Among the various styles of art born in the former capital of Kyoto is the highly cultured style known as Rimpa that flowered early in the 17th century. The pioneers of the style were Hon’ami Koetsu (1558-1637) and Tawaraya Sotatsu (?-1643?), and the art form didn’t become known as Rimpa until it was named for a later master, Ogata Korin (1658-1716) — the rin in Korin being suffixed with pa (from ha), meaning “school.”
Rimpa looked for inspiration to the Heian Period (794-1185), considered the pinnacle of Japanese culture. Rimpa artists illustrated the poems and stories of the Heian Period in paintings and calligraphy, on ceramics and as applied maki-e designs on lacquerware.
With the relocation of the capital to Edo in 1868, however, and the rise of Edo-inspired art forms such as the colorful ukiyo-e woodblock prints, the golden days of Kyoto arts and crafts were numbered. By the 19th century, crafts such as maki-e, in particular, had fallen into a sad state of decline.
Just as Kyoto’s crafts seemed utterly eclipsed, however, a new generation of artists, foremost among them Kamisaka Sekka, launched a Rimpa revival. “Kamisaka Sekka, Rimpa Master: Pioneer Of Modern Design,” an exhibition now showing at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, takes a closer look.
Sekka was born in 1866, the son of a samurai serving at the Imperial court in Kyoto. At age 16 he studied painting in the Shijo style under the private tutelage of master Suzuki Zuigen, before turning to Rimpa. Also at an early age he showed an interest in design — in 1887 Sekka spent time at the Kawasaki Textile Factory, researching textile design.
Sekka was a versatile artist, and his work moves fluidly between styles — though it is invariably characterized by Rimpa flourishes. Two paintings showing in the exhibition, “Momotaro (Peach Boy)” (1920-40), one of several works on the same theme included in the show, and “Autumn Grasses” (1920-40) highlight the often contrasting approaches Sekka took to painting, though both display the trademark Rimpa tarashikomi technique in which different colored paints are overlaid to produce a mottled effect.
In the background of “Momotaro” Sekka hints at the presence of distant mountains with a few lines and washes of color, employing the traditional Japanese technique of leaving areas of empty space to suggest depth. In contrast, “Autumn Grasses” is filled with ornate patterns of leaves in a highly decorative style similar to much of his design work.
“Autumn Grasses” resembles the chrysanthemum pattern, in white with muted greens and browns and inlaid gold, which Sekka designed between 1925 and 1930 for a black kimono. Sekka merely devised the pattern of the kimono, not its cut and style — and many of his creations were likewise collaborative pieces.
That can make it problematic when trying to pinpoint exactly what constitutes Sekka’s style. Rather than striving to create a distinctive personal style — to be an artist, as we understand the term today — Sekka was following in the footsteps of the original Rimpa masters who collaborated with skilled craftsmen. Also in the exhibition, for example, are numerous designs Sekka created for maki-e pieces that were then executed by masters of lacquerware.
Once established, Sekka received prestigious commissions from patrons including the Imperial family and the British royal family, for whom he designed a Japanese tea set. However, he was not content with his personal success and sought to promote the rich cultural heritage of Japanese applied arts by establishing various craft organizations and art groups to support new artists and encourage collaboration and innovation.
One of the most effective ways for artists to gain recognition at this time was by achieving success in the government-sponsored art competitions. However, many major competitions accepted entries in only two categories, Japanese-style and Western-style painting — the applied arts and design seemed destined to remain the poor cousins of painting.
Ironically, it was the very development that often deals the death blow to traditional arts and crafts that popularized and promoted the work of Sekka and his colleagues — modernization. The government, eager to promote Japanese industry abroad, hit upon Kyoto’s arts and crafts as a field ripe for industrial development. Art and design schools were opened and other forms of financial backing were offered. By 1927, a craft division had been created at the Imperial Art Exhibition.
Sekka and his colleagues had won their battle for the recognition of the decorative arts, and brought them into the modern age.
The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto continues its exploration of the connections between arts and crafts and the industrial sector in “Light/Black,” a show introducing three contemporary Australian craft artists working in the media of ceramic, metal and wood, who are on a shared quest to discover hidden possibilities in their respective disciplines by utilizing the latest industrial techniques.
Robin Best creates ceramic pieces whose simple, elegant forms resemble the curves and outlines of vases, bags and other vessels. “Open Cut 1” and “Open Cut 2 ” beg the viewer to reach out and run their fingers along their smooth surfaces — though, as usual in a museum, it’s look but don’t touch. The similarly tactile surfaces of “Bryozoan 1” and “Bryozoan 2” have been punctured by the fine beams of lasers to create complex, mysterious patterns resembling coral.
Sue Lorraine offers a humorous look at the relationship between the human body and the tools and paraphernalia of scientific research, such as flasks, beakers and valves. Her series of flasks (full, empty, stoppered, etc.) are constructed from metal frames that imitate the outline (though not the form) of the containers. Particularly effective is “Flask With Specimen” (2003), which hints at an unidentified sample at the bottom of the flask.
Catherine Truman’s works are perhaps the most immediate, as she has made the human body the overriding theme of her work and has chosen wood, the most organic of media, to explore it. “Palm Down” (2002) displays the tension of taut skin over solid bone, while “Palm Up” (2002) expresses the sinewy texture of muscle and tissue beneath. She also utilizes wax and engraving (used for anatomical models and drawings, respectively) to create scratched and marked textured surfaces, as in “Bone In Bag” (2002).
In all, “Light/Black” introduces some though-provoking pieces, but an interactive presentation would have helped viewers appreciate these appealingly tactile works even more.
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