Suzuki Kiitsu: Bringing modernity to Rimpa

by Jeff Michael Hammond

Special To The Japan Times

The artist Suzuki Kiitsu (1796-1858) was long considered a late and somewhat minor player in the Rimpa school, which emerged in Kyoto early in the Edo Period (1603-1868). The Suntory Museum of Art’s current exhibition now re-evaluates Kiitsu’s career and his contributions to this tradition. “Suzuki Kiitsu Standard Bearer of the Edo Rimpa School” brings together just over 200 works by the artist and those in his immediate circle.

The Rimpa school (also known as Rinpa) takes its name (“Rin”) from Ogata Korin (1658-1716) who, with his brother Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743), consolidated and furthered the artistic innovations originating half a century earlier with Tawaraya Sotatsu and Hon’ami Koetsu. The school’s style was revived in Edo (present day Tokyo) toward the end of the Edo Period by Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828), establishing the Edo Rimpa school.

Kiitsu was apprenticed to Hoitsu at the age of 18. A decorated fan at the exhibition displays the master’s calligraphy combined with the younger artist’s eye for design — a gesture that reflects their good relationship, and continues the long Rimpa tradition of such collaborations.

After Hoitsu’s death, Kiitsu moved forward with some original breakthroughs. To do so he often returned to the past, revisiting the thematic material and pictorial problems explored by Korin. In Kiitsu’s “Matsushima,” he adopts the basic motifs of Korin’s celebrated painting “Waves at Matsushima.” Where Korin used a lighter touch, Kiitsu renders the ripple of waves and outlines of the rocks in bolder brushstrokes and denser hues of color.

In another set of screens, Kiitsu’s model was a Korin work in which a group of cranes all stand facing the same direction. Kiitsu, in contrast, depicts the birds in a variety of poses to loosen up the composition. In Japanese art, the motif of cranes has history and symbolic meaning, but in another, smaller set of screens Kiitsu broke with tradition by choosing to paint the rounder shape of ducks. The round shapes of these birds best fits the smaller size of these screens, and the result is lively and charming.

The exhibition demonstrates that Kiitsu was adept at working at any conceivable size, from paper fans to huge screens such as his “Morning Glories.” While certain flowers were chosen by artists for their literary associations, here Kiitsu picks a variety at the heart of the boom in horticulture among Edo townsfolk of the time.

One of Kiitsu’s original contributions to Japanese art was his remarkable use of new pigments in colors at the pink and purple end of the spectrum, as shown in one of his images of wisteria. This is just one element, along with his clean brushwork and striking designs, that give his work a fresh look that appears modern even today.

“Suzuki Kiitsu Standard Bearer of the Edo Rimpa School” at the Suntory Museum of Art, runs until Oct. 30; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,300. (Kiitsu’s “Wind God and Thunder God” will be on display between Oct. 5 and Oct. 30.) Closed Tue. www.suntory.com/sma/exhibition/2016_4. The exhibition then moves to the Himeji City Museum Of Art from Nov. 12 to Dec. 25.