‘The most important Japanese artist you’ve never heard of.” That is how James Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, describes Tawaraya Sotatsu, the focus of the gallery’s current magnificent exhibition. The show presents the first in-depth examination of the master to be held in the United States, and while Sotatsu may not be a household name, the exhibition does much to illuminate us on this brilliant and intriguing artist.

Much of Sotatsu’s life is a mystery. It is clear he was active in Kyoto from around 1600 to 1640; he headed the Tawaraya, a painting studio and shop that designed and sold fans, and although a lowly artisan, he moved in elite circles, counting the Imperial court among his patrons. Despite great success, however, he quickly fell into obscurity after his death. This was partly due, ironically, to the devotion of his later follower Ogata Korin. Korin’s copies of major works by Sotatsu were so celebrated that they eclipsed the originals. And it was Korin whose name became linked, both in Japan and abroad, with the style that was actually originated by Sotatsu.

Sotatsu appeared at a time when the rise of the merchant class was creating new patrons for an art full of novelty and surprise but also rich in references to a courtly, literary culture. As an artist and designer for the urban Tawaraya studio, he was practiced in translating images from classical tales to the challenging format of the folding fan. His connections among the nobility gave him privileged access to traditional Japanese- style handscrolls — a treasure-trove of motifs and stylistic techniques to be inspired by. Since he did not belong to any official school of art, he could also borrow freely from a wide range of sources, including new technologies of printing, and images and ink methods found in Korean and Chinese paintings.

The style he developed, which later became known as Rinpa (“rin” from Korin, “pa” meaning school), features simplified and abbreviated forms arranged to create interesting, often brightly colored designs. Closely associated with Rinpa are a light, fluid brush line and the technique known as tarashikomi (dropping in), wherein ink or colorant is dripped onto a layer of wet ink and allowed to spread, resulting in both readable form and a mottled texture that calls attention to the two-dimensional surface. The spreading ink is not always entirely under the artist’s control, which lends the work a quality of serendipity.

The playfulness, emphasis on flat surface, manipulation of space, asymmetry, and painterliness that characterize Sotatsu’s work and Rinpa in general result in an art that is strikingly modern. While ukiyo-e (“floating world” images) is given credit for attracting European painters of the latter 19th century to Japanese art, Rinpa was also part of the Japonisme movement that influenced French impressionists and post-impressionists, as well as an influence on the development of Art Nouveau. One finds echoes of the Rinpa aesthetic in the work of Henri Matisse and Gustav Klimt, among others. Techniques and subject matter identified with the Sotatsu style also inform Japanese painting and craft into the 21st century. Such modern artists as Maeda Seison paid direct homage to Sotatsu, reworking themes and ink methods found in his work.

A retrospective of Sotatsu is thus long overdue. The present exhibition is the result of an international collaboration involving major scholars from the United States and Japan, and other cultural institutions from both the East and West. That it highlights an American collection speaks to the prescience of Charles Lang Freer. Freer was attracted early on to the pottery of Hon’ami Koetsu, an associate of Sotatsu and a master calligrapher, whose brushed verse regularly accompanies Sotatsu’s designs. Freer came to know Sotatsu through the more famous Koetsu and was impressed enough to make a special study of the artist. On a trip to Japan in 1906, he purchased a pair of folding screens by Sotatsu. This was some years before Japan’s own rediscovery of Sotatsu, and in fact, it was partially Freer’s deep interest that spurred that rediscovery.

Among the many fine works by the painter and his workshop collected by Freer, two screens are recognized as masterpieces: “Waves of Matsushima” and “Dragon and Clouds.” The Freer and Sackler Galleries are the only places in which these masterworks can be shown. Freer stipulated in his will that none of his collection could be loaned out, nor any works borrowed in. It can, however, be displayed in the adjacent Sackler Gallery, which is physically and administratively connected to the Freer.

At the Sackler, works that belong to the Freer can also be shown alongside holdings from other institutions. In this exhibition, the Freer paintings are in excellent company. Among the significant pieces borrowed for the show is a pair of eight-panel screens from the imperial collection.

It has been 400 years since Koetsu founded the artisan village at Takagamine in northern Kyoto, and exhibitions on Rinpa are currently being held across Japan to celebrate this anniversary. To get a better understanding of the man whose genius underlay this style, however, a trip to Washington would be worthwhile for those who can make it. “Sotatsu: Making Waves” is an important contribution to our understanding of the Kyoto commoner who had a profound impact not only on Japanese art, but also on the formation of a modern aesthetic.

“Sotatsu: Making Waves” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery runs until Jan. 31 and is free to visit. For more information, visit www.asia.si.edu. Carol Morland is a is an independent scholar of Japanese art, with a specialty in Edo Period (1603-1868) painting.

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