Special Exhibition: The Rimpa School – from Tawaraya Sōtatsu to Tanaka Ikkō
The Rinpa School and Modern Design
Sakai Hōitsu Akikusa Uzura-zu (Autumn Plants and Quails) [Important Art Object] 19th Century. Colour on Gold-Leafed Paper. Yamatane Museum of Art
The Rinpa style is one of Japan’s best-known art styles. Even those in Japan who know little of art will have heard of ‘Rinpa’ – and it’s hard to avoid having seen Tawaraya Sōtatsu’s Fūjin-Raijin (Gods of Wind and Thunder) or Ogata Kōrin’s Kakitsubata (Irises) somewhere – even if the names of the artists are unfamiliar.
Rather than being confined to a single family or passed down from master to apprentice, the Rinpa style, established by Tawaraya Sōtatsu, was carried forward by artists such as Ogata Kōrin and Sakai Hōitsu, who emulated or were strongly influenced by the works of Rinpa artists who came before them. This makes the Rinpa school distinctly different from other schools of Japanese art.
The Kano school for instance, which existed more or less in parallel with the Rinpa school, maintained the style established by Kanō Masanobu in the fifteenth century by passing it down through the generations of the Kanō family. Kanō Masanobu was an official artist to the Muromachi shogunate. He and his descendants, including well-known names such as Motonobu, Eitoku, Tan’yū and others, served the shogunate for around four centuries from the Muromachi Period (1336 – 1573) through the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). Their domination of the world of Japanese art is remarkable enough, but the fact that so many prominent painters were produced by a single family is unprecedented anywhere in the world.
In contrast, the Rinpa style transcended the boundaries of time, place and social class, sparking inspiration in later artists who took up the style. Tawaraya Sōtatsu and Hon’ami Kōetsu, the prominent Kyōto artists who established the style, were active during the early Edo Period. The Ogata brothers Kenzan and Kōrin, from merchant families, rekindled the flame in the middle of the Edo Period, while Sakai Hōitsu and Suzuki Kiitsu, from samurai families, reignited the embers towards the end of the Edo Period.
The term ‘Rinpa’ was created to classify the works of these three different groups of artists into one school and in this sense, the Rinpa school is a twentieth century invention. Ogata Kōrin was ‘discovered’ in the late Meiji Period (1868 – 1912), and the term ‘Kōrinpa’ coined to denote his style. When the influence of Sōtatsu’s work on Kōrin was later understood, the style was rebranded ‘Sōtatsu-Kōrinpa’, before being shortened simply to ‘Rinpa’ after the Second World War. Naturally, the Rinpa artists themselves had no concept of any such thing as the Rinpa school, much less that they belonged to it.
The works of the Rinpa school attracted renewed attention after the Meiji Period because the style resonated with the modern aesthetic. Likewise, the reason that Kōetsu is often referred to as the ‘art director’ and Kōrin as the ‘designer’ is because this way of seeing their roles aligns with the modern world view of art.
The exhibition, The Rinpa School – from Tawaraya Sōtatsu to Tanaka Ikkō, at the Yamatane Museum of Art in Tōkyō explores the modern-day fascination with Rinpa and the artists it influenced. As suggested by the inclusion of the name of modern graphic designer Tanaka Ikkō in the title, this exhibition considers the compositions of the Rinpa school alongside those of modern design.
Disconcertingly for anyone expecting a straight-forward Rinpa exhibition, the first artwork in the display is a poster by Tanaka Ikkō, which features the simple design of a deer in the centre, its rounded back clearly delineated against an orange background. The word ‘Japan’ at the top of the poster suggests that the rounded shape of the deer in the centre of the composition should be read as the Hinomaru (rising sun image) of Japan’s national flag. Displayed next to Tanaka Ikkō’s poster is a copy of the original painting that the deer motif was borrowed from, Tanaka Shinbi’s Vow by Taira no Kiyomori. Comparing the poster to the original painting, it is clear that aside from Ikkō’s geometrical treatment, his deer is a remarkably faithful copy of the already boldly stylized form of the original.
Beyond that we come to the folding screen paintings, Maki-Kaede-zu (Chinese Black Pines and Maple Trees), attributed to Sōtatsu, and Haku Rakuten-zu (The Chinese poet Bai Juyi) by Kōrin. Both these paintings display the characteristic features of the Rinpa school. In the newly restored Maki-Kaede-zu, the green leaves of the pines on their gold ground contrast with the red autumn leaves of the maples, while the strong perpendicular lines of the straight trunks contrast with the sinuous lines of the curved trunks. This type of bold juxtaposition is also apparent in Kōrin’s Kōhakubai-zu (Red and White Plum Blossoms). In his painting, Haku Rakuten-zu, the billowing waves become an undulating abstract pattern, while an inexplicable emerald green mass appears to pour into the scene from the left. Superimposed on this, the poet and his boatman are depicted in a realistic manner, which has the somewhat comical effect of making them seem quite detached from the scene, as the sacred wind blows their boat away from Japan and back to China.
(Attributed to) Tawaraya Sōtatsu Maki-Kaede-zu (Chinese Black Pines and Maple Trees) 17th century. Colour on Gold-Leafed Paper. Yamatane Museum of Art.
Ogata Kōrin Haku Rakuten-zu (The Chinese Poet Bai Juyi: A Scene from the Noh Play Haku Rakuten) 17th century. Colour on Gold-Leafed Paper. (On display 12 May ～ 3 June)
Other works on display include the poem cards Shiki-kusabana (Seasonal Flowers), which feature calligraphy by Hon’ami Kōetsu over paintings by Tawaraya Sōtatsu; Hōitsu’s Aki-kusa Uzura-zu (Autumn Plants and Quails), an important cultural property; Shikikachō-zu (Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons) by Kiitsu, and paintings and crafts by Kamisaka Sekka (who really ought to be considered a modern-day Rinpa artist). In addition, the exhibition features a wide range of works from Nihonga artists Hayami Gyoshū, Fukuda Heihachirō, Okumura Togyū and Kayama Matazō, as well as more of Tanaka Ikkō’s graphic art.
This exhibition is not the first time the influence of the Rinpa school has been explored beyond the boundaries of traditional Japanese art. In 2004, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, presented ‘Rinpa’, an exhibition which included works not only by artists from Japan such as Lee Ufan and Kiyoshi Nakagami, but also works by Gustav Klimt, Henri Matisse and Andy Warhol. The ‘Rinpa aesthetic’ had spread offshore.
The current exhibition at the Yamatane Museum of Art once again pushes the envelope, seeking to explore the influence of the Rinpa school not only in fine art, but also in design – for it is in design that the essence of Rinpa lives on.
(Unless otherwise indicated, all works mentioned in this article are from the Yamatane Museum of Art collection.)
The Rimpa School―from Tawaraya Sōtatsu to Tanaka Ikkō runs from Saturday 12 May until Sunday 8 July at the Yamatane Museum of Art, in Hirō, Tōkyō.
A graduate in Fine Arts from Tokyo Zōkei University, Makoto Murata worked in the editorial department at the magazine, Pia, before setting out as a freelance art writer. He lectures part-time at Tokyo Zōkei University and is the principal of the BankART School (post-graduate school of art) in Yokohama. He has authored a number of books on art in Japanese.
Judy Evans is a high school teacher of English and Japanese, and a Japanese-English translator. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese and Art History and has studied production horticulture and landscape design. Judy has a keen interest in the internet environment and has administered websites for a number of organisations. She lives on a small farm in rural New Zealand and is a frequent visitor to Japan.