I always consider it fortunate that at institutions like the Metropolitan Museum, exhibitions continue to argue eloquently that art has evolved along manifold trajectories before postmodern discourses recognized it as so. In that vein, one of the highlights of the fall museum season, Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art, which explores a distinctive style that originated in early 17th century Kyoto and thrived well into the 20th century with far-reaching resonance in Post-Impressionism and Art Nouveau, promises more than an optical feast or a comprehensive academic survey.
Rinpa, literally translated as “The School of Korin,” derives its name from the Kyoto-born artist Ogata Korin (1658–1716). Through inventive use of space and brush techniques, he consolidated a style that embraced bold abstraction of natural forms, vibrant yet refined color schemes, and decorative aplomb. The interdisciplinary Rinpa aesthetic is also widely practiced in lacquer, ceramics, and textile designs.
But the story of Rinpa is one of many successive artistic revivals in which Korin is a key link. His unique sensibility, for instance, is largely indebted to an artistic duo active half a century before him — Tawaraya Sotatsu and Hon’ami Koetsu (1558-1637), whose works Korin serendipitously stumbled upon in his family’s art collection. Nearly a century later, artist Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828), a member of an elite samurai family that collected Korin, brought back the style again and re-established it in Edo (modern day Tokyo).
Fun fact for those who think “artist as curator” is a recent phenomenon: In 1815, Hoitsu organized a memorial Korin exhibition, followed by three manual/catalogues that canonized Korin’s representational repertoire and stylistic priorities, accompanied by art-historical work tracing all the way back to Sotatsu. At the Met, one of Hoitsu’s many woodblock printed endeavors to preserve Rinpa is on display, juxtaposed with a pair of golden screens by artist Ogata Kenzan — Korin’s brother — that was rather faithfully illustrated in the volume.
Operating on this premise, the Met’s show examines these fascinating connections and modes of dissemination (most prominently through printed manuals), as well as the idiosyncratic choices of each artist, including later practitioners and those who are not strictly defined but are profoundly influenced by Rinpa. Various media of art and crafts on display also testify to the style’s enormous reach.
A sumptuous ensemble of golden screens in the first gallery exemplifies Sotatsu’s legacy, though none is precisely attributable to this elusive progenitor. Like his frequent collaborator the renowned calligrapher Koetsu, Sotatsu had a penchant for an earlier artistic golden age that occurred during the Hei’an period (749-1185). Scenes from literary classics such as The Tale of Genji or The Tales of Ise are often reenacted in the Rinpa repertoire, fusing compositional and stylistic elements of the antiquarian Yamato-e.
But Sotatsu and Koetsu’s prime mode of collaboration is on poem cards (shikishi), a late Hei’an art form popular among the cultural elite at court. (A very early example was featured in the first rotation of the show). While Koetsu’s spontaneous calligraphy is “the prime object of attention,” as is the norm in traditional East Asian art, Sotatsu’s bold background decorations exhibit a wonderful sense of seriality and fluidity that compete for attention. Often executed in gold and silver (now oxidized to a darker shade), Sotatsu’s design features elegantly patterned arrangements of flowers, winding streams, and packs of deer. Its laconic yet powerful visual language proved effective — and uncannily modern if seen through a Western-centric lens — for painting in larger formats.
This is vividly evident in an early 18th-century screen painting titled “Boats upon Waves” that follows Sotatsu’s signature representation of Matsushima — an island in northern Japan known for its scenic peculiarities. Nature, in this expansive view of rolling waves, protruding malachite reefs, and fluid sweeps of gritty gold clouds, is stylized to a compelling effect. Interactions between the image’s collage-like perspective and the undulating six-panel surface make the work a rich site for discussions of spatiality.
In the center of the same gallery, curator John Carpenter places a contemporary sculpture, “PixCell-Deer #24” (2011), by Nawa Kohei (born 1975). Featuring a taxidermy sika deer thoroughly covered in crystal orbs of various sizes, the work resembles a pixilated image, but also alludes to a prominent type of religious painting where the auspicious animal is typically shown carrying a large mirror on its back with its head turned back. As the luminous figure projects hologram-like reflections on the gallery’s glass panels, the deer — a popular pictorial motif itself — becomes mesmerizingly incorporated in the painted scenes and landscapes.
This ingenious placement transforms the whole gallery into an auratic installation where traditional and contemporary works exist in a mutually enriching context. In a similar fashion, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Five Elements” glass pagoda blends in perfectly with a group of early Buddhist objects known as the “One Million Pagodas” from the late 8th century. Whereas the latter contains small scrolls of Buddhist text, Sugimoto inserts a tiny monochrome print developed from a 1986 negative originally intended for his series of large-scale seascapes. The transparent sphere creates the optical illusion of containing a microcosmic yet expansive ocean, which echoes in a way what the artist said in a recent New York Times profile: “I’m inviting the spirits into my photography. It’s an act of God.” I also love how easily ignorable the piece is due to its unremarkable size and placement among ancient works, refreshingly deviant from the current norms of displaying contemporary art.
In the following galleries, Korin’s “Irises at Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges),” a pair of six-panel folding screens showcasing lush clusters of irises against a diagonal bridge, is the obvious attraction. The brilliant gold ground sets off the incandescent green-blue palette as well as the ragged textures of the wooden planks, which are treated with the mottled ink technique (tarashikomi) that Korin inherited from Sotatsu. The painting references an episode in The Tales of Ise, “Yatsuhashi,” where the protagonist in exile came upon the natural vista and was moved to compose a melancholic love poem. Following the tradition of rusu moyō, or “patterns without human figures,” Korin distills the emotionally-charged scene into an evocative setting, with a simplicity that inspires textiles patterns (as displayed in an adjacent case) and anticipates the irises of Van Gogh.
Working in the idioms established by his predecessors, Sakai Hoitsu, whose earlier training covered the orthodox Kano school and the popular “floating world” genre of Ukiyo-e, pursued subtler and more naturalistic effects facilitated by the newly-imported linear perspective from the West. Hoitsu, alongside his protégé Suzuki Kiitsu (1796–1858), are currently enjoying a focused survey entitled Silver Wind at the Japan Society, which should not be missed.
In the catalogue accompanying the Met show, curator John Carpenter concludes that Rinpa, “with its remarkable propensity to abbreviate, formalize, and, in effect, design nature, was recognized both in [Korin’s] own day and in successive generations,” and that it “eventually earned international acclaim as a distinctly Japanese means of pictorial expression.” But in addition to articulating that point, any good show that surveys the artistic past — especially such periods unfamiliar even to most art professionals — is also increasingly valuable in putting the current state of affairs in the art world in alternative perspectives and contexts. And that goes beyond the “nothing new under the sun” rhetoric.
Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art runs at the Metropolitan Museum (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 13, 2012