Before my visits to the Metropolitan this past summer, I had only the vaguest of ideas as to who Sakai Hôitsu was, what his paintings were like, or whether or not I liked them. A triptych of the four seasons and the rising sun changed all of that.
That set of three pieces is included in “Silver Wind: The Arts of Sakai Hôitsu,” an exhibition focusing on Hôitsu and his chief disciple Suzuki Kiitsu, showing at Japan Society in New York through January 6th. The Society has done a lot of great shows in recent years, but I really must say, it is rare that I see an exhibit at any museum/gallery where just about every single piece grabs me and makes me want to look at it forever. Art dealers and collectors are always saying you should look for what grabs you, look for pieces that you just know you’ll truly treasure – and I think I have found mine. I likely will never be able to afford a Hôitsu or a Kiitsu, but fortunately there are a good number of later artists – “modern” “neo-traditionalist” Nihonga artists – whose work is in very much the same vein. Not that I want to make this post about buying or collecting – I say all of this simply to indicate something of how much these pieces grabbed me.
Hôitsu lived from 1761-1828, chiefly in Edo, and became quite connected to Edo’s artistic circles. One piece in the exhibition, believed to have been put together for his 60th birthday, is a conglomeration of tiny compositions by himself, Watanabe Kazan, and sixty-six others. Other pieces in the exhibit show his connections to the likes of Kameda Bôsai, his disciple Suzuki Kiitsu of course, Nakamura Hôchû, and to the cultural arena of the pleasure districts as well – though he never married, he had a lengthy and serious live-in relationship with a particular courtesan. He was born into a prominent and wealthy samurai family, which had in decades past been patrons of Ogata Kôrin. After in his early years creating a number of bijinga paintings of courtesans in the ukiyo-e style, he turned for the remainder of his career to working “in the style of Kôrin,” a phrase quite similar to the actual meaning of the word “Rinpa” (the “school” of painting to which Hôitsu is said to belong, and to which the current exhibit/rotation at the Metropolitan is devoted). In 1815, he organized an exhibition of works by Kôrin on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Kôrin’s death, and produced a woodblock printed book called Kôrin hyakuzu (Kôrin One Hundred Pictures) depicting either Kôrin’s works, or works of his own inspired by or based on Kôrin’s compositions. I thought it interesting that, as one of the gallery labels points out, we remain unclear as to whether the book served as a basis for many of Hôitsu’s compositions, or whether the book records compositions he created on his own, based on other sources.
A page from the Kôrin Hyakuzu, depicting a folding screen painting of waves by Kôrin, also included in the current Japan Society exhibit, and based on which Hôitsu produced his own screen paintings of waves, which are today a National Treasure. This copy of the book, image (c) British Museum.
In any case, the exhibition contains a surprising number of pieces with fun and interesting historical connections – all too often there are pieces that would be just incredible to include in an exhibition, and they just can’t be obtained. I’m sure that happened here, too. There’s only so much you can do. But, even so, the exhibit includes an original work by Kôrin (a two-fold folding screen depicting waves), illustrated in the Kôrin hyakuzu, alongside a pair of folding screens of waves, by Hôitsu, against a silver foil background, which is said to have been based directly upon that Kôrin work. The silver Hôitsu screens are today a National Treasure, and so it is a real coup to get to see them here in New York; National Treasures do not often leave Japan. Because of their special status, these will only be up until
November 4th, so catch them while you can! The display of these screens has been extended now until November 11th!
A hanging scroll triptych depicting cranes, deer, and Jûrôjin (one of the Seven Lucky Gods), in bright brilliant colors and very clearly stylistically influenced by the Deer Scroll by Kôetsu & Sôtatsu (now at the Seattle Art Museum), and also depicted in the Kôrin hyakuzu, seems another wonderful “get” for the Society. I was personally quite taken by a pair of folding screens depicting the 36 Immortals of Poetry, or the Sanjûrokkasen, one screen by Tatebayashi Kagei (from the Cleveland Museum), and one by Hôitsu. Both seem nearly identical in composition – in which figure is positioned where, how they are posed, how they are depicted – and yet we are told that both artists based their compositions on the same original by Kôrin, never actually seeing one another’s versions. The Met currently has on display a hanging scroll by Kamisaka Sekka as well depicting the same subject, albeit not quite the same composition. The Hôitsu piece is especially interesting as it seems to be a full-scale study or preparatory work, largely unfinished, giving us therefore a glimpse into how artists of the time prepared their works. The outlines are all done, and the faces painted in, along with some sections in browns, greys, and blacks. The remaining sections each have the color written in, like a coloring book, in Japanese. This unfinished work is further interesting in that it was included in the very first exhibit in that gallery, after Japan Society first moved into this building in the 1970s.
