One of fall’s annual pleasures is the Big Autumn Exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum, and this year the organizers have pulled out all the stops with “Treasures by Rinpa Masters,” a breathtaking 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 school of decorative art that was later named after him: Korin plus ha (school of). This exhibition is divided into three sections devoted to the works of Rinpa — as the school is now known — artists from the early, middle and late Edo Period (1603-1867) and includes masterpieces of painting, lacquerware, ceramics and textiles selected from Japanese and foreign collections.
One of the profound effects of the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo (present-day 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. The old Eastern imperial capital of Kyoto and the new Western political capital of Edo soon developed their own completely different flavor and character; that of Kyoto being infused with the refined style of courtiers, tea masters and temple clerics, while Edo culture was more brash, more mercantile — and probably more fun.
Rinpa art is associated more with Kyoto, its nobles and elite craftsmen. Its artistic tradition is influenced by courtly, poetic ideals, together with the practice of Zen and the tea ceremony, and is all much inspired by the area’s rich nature. The sober, monochrome aesthetics of the tea ceremony had held 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 explored a freer, more exciting use of colors, pattern and form. Foremost among them were followers of Rinpa.
Characteristic of Rinpa art — which has continued in recognizable form until the modern period — 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 coloring. Gold or silver was often used in leaf form as a background, or as a finely ground dust mixed with a liquid agent for painting. 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 became renowned as a master calligrapher, as well as a designer of gardens, ceramics and lacquer objects. Works in the exhibition show how the two often collaborated, with Sotatsu preparing painted scenes in gold or silver, over which Koetsu would brush verses in his characteristic, freestyle 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 they must have been beautiful 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.
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 most probably acting as an adviser to subordinate craftsmen much as designers do today. His tea ceramics are represented in the show together with several examples of lacquerware, including a well-known writing box, now designated a National Treasure. Its the domed lid is decorated with a bird’s-eye view of a black bridge over boats and stylized water ripples in gold, and is 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.
Influenced by the monumental painting of the Momoyama Period (1573-1615), Rinpa painters also did large screen paintings with gold or silver backgrounds that were used for delineating space in grand households and castles. Nature has always provided a wealth of inspiration for writers and artists and there are some spectacular screens showing trees, grasses and flowers painted in compositions that demonstrate the school’s strong sense of design. This is a chance to see the famous iris screens by Korin that are normally displayed at the Nezu Museum (closed since 2006 for reconstruction and scheduled to reopen next year). The screens shows clumps of blue iris on a gold background in an almost musical arrangement. Look carefully to see that some of the iris clumps are identical, as if applied with a rubber stamp, blurring the line between painting and pattern.
Another aspect of Rinpa art is a juxtaposition of realism and stylization that can be startling. A small piece of paper, just a wrapper for some incense with fold creases visible, is decorated by Korin with a design of vine leaves on a background of gold leaf, painted in dark gray, green and blue — a mixture of natural and unnatural colors here used to delightful effect. In the well-known pair of two-panel screens by Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828), we see summer and autumn grasses and flowers blown in the wind, a couple of leaves airborne, shown to graphic effect on a slightly tarnished background of silver leaf. But what raises the composition to something visually extraordinary is a stylized stream of water painted in blue and gold at the top-right of the right screen, challenging all our normal standards of perspective.
This is a show about beauty, and every object displayed is 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 and more 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 have 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 from mosquitoes coils, a torpor easing gradually at dusk, as the waves become visible on the screen to evoke a blissful coolth.
“Treasures by Rinpa Masters — Inheritance and Innovation” is at the Tokyo National Museum, Ueno Park, till Nov. 16; admission ¥1,500; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.;closed Mon.). For more information call (03) 3822-1111 or visit www.tnm.jp