At this moment, the Kyoto National Museum is showcasing some extraordinarily breathtaking work. Three sets of “Wind God” and “Thunder God” screens by three major Rinpa (also known as Rimpa) artists are being displayed together in the same location for the first time in 75 years. And where else but in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital and the birthplace of the Rinpa school of painting.
This special exhibition, celebrating the school’s 400th anniversary, showcases a selection of historically significant paintings and objects including lacquerware, ceramics and textiles.
The “Wind God” and “Thunder God” screens are seminal paintings that reveal how the Rinpa aesthetic was passed down from its beginnings through to the Edo Period (1603-1868). The first, a designated National Treasure, is attributed to Tawaraya Sotatsu (active in the early 1600s). About a century later, Ogata Korin (1658-1716) replicated and reworked Sotatsu’s piece, creating a screen that is now an Important Cultural Property. Korin’s version was also replicated by Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828) another 100 years later. Since there was no official master and pupil relationship in the Rinpa school, these three sets of screens, painted years apart, reveal how copying the work of previous generations functioned as a way to pass down and teach Rinpa style and painting practice.
What is immediately conspicuous in these works, and is characteristic of the Rinpa tradition, is an underlying sense of movement. In the Sotatsu version, a large unadorned expanse of gold leaf separates the deities and reinforces a feeling of motion by suggesting that the two are speeding toward each other from spaces outside the screens.
Another wonderful expression of movement can be seen in a collaborative work from the early Rinpa period, “Poems by the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets Over Painting of Cranes” by the progenitor of the Rinpa school, Hon’ami Koetsu (1558-1637), and Sotatsu. This 13.56-meter-long hand-scroll, also an Important Cultural Property, depicts a flock of cranes in silhouette, rhythmically flying across the vast horizontal space of the scroll, the rest of which is bare save for Koetsu’s calligraphy. The synchronous movements of the cranes are captured in a repeating and harmonious pattern that resembles frames of cine film or notes on a musical score, but in gentle, precise brush strokes.
In the ceramic “Flared bowl with openwork Tatsuta River design,” Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743), Korin’s younger brother, similarly expresses rhythm and movement, capturing the forever changing flow of a river dotted with autumn maple leaves on to a functional bowl.
As well as its overview of the history of the Rinpa school, this exhibition — which also shows off the spacious new museum building that opened last year — offers visitors dazzling little surprises, especially in the diverse depictions of nature. It’s a visually rich show worth the time to peruse carefully.
“Rinpa: The Aesthetics of the Capital” at the Heisei Chishinkan (Kyoto National Museum) runs until Nov. 23; 9:30 a.m.- 6 p.m. (Fri. until 8 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Mon. www.kyohaku.go.jp/eng/special