Another work in this vein, not only attractive and skillful and whatever but of actual art historical importance, and great to be able to see in the show, was a two-fold screen by Hôitsu depicting a scene of “Eight Views of Xiao and Xiang,” a very standard theme for ink paintings. This is, apparently, the only known monochrome work on folding screens by Hôitsu, who as we have seen normally worked in such bright bold colors.
I also enjoyed seeing a Hôitsu painting from the MFA (right) which was among their most recent acquisitions back when I was interning there, alongside a work from a private collection attempting to recreate the same composition. Another work, a depiction of Emperor Nintoku (one of a triptych of hanging scrolls), bringing the same bright bold colors, amazing cleanliness of form, incredible fine details, and contrast of bold colors to ink wash, that I love so much in all of his works, also was displayed alongside a study (or, as those in Western art might call it, a “cartoon”).
The final two sections of the exhibition were dedicated to Hôitsu’s student Suzuki Kiitsu. I guess there are only so many Hôitsu works you can manage to get together. Not that I’m complaining – many of these Kiitsu works were just as stunning as Hôitsu’s. I so wish that they allowed photography, so that I could have images of each of these, to go through each with you and post my thoughts on each one of them. Kiitsu did a lot of gorgeous works in the mode of Hôitsu, but he also brought some great innovations. A painting of a rising dragon and Mt. Fuji (right) shows the ultimate range of what can be done in monochrome ink, using a combination of ink wash (rendering Fuji in white as a negative image against the grey sky), fine clear lines (on the dragon’s body), and bleeding effects (in smoke that surrounds the dragon), with the only color being gold used in the dragon’s eyes and in the lightning which accompanies the dragon’s storm. A pair of lines at the bottom of the composition form a “whoosh” mark, like in comicbooks, adding great force, momentum, and speed to the image, making the viewer see the dragon not as floating gently, but as rapidly, forcefully, flying up out of the water and into the sky.
Right: A scene in the Yoshiwara licensed quarters, by Suzuki Kiitsu. The other hanging scroll of the pair depicts a scene in Shinagawa, an unlicensed pleasure district also in Edo. I just adore the bright colors and fine details in these works. Indianapolis Museum of Art.
In a painting of the bodhisattva Kokuzô (of which I sadly cannot find a photo online), Kiitsu deploys an extensive amount of a beautiful deep blue mineral pigment, and a variety of other bright bold colors, creating an effect reminiscent of Tibetan thankas and really quite different from what we normally see in Japanese Buddhist paintings – he goes further, painting in the entirety of the painting’s mounting, down to the sections of silk that wrap around the wooden rollers, imitating or emulating, in trompe l’oiel fashion the appearance of a painting mounted in the traditional way within sections of brocade.
And, of course, the exhibit ends with Kiitsu’s massive Morning Glories (Asagao) screens, a classic example of purely decorative Rinpa composition very much “in the style of Kôrin,” in all their bright blue, green, and gold glory. Throughout this exhibition, we see the things I fell for in the Hôitsu works I saw at the Metropolitan exhibit – bold bright colors, incl. red maple leaves, green leaves, deep blue flowers, pinks used against white backgrounds to create incredibly textured sakura petals, and a multitude of fine, fine details in color, such as the lines of gold for veins of a leaf, or in the fine details of a figure’s garments. If I could get replicas of some of these works, to hang in my office, I would be a very happy man.
I have notes on so many of the works in this show, and am partially tempted to share them all. But, I think this post has gone on long enough, so I encourage you, if you can, if you have the chance, to make the time and go check out this exhibition, “Silver Wind: The Arts of Sakai Hôitsu”, at Japan Society (333 East 47th St, NYC) before it closes on January 6th.