temple, the paintings, covered with acrylic panels, will look down on the 108 tatami-mat hall which will be used by the devotees of the sect.

Nevertheless, the temple is hoping to open the hall to the public when it is not being used. Sogen Osawa, a Buddhist monk and spokesman for Zojoji Temple, feels that they have a mission to offer the assembled 120 paintings for public viewing.

Osawa and others spent months collecting the works from the nihonga artists. Although some artists complained when they felt that their works were not collected swiftly enough, or felt pressed for the completion, Osawa says that he was honored to meet the masters, usually at their homes.

The exhibition, held at the 7th-floor gallery of Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi department store, also features nihonga painted on sliding doors by Nobutaka Oka, as well as the treasures of the Zojoji Temple. Admission is 700 yen for adults and college students, 500 yen for junior and senior high school students.

The show will travel to Kyoto (Sept. 15-28, Kyoto Takashimaya department store), Nagoya (Jan. 3-23, Matsuzakaya department store) and Shizuoka (Feb. 17-23, Matsuzakaya department store).