Art’s ancient moderns

Rimpa's classic style is reinvented

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Rimpa is usually defined as an artistic tradition and style begun by Towaraya Sotatsu (years of birth and death unknown) and Hon’ami Koetsu (1558-1637), who were at work during the Momoyama and early Edo periods from the late 16th century to the early 17th century.

These artists may have been credited with starting the movement, but the exhibition currently on show at Tokyo’s National Museum of Modern Art in fact begins with two startlingly expressive folding screens by the later artist Ogata Korin (1658-1716). The screens depict “The Gods of Wind and Thunder” and “The Waves at Matsushima.”

It was Korin, rather than Sotatsu, the pioneer of the style, who first received attention during the Meiji Period. He studied the approach and techniques of Sotatsu and Koetsu and developed his own style from them. Interestingly, the term Rimpa derives from a combination of the last syllable of Ogata’s given name and the word for school, “ha.’

The exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, is named simply, Rimpa. But why at MoMAT and not at a museum specializing in Japanese art?

“We took up Rimpa from the viewpoint: ‘What is interesting is interesting!’ We hope that people will look at Rimpa free from the shackles of art history,” Ryo Furuta, the museum’s curator, said in an interview.

“Unlike Japanese art of Chinese origin, for example, one does not need any knowledge or preparation to enjoy Rimpa. One can look at Rimpa paintings just as pure arrangements of colors and shapes. Thus it is possible to compare Rimpa and modern work, including Western paintings.”

True to his word, the exhibition has enlarged the scope of our understanding of Rimpa. It is ambitious in its approach, incorporating not only the works of Sotatsu, Koetsu, Korin, Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828), Suzuki Kiitsu (1796-1858) and others, but also 20th century painters such as Kanzan Shimomura, Ryushi Kawabata, Shunso Hishida, Taikan Yokoyama, Heihachiro Fukuda and Matazo Kayama.

The Rimpa style became known in Europe through the efforts of the famous collector and critic of Japanese art Ernest Fenellosa (1868-1918). Alongside the homegrown works, the exhibition displays 19th and 20th century masterpieces by non-Japanese painters. These include symbolist artists Gustav Klimt and Odilon Redon, the applied artist Koloman Moser, as well as the impressionist Pierre Bonnard and 20th century artists Henri Matisse and Andy Warhol.

“It is difficult to define what Rimpa is, but it is most renowned for its decorative style, which includes a rhythmic repetition of patterns, use of a golden background and two-dimensional design,” Furuta said.

The latter is due to the distinctive use of the surface to arrange patterns and shapes, which is so different from the Western tradition of art from the Renaissance onward where the surface is used to frame the scene. “One can see the repetition of patterns in Klimt’s ‘Life Is a Struggle (Golden Knight)’ and ‘Nuda Veritas,’ in which flowers have been turned into patterns,” Furuta claimed.

Despite the decorative nature of Rimpa paintings, you feel the natural energy and movement flooding out of many of the pieces — in Korin’s “Waves at Matsushima,” Sotatsu’s and Koetsu’s “Poem Scroll with Underpaintings of Cranes,” for instance.

“Rimpa painters observed nature carefully, including wind, waves and plants, capturing their rhythm and movement. They then simplified or turned natural phenomena into patterns,” Furuta explained. “It is Sotatsu who did this first and even now, people marvel at what he was already doing in the Momoyama and early Edo periods. Because seemingly simple designs are based on careful observation, they can express the rhythm of nature.”

One of the joys of the exhibition is that one can reimagine the comfortable wooden interiors that the paintings once adorned, as they are largely painted on byobu (folding screens), fusuma (sliding doors) and hanging scrolls.

Unfortunately, the exhibition lacks famous pieces like Korin’s “Iris Screens” and “Red and White Plum Trees” and Sotatsu’s “White Elephant,” which is painted on a door of Japanese cedar.

But you can instantly recognize a contemporary version of Korin’s irises in “From Line” by Lee U Fan, a painter from South Korea now living in Japan. Lee may or may not be aware of his predecessor’s work, but the result — just long vertical brush strokes in indigo blue — is a clear echo of Korin’s irises, testament to the fact that the Rimpa tradition is no longer confined to Japanese artists and is still being reinterpreted around the world.