This summer, and through January, the Japanese galleries at the Metropolitan Museum feature an exhibit entitled “Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art.” I was excited for the idea of a Rinpa exhibit – bright colors, silver and gold, things in the style of the most famous works by Sôtatsu and Kôrin. Seeing the Matsushima screens in DC last summer was a special treat, and I was excited for more of that here in New York.
Perhaps I should start by talking a little bit about what Rinpa is. Unlike many schools of painting in Japanese art history, such as the Kanô school or the Tosa school, in which artists trained directly under masters from that school, and solidly identified themselves as belonging to that school, “Rinpa” is quite a bit looser. The word Rinpa (琳派) literally means something like “in the style of [Kô]rin,” referring to Ogata Kôrin (1658-1716), whose style, techniques, themes and overall approach the Rinpa artists sought to emulate. Some Rinpa artists may have considered themselves to be followers of Kôrin “in spirit,” or to be working “in the style of Kôrin,” but for the most part, Rinpa is a term applied roughly, loosely, to those artists who art historians identify as producing these types of works. Ironically, or amusingly, Kôrin, in fact, was emulating the style and themes of Tawaraya Sôtatsu and Hon’ami Kôetsu, who were active in the very early years of the 17th century, about 50 years before Kôrin was born. Works by Sôtatsu and Kôrin focused on classical (read: Heian period) yamato-e (“indigenous” “Japanese” painting) influences, rather than the Chinese-inspired styles used heavily by the Kanô and other schools; they used a lot of bright colors, a lot of gold and silver, and little black ink outline; they often made reference to classical themes, whether relatively directly, by depicting characters or scenes from Heian period stories such as the Tale of Genji, or indirectly through the use of flowers and other imagery. Rinpa works also made use of such imagery for purely decorative purposes, employing patterns and concerns of composition with a particular eye to pure aesthetics; importantly, also, Rinpa is one of the few styles or movements in traditional Japanese art which extends beyond one medium (e.g. painting), extending into calligraphy, lacquerwares, ceramics, and the like as well. This particular exhibition focuses almost exclusively on paintings and a few woodblock-printed books, but, drawing upon the legacy of Hon’ami Kôetsu and Ogata Kenzan (Kôrin’s brother), who are both known more for their calligraphy and ceramics than for painting, the movement certainly includes a wide range of types of objects. I have a friend who specializes in Rinpa, and who I’ve been seeing frequently at the Metropolitan the last few weeks – so, my apologies to him if my explanation is too simplistic, or omits any key points.
I wish that more of my exhibition reviews could comment more heavily on the narrative the exhibit tells, the way it is laid out, the way it is organized and presented. Though I’ve never studied exhibition design formally, I find these sorts of things fascinating. Plus, it makes for a better post, a more organized post, which comments on the exhibition itself, rather than on the individual pieces contained within. But, sometimes we find we are presented with exhibits that, if they have a narrative, or a logic of organization, they are not very obvious about it. And so, there is little to comment on.
Rinpa can be really wonderful. But, it can also get overwhelming quite easily. Like getting templed-out in Kyoto. Each one is beautiful, and wonderful, and amazing, but see too many at once, and they all just sort of blur together. After the fifth or sixth screen painting of birds & flowers or classical themes, I was finding it difficult to sustain my interest. Mind you, this is not a criticism of the exhibition, so much as just me coming to recognize or realize where my interests lie. After passing by numerous true masterpieces that I’m sure would have been fascinating and eminently gorgeous for someone else, but which simply didn’t grab me (for whatever reason), I found a set of pieces that absolutely did. I felt I could have stood there forever. So entranced was I by their beauty that I am devoting an entire blog post to this set of three hanging scroll paintings by Sakai Hôitsu. Keep an eye out for that post in coming days.
Of course, there are still plenty of other beautiful works in the exhibition, starting with the Pix-Cell Deer sculpture by Nawa Kôhei. I’m not positive how this relates to Rinpa, really, but it’s a gorgeous, and fun, piece, and all the more attractive for the way it is displayed at the Metropolitan. This is the same piece which not so long ago was on display at Japan Society, as part of the exhibition “Bye Bye Kitty.” I guess someone at the Met liked it so much that he saw to it that the museum acquire the sculpture once “Bye Bye Kitty” was done. Of course, I cannot complain or criticize with the way it was shown at Japan Society, but the way it is lit here, the glass, acrylic, and crystal spheres which encase this taxidermied deer sparkle and shine in the light. The deer, furthermore, is situated between several folding screen paintings, each covered in gold foil, which provide an elegant and beautiful backdrop for viewing the piece.
Most of the exhibition, however, is devoted to paintings. As beautiful as any of these pieces are in reproduction (here on the computer screen), I never cease to be astonished to rediscover how much more beautiful they are when viewed in person. Digital images cannot relate the textures of pigments on a ground, nor properly the scale of a piece. If you do not spend much time in museums, I invite you to go and make a visit. Pick a painting and spend some time with it. Look closely at the textures of pigments and of the blank areas of paper or silk, and look at how they interact. There is something truly wonderful about seeing a work in person, and, if you get the opportunity, to see it without any glass or anything else between you and the artwork.
An anonymous composition attributed to followers of Ogata Kôrin was one such work. Though not the most colorful piece, perhaps even downright drab, when looking at it in person, all the fine details of the differing colors and materials and how they are applied, come out. Looking purely at color and pattern, it is a pretty monochromatic (or monotonous) piece. But add texture into the mix, and it is actually a rather vibrant, complex artwork.
