23 January 2013

Rimpa: Art of Japan at the Met

Top, Plum Tree. Bottom, Hollyhocks. Ogata Kenzan.
Earlier this month family and I viewed two exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, including a display of Javanese batiks described in my previous blog post. The exhibit featured here is officially titled Designing Nature: the Rimpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art, and it closed January 13, shortly after we visited. More images and information are available in the New York Times review by Holland Cotter.

Mr. Cotter's review is long on names and dates but a bit brief on analysis of the style, saying only that "the style is hard to define." This blogger will rush in where Mr. Cotter feared to tread.

Basically, Rimpa (alternate spelling for google searches is Rinpa) is a design style that evolved when the stability of the Tokugawa shogunate - the first stable government Japan enjoyed after centuries of disruption - enabled Japanese artists the luxury to explore their own home-grown aesthetic and move away from the previously all-pervasive, and somewhat stifling, influence of China. This exploration first crystallized during the Edo period - 1615 to 1868 - with the painting of Ogata Korin (1658-1716.) Rimpa means "the school of Korin," and artists continue to work in this aesthetic today. 

As can be seen in the first image above, of the plum tree and hollyhock painted folding screens, the style is largely 2-dimensional - realistic perspective is eschewed. However, the viewer is drawn into these pictures nevertheless. The images are cropped in such a way that no item is seen in its entirety - rather, we see the top of the hollyhocks and just the trunk and lower branches of the plum tree. This mimics our actual visual field when focusing at subjects at close range, so, despite the absence of a "realistic" approach to perspective, the result is that the viewer is not just looking at the picture, but is in the picture. Thus does Rimpa style seek to elicit an emotional response from the viewer.

Red and White Poppies folding screen, attributed to Tosa Mitsumochi.

One Thousand Grasses,  Kamisaka Sekka.

Another characteristic of the Rimpa aethestic is the free-flowing deployment of natural subjects, especially flowers and trees, in opposition to geometric patterns. Above, bright poppies, in white and intense red, burst helter-skelter over a fence of rigid geometric squares.  Below the poppies screen, in an image from a woodcut-printed book, pink cherry blossoms cascade over a diagonal latticework fenceThe folding screen dates from the early 17th century; the book printed circa 1899-1900; these two items indicate the enduring appeal and continuity of the Rimpa style.

Kimono, mid 19th century. Lower right, pattern book, Furuya Korin, 1907.

The Rimpa aesthetic was not just limited to painting or prints. The kimono above, a masterpiece of embroidery over a stenciled bast fiber fabric, again contrasts a man-made structure - the plank bridge -  with an effulgence of floral bloom, in this case irises. The design references a 10th century literary classic in which a home-sick courtier, viewing a marsh of iris in full bloom, writes a poem of longing. The popularity of the imagery continued into the 20th century, when Furuya Korin produced the sample book for kimono manufacturers interested in fashionable patterns.

Irises at Eight Bridges. Ogata Korin, early 18th cent.
Above is Ogata Korin's treatment of the same subject, a zig-zag bridge of planks wending its way through the marsh. Again, by cropping the bridge - we see neither its end nor its beginning - the viewer is placed on the bridge, surrounded by intense blue blossoms and green stems, rising from a shimmery gold representation of water.
I wear robes with well-worn hems,
Reminding me of my dear wife
I fondly think of always
So as my sojourn stretches on
Ever farther from home,
Sadness fills my thoughts. 
Poem from The Ise Stories, translated by curator John T. Carpenter
Left, writing box. Top right, book, Ikeda Koson. Bottom right, tray, Ogata Kenzan.

Rimpa imagery was transmitted to succeeding generations of the artistic community through pattern books, such as the one above, One Hundred Newly Selected Designs by Korin, published in 1864. These sources of ideas and inspiration were utilized by designers working in a variety of media, including the anonymous lacquerware artist who designed the writing box above.  All the examples above are from the 18th century.

Incense burner, mid 17th century.

The exhibit included many wonderful ceramic pieces, including the incense burner above, decorated with "flowers of the four seasons." On a recent trip to Japan, DH and I toured the incense showroom of Shoyeido in Kyoto, a fascinating experience.

When I was growing up in the States, incense became associated with cannabis users, who thought to conceal their activities by burning stinky joss sticks.  However, travel broadens the mind, and in Japan I learned that burning incense is part of a long-standing religious and cultural tradition, and with this fresh perspective I became a convert to the delights of incense.

Left, Poppies, Suzuki Kitsu. Right, vase, Ando Cloisonne Co, circa 1908-1915.

The Rimpa tradition proved itself very adaptable to a variety of markets, as well.  The mid-19th century painting on the left is the ancestor of the vase on the right, adapted to a Western vessel shape, and made for export to a Western country.

Autumn Maple, Sakai Oho, early 19th cent.

In this final image, the Rimpa painter Sakai Oho used color masterfully, as did all the Rimpa artists, as he placed each delicate, soon-to-drop orange maple leaf in counterpoint to the sturdy, enduring mossy gray-green tree trunk. His composition distills the colors and images of autumn, a season of fugitive beauty.

16 January 2013

Javanese batik textiles at the Met

Detail, kain panjang or wrapper, early to mid 1940's.

On January 2, DH, daughter and I drank from that fire hydrant for those who thirst after culture, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We were in town to see the opera Les Troyens at the other Met, the Metropolitan Opera.

Javanese batik textiles on display.

We went to the Met to see two exhibits in particular, including Resistance and Splendor in Javanese Textiles, a temporary installation of batik garments from Indonesia, on view through March 3.  The fabrics are encased behind glass in