“The Rising Sun with Flowers and Trees of the Four Seasons.” Sakai Hôitsu, with calligraphy by Kazan’in Yoshinori. c. 1820-1828. Ink and color on silk. Gitter-Yelen Collection.
Prior to last week, I had no idea that Sakai Hôitsu (1761-1828) would soon become one of my favorite artists. I was certainly familiar with the name, but I don’t think that I had a good sense of what his works were like, or what I thought of them. All of that uncertainty blew away, however, like clouds banished by the wind, once I came face-to-face with these three paintings in the Rinpa exhibit currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum. The triptych, depicting a rising sun with calligraphic inscription, flanked by flowers and trees representing the four seasons, froze me in my tracks.
The red autumn leaves in the top left form an imaginary diagonal with the stream next to the brilliant blue irises in the bottom right. Normally I don’t like to talk about diagonals and such, but here, across the void between the three paintings, it really seems to have a real effect, compositionally. The irises represent summer, while the cherry blossoms above them are the most standard symbol of spring; below the autumn leaves, in the bottom right, the distinctive shape of bamboo leaves, representing winter, can be seen.
It is these seasonal allusions, along with aspects of the overall style and techniques, that makes this piece (arguably) Rinpa. I say arguably because, unlike the Kanô school or the Katsukawa school, for example, in which artists studied directly under a master of that school, Rinpa is a much looser categorization of artists and artworks, as identified and categorized by art historians. The identification, therefore, of something as being in the Rinpa style is somewhat subjective. Rinpa artists are linked not by a direct lineage of students & masters, but by their intentions to emulate the style of Ogata Kôrin, who in turn was emulating & reviving the style of Tawaraya Sôtatsu and Hon’ami Kôetsu; Hôitsu studied under Kanô, Maruyama, ukiyo-e, and nanga artists, and, born roughly 50 years after Kôrin’s death, like most Rinpa artists likely considered himself a student or follower of Kôrin “in spirit,” if that’s the right word.
Yet, these Hôitsu works stand out from the typical Rinpa style in their spare use of gold, and the instead plain, blank silk used for the background. Most of the elements are comprised of a single solid area of color of a single hue, not an intricate complex of drawn-in details. While I find the intricate details in other works fascinating, and the degree of skill required to produce them truly amazing, it is this simplicity, this aesthetic of bright, bold colors, and a certain stark kind of cleanliness, that I find so stunning, so entrancing, about these Hôitsu pieces. The sun is perfectly round, and its red fades just perfectly, as do the reds of the autumn leaves, accented by the minimalist use of gold for the “bones” of the leaves. Nearly every element in the composition is described without black outline, but nevertheless retain a sharpness, a crispness, to their borders of each form that not only suggests the artist’s masterful skills, but which is a crucial element of this clean, crisp aesthetic. In these ways, Hôitsu’s work feels more like Nihonga than true Rinpa. Nihonga, or neo-traditional painting, did not emerge until the late 19th century, as the result of pressures to modernize (Westernize) painting, and to develop a “national” painting style, and also to preserve or keep alive traditional painting traditions; in Hôitsu’s time, traditional painting was very much alive, and was unthreatened. It thus certainly cannot properly be called Nihonga. But, similarly, Sôtatsu cannot truly be considered a Rinpa (“in the style of Kôrin”) artist since he lived a century before Kôrin; perhaps we can in a similar fashion consider Hôitsu a Nihonga painter before Nihonga. To my eye, the cleanliness of his aesthetic resembles the works of late 19th and early 20th century Nihonga painters much more than it does the dense, heavy-feeling, complex compositions of earlier Rinpa artists.
Hôitsu’s use of tarashikomi, a wet color-bleeding technique strongly associated with Rinpa, can be clearly seen in the tree trunk. But here, too, it is perfectly controlled. On one level, it is easy to see the tree trunk as a random blotch of color, as if one spilled watercolors onto the paper and it bled uncontrollably; but, this tree trunk is at the same time precisely the shape it ought to be, the shape it needs to be, and the bits of green, bled into the brown, seem also to be precisely how they ought to be, as if Hôitsu were able to perfectly control the bleeding of the colors.
The mineral pigments, or iwa e no gu (岩絵具), used in traditional Japanese painting consist of various minerals, ground up to a very fine powder, and suspended in an animal glue called nikawa. I am told it does not blend like oil paints, and in order to produce a different shade, one cannot simply blend paints on your palette or on the painting, but rather one must use a different shade. A friend of mine chanced upon a store in Tokyo recently selling traditional mineral pigments, and the walls were lined with jars each containing a slightly different shade or hue from the last.
Tarashikomi, developed chiefly by Sôtatsu in the very early years of the 17th century, is a technique by which watery color-bleeding effects can be created, as seen in the tree trunk here. Extra water is added, allowing the colors, which function much like watercolors to begin with, to bleed into one another. The colors still don’t quite blend as they would in an oil painting, but, the effect is certainly a beautiful and effective one. Some artists, such as Hôitsu, take care to have this happen in an extremely controlled manner. Some, such as Nakamura Hôchû, in a piece displayed nearby, allow the colors more freedom as they bleed, resulting in a much less crisp-edged final result.
Frankly, beyond this vague idea of the perfectly clean and crisp aesthetic of this Hôitsu triptych, I couldn’t even say what it is really that I find so beautiful about it. But even the calligraphy, though difficult to read, seems perfectly cleanly done. The characters are neither too large nor too small; neither too dark nor too light (for the most part); and, perhaps most importantly, the overall space they occupy aligns perfectly with the red sun, compositionally. The thirty-one syllable waka, translated by curator John Carpenter, reads:
Akirakeki miyo zo to
Praise for the enlightened
I’m sure I don’t need to say much by way of interpreting this poem. The red sun, of course, a symbol of the emperor and of his enlightened power and benevolence radiating and illuminating; the four seasons representing the four directions, i.e. all of the realm. But, while I certainly appreciate a poem that is so direct and that so clearly relates to the iconography of the composition, it is, again, just the pure aesthetic impact, the sheer beauty of Hôitsu’s work which I find so entrancing.
These and many other works by Hôitsu will be featured in an exhibition at Japan Society in the fall, which I am sure will be excellent. (There is no webpage for the exhibit yet, but when there is, I’ll be sure to post it.) Meanwhile, a number of other stunning Hôitsu works will be rotated into the Metropolitan’s Rinpa exhibition beginning in September. Perhaps I will have to make a special trip back to the East Coast to see these.
All photos taken myself, in the Japanese galleries at the Metropolitan Museum, exposure brightened using Picasa. The three pieces can also be seen, in official photography, lined up immediately next to one another on the webpage of the Man’yôan Collection of Dr. Kurt Gitter and Alice Yelen, who own the artworks.