Seasons play an important role in Japanese culture, which has long celebrated the appreciation of ephemeral beauty as a reflection of life itself. One of the most important seasons in Japan is New Year’s, a time for families to gather and celebrate with several days of elaborate feasts. Traditionally, this holiday fell between late January and mid-February and led directly into spring, until Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873. Vestiges of this tradition, however, remain apparent in salutations such as “new spring” (shinshun) and “welcome spring” (geishun), somewhat incongruous as they are now written on New Year’s cards sent in mid-winter.
Two timely exhibitions at Tokyo institutions are attempting to address the semantic gap by bringing together paintings, objects and fabric works that illustrate the importance of the seasons in Japanese aesthetics, with a focus on the period between New Year’s and cherry blossom viewing (hanami) in late March and early April.
In Tokyo’s Roppongi district, the Suntory Museum of Art has recently opened the exhibition “Arts for Japanese Hospitality” with works from the museum collection spanning more than 500 years, from a Nambokucho Period (1337-1392) mangalike scroll with drawings of staff preparing a feast to early 20th-century dyed futon covers, given as gifts for weddings and other celebratory occasions. These and other works provide insight into the ideals of hospitality in Japan, as well as the practice of shitsurai, by which hosts arrange artworks, utensils and cuisine to create an environment that will put guests at ease.
The exhibition is split into three sections across the museum’s two levels. The first section, “Seasonal Hospitality and Shitsurai” begins with a 19th-century scroll entitled “Manual of Interior Decoration for Daimyo Mansion’s Display of the New Year Season.” The scroll is opened to a section detailing in ink drawings how to install the massive, round kagami mochi rice cakes that are both a New Year’s decoration and a delicacy. Next to it is a contemporary recreation made according to the scroll’s specifications, with three rice cakes stacked high upon each other and adorned with pine branches, chestnuts, dried and fresh fruit and other symbolic materials.
Progressing further, several painted standing screens (byobu) portray seasonal customs. A small six-panel screen from the 17th century, “Familiar Customs Month by Month,” interweaves scenes of major festivals into one continuous frame. Rendered in fine brush strokes with vibrant color, the first month shows townsfolk praying at temples for a good start to the New Year, while the third month finds hanami parties beneath cherry trees, with the blossoms rising from the surface of the screen in a flurry of white and pink pointillist dots.
Such works evoke a sense of continuity between past and present, although the hanami of 300 years ago, with staff preparing meals and colorful hanging curtains offering revelers a modicum of privacy, seem to have been more stately affairs than the contemporary phenomenon of crowds seated cheek-to-cheek on tarpaulin picnic sheets in major metropolitan parks. They also suggest that the tenets of Japanese hospitality are by no means limited to the home and in fact can be adapted to almost any setting.
This is reinforced in the exhibition’s other sections, “Hospitality and the History of the Banquet” and “The Utensils and Furnishings of Hospitality,” which include a large Momoyama Period (1573-1615) sake container for use on a boat that, counterintuitively, is formed from a hollowed mass of rough, fired clay resembling untreated concrete. The sheer size of the sake container is indicative of the scale of entertaining that took place.
One of the most striking works in the exhibition is a lacquerware sake container ringed with mesmerizing gold, light blue, dark blue, black and red stripes that accentuate its svelte, curvilinear form. Viewed from afar, the vessel gives off a bronzed sheen similar to fine metal work. An accompanying text notes that the design of the 17th-century container may have been influenced by trade with Southeast and West Asia.
Speaking with The Japan Times, Suntory chief curator Yoshiya Ishida explained that the “Hospitality” concept is deeply tied to the museum itself. “Almost all of the works in our collection are related to the representation and practice of hospitality,” he said. “Furthermore, the idea of the museum exhibition itself is in a sense a form of hospitality and shitsurai. The works are displayed for the enjoyment of visitors, who can visually partake in them. So this exhibition came about very naturally.”
The colorful ceramic plates, incense burners and tobacco kits on display in the Suntory Museum’s “Hospitality” exhibition conjure an image of life steeped in multisensory sensuality, a far cry from the minimalist regimes of mass-market brands like Muji and IKEA that predominate in today’s daily environments. A n exhibition opening at The National Museum of Modern Art’s Crafts Gallery on Feb. 11, however, suggests that such sensuality is not inescapably relegated to the past.
Entitled “Flower Design,” it features crafts from the late 19th century to the present that incorporate floral motifs into their design. With the Crafts Gallery housed in a late Meiji Period (1868-1912) red-brick building on the edge of central Tokyo’s Kitanomaru Park (across from the Imperial Palace), the exhibition will provide visitors a figurative flower viewing that can then be complemented by a stroll outside.
Among the key figures included in the exhibition is former National Living Treasure Otomaru Kodo (1898-1997), who specialized in choshitsu, a term that literally translates to “carved lacquer.” For this technique, the artisan builds alternating layers of multicolored lacquer millimeter by millimeter around an object and then carves away the layers to reveal different designs. Otomaru’s works are small but engrossing. Fitting perfectly into the palm of one’s hand, a rounded tea caddy from 1963 is made of unconventional brown and off-white lacquer carved into repeating “silver line inlay” motifs that resemble butterfly wings in silhouette. The motifs begin in the center of the tea caddy lid and then gradually increase in size as they extend concentrically down the sides of the vessel. Requiring almost superhuman precision and patience to create, these multicolored indentations catch and reflect the light in a multitude of individuated eddies, giving the tea caddy an otherworldly presence.
A second Otomaru piece, a cylindrical tea caddy from 1959, features “mother’s heart” patterns in off-white relief against a black surface. The stylized, elongated flowers of the plant (a member of the mustard family) wrapping around the tea caddy invoke similar motifs found in Art Nouveau design from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which in turn were influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e wood cuts then fashionable in Europe. However, closer inspection of the excavated contours of the flowers reveals fine gradations of black, light blue, blue, orange and white lacquer building up to the surface of the work, adding an understated flourish of ornamentation.
Other works include a peony motif Noh robe by Kitagawa Heiro from 1963, with orange, white, red, yellow and blue flower buds stitched thread by thread across the entire robe.
Tashima Etsuko’s “Cornucopia 97-V” (1997) comprises fire-clay flower petals set upon a frosted glass armature. Leaving function behind, this piece exists somewhere between sculpture and ornament, with the blade-shaped ceramic petals resembling futuristic propellers and the glass armature, made of intersecting elongated pipes with pointed tips, adding an element of dynamic thrust. Yet it also contains a conceptual underpinning, deconstructing the typical ceramic creative process by separating the clay and glaze (which turns into glass when fired) into distinct but related elements.
Crafts Gallery curator Yoko Imai explained her criteria for choosing the works in exhibition.
“Under the influence of Chinese culture, there are a number of flower motifs that have constantly recurred in Japanese design, such as plum, orchid, cherry and camellia,” she said. “But I wanted to present works by creators who could bring their own imaginative power to this tradition.”
Both “Hospitality” and “Flower Design” seek to tap into the optimism of a new year and the excitement, in particular, that comes with the return of warm weather.
“Arts for Japanese Hospitality from the Suntory Museum of Art Collection” continues through March 14. Entry, ¥1,000. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sundays, Mondays and National Holidays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Closed Tuesdays. “Modern Crafts from the Museum Collection: Flower Design” opens on Feb. 11 and continues through April 18. Entry, ¥200. Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Mondays.
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