Art

The scrolls that keep immortal poets truly alive

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

In 1919, a pair of 13th-century hand-painted and inscribed scrolls known as the “Satake Version, Thirty-Six Immortal Poets,” was cut up and dispersed among the incredibly wealthy — an act that made newspaper headlines.

As status symbols, owning one of the sections was proof of belonging to Japan’s elite. Over the 20th century, pieces changed hands and the whereabouts of some became unknown. Kyoto National Museum’s “Special Exhibition: The Thirty-Six Immortal Poets — Elegant Arts of the Classical Japanese Court,” brings together 31 fragments, the largest number assembled in one place since the 1919 dismemberment.

The scrolls comprised the oldest surviving pictorial example on the subject of the revered Buddhist poets of the seventh to 10th centuries, who were canonized when the scholar-poet Fujiwara no Kinto (966-1041) compiled them into a poetry anthology. Featuring a series of imaginary portraits in the medieval nise-e (“realistic” or “likeness pictures”) manner, each figure was also accompanied by representative verse.

Long in the care of the Satake family, feudal lords of the Akita domain, the “Satake Version,” reentered the art market in 1919 after an abortive attempt at ownership by businessman Tadasaburo Yamamoto (1873-1927), who acquired them in 1917. Failing to sell in 1919 owing to the exorbitant asking price, a consortium of captains of industry and finance, led by the entrepreneur and tea aficionado, Masuda Dono (1848-1938), pooled their resources. They then had the hand scrolls divvied up into fragments to be dispersed among them and be remounted as hanging scrolls for use in their private tearooms.

The figure-poetry fragments were not equally esteemed. The female poets, five among them, were favored. The section featuring Saigu no Nyogo (929-85), Princess Kishi in the imperial family during the mid-Heian Period (794-1185), was the most keenly sought. Its value was established at ¥40,000. The male poets were generally less lauded. Author and compiler of the poetry anthology “Kokin Wakashu” (c. 905), Ki no Tsurayuki (872-945) was the least regarded and assigned a comparably paltry ¥3,000.

While monetary values were accorded, the division of the “Satake Version” fragments among the consortium members was by lottery. Lots were drawn from a length of bamboo and luck, or lack of it, caused some considerable frictions. That bamboo section was subsequently re-purposed as a flower vase and is included in the Kyoto National Museum exhibition.

Not merely an encomium to the “Satake Version,” the exhibition pays homage to classical medieval poetry and calligraphy over centuries, the exquisite papers they were written upon, the fabrics they were mounted in and ink stones.

Individual exhibition sections are given to the historically meritorious, such as the “saint” of Japanese poetry, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (c. 653-710), who was celebrated in the Nara Period (710-94) collection of waka poetry the “Manyoshu” (“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”) and worshipped after his death.

Comparative representations of the 36 immortal poets are also displayed in the “Agedatami,” “Tameie” and “Narikane” versions, and historically significant changes in the pictorial depiction of the poet pantheon is broached — with one highlight being the humorous facial exaggerations given to the poets in Suzuki Kiitsu’s Edo Period (1603-1868) version.

“Special Exhibition: The Thirty-Six Immortal Poets — Elegant Arts of the Classical Japanese Court” at Kyoto National Museum runs through Nov. 24; ¥1,600. For more information, visit www.kyohaku.go.jp.

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