With its flowing river and dense composition of large trees in the foreground, it reminds me of one of Kôrin’s most famous works, a pair of folding screens depicting Red and White Plum Blossoms, which has been designated a National Treasure. The black stream with hints of gold in this work seems almost guaranteed to be drawing upon, or to be inspired by, that earlier Kôrin work. Tarashikomi, the watery color-bleeding effect characteristic of Rinpa, is used in a controlled way here, to give texture and character to rocks and tree trunks, while flecks of gold – not full squares of gold foil, but just scattered flecks – suffuse the scene.
Suzuki Kiitsu’s “Morning Glories” (asagao) is perhaps one of the most famous screen paintings in the Metropolitan’s collection of Japanese art. Frankly, I think it pales in comparison to the Yatsuhashi (Eight-Plank Bridge) and Irises screen by Kôrin (which will be on display come September), in terms of its fame, but nevertheless, the museum takes great pride in this piece, and I don’t blame them. In some ways, this piece strikes me as the perfect example of the decorative Rinpa aesthetic. It alludes to deeper meanings through the simple presence of the flowers, which imply resonances to various classical poems and stories that feature morning glories, but it is also very strongly (purely) decorative. The flowers do not grow straight up, limited by any effort to produce a realistic sense of space, or a setting in which the content of the painting takes place; rather, they twist across the gold-backed planes of the screens to produce a pattern that is decorative and aesthetically beautiful in its composition. The juxtaposition of deep blues and greens against a bright gold background, and the pattern in which they are arranged, reminds one of the aforementioned Kôrin Yatsuhashi/Iris screens, and of Kôrin’s Irises screen held by the Nezu Museum in Tokyo, both of which are among the most commonly seen examples, in for example art history survey textbooks, of the decorative attitude or style of the Rinpa aesthetic.
A smaller, darker screen of the same motif (morning glories) elsewhere in the exhibit, painted by Tawaraya Sôri, provides an interesting contrast. Sôri’s screen is short and wide, looking like something that would be put on a desk, or displayed in an alcove, rather than serving as a room divider or decorative backdrop as Kiitsu’s full-size screens might have. Sôri’s composition is also more restrained, leaving a lot more open space, and making the flowers seem more like accents, almost, rather than the main subject of the composition.
The exhibit also included a number of woodblock printed books reproducing designs by Ogata Kôrin, Sôtatsu, and others. The books are rather limited in their ability to reproduce subtleties of shading, and include limited color (in order to keep costs down); thus they are certainly not the most attractive art objects, as compared to proper paintings. Yet, they do have their appeal. And, perhaps more importantly, they have great historical significance. Though the gallery labels fail to discuss this at all, these books would have served as guides or inspiration for artists trying to understand how to paint in the Rinpa style (or how to paint, period), and would also have served to provide commoner consumers with the opportunity to see and appreciate Rinpa paintings. Of course, the books cannot be taken as an accurate reproduction of the paintings, not by a long-shot, but for the average guy on the street in 19th century Japan, I suppose it’s better than nothing. Including these books here is, in terms of exhibit design and concept, I think, a real plus point. It takes the exhibit beyond being a discussion rooted purely in artistic style and technique, and beyond simply providing the museum visitor with something pretty to look at, and takes it into the realm of discussing actual historical context and impact. How did people know about, or experience, Rinpa art? For most people, it was through books like these, since the actual paintings were very expensive, and were of course quite limited in quantity. This aspect of the role of the books as painting guides is especially important for Rinpa, since few Rinpa artists studied directly under other Rinpa artists; I don’t know the historical details of whether this holds true for any particular artist, but it is easy to imagine someone being either self-taught, or studying under a Kanô, Tosa, or ukiyo-e painting master, and then looking at these books for inspiration, to start deviating from their master’s themes and motifs, and to start producing Rinpa works.
Finally, a set of a different kind of woodblock printed books are displayed in the print room towards the end of the exhibition. Kamisaka Sekka’s three-volume set entitled Momoyogusa (百々世草), or “Flowers of a Hundred Worlds”, is so dense with color and design that I thought each page was hand-painted; that these were unique, handpainted books. In fact, they are mass-produced woodblock printed books, albeit very expensive, high-end ones, with deep colors and extensive use of silver and gold. The first time I heard the name Kamisaka Sekka, it was attached to a hand-drum he designed (he designed the lacquer box and cloth cover for the drum as well), and so I have always associated him with lacquerwares and the like. However, as it turns out, he was a truly incredible painter. At least one of his paintings, a colorful, charming depiction of the 36 Poetry Immortals (Sanjûrokkasen), will be on display after the September rotation.
It is difficult to display books in an exhibition. The books are, by necessity, under glass, and even if they weren’t, we cannot have visitors touching the books, turning the pages. In this Rinpa exhibit, the Met has rectified this problem by first of all displaying multiple copies of the books, each open to a different page; but, also, by providing touchscreens that allow a visitor to virtually page through every page of all three volumes. Another set of touchscreens in the George Nakashima-furnished room overlooking the Temple of Dendur display pages from another album of Rinpa paintings.
I had the great fortune of a sneak-peek at some of the works that will be going up in rotation in September. I am not sure which pieces are coming down, so if one has the chance, it would probably be best to visit the exhibition at least twice – both over the summer, and after the September change-up. It looks like they’ve reserved some of the most stunning pieces – including the Kamisaka Sekka “36 Poetry Immortals” painting, and one by Sakai Ôho of a maple in autumn – for September. I wish I were going to be able to be here to see them installed in the gallery. However, in the meantime, all of the pieces in the show (for both rotations) can be seen online at the exhibition’s webpage.
Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art is up at the Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Ave, New York NY, from now until January 13, 2013, with a rotation in mid-to-late September. A catalog for the exhibit will become available in late September as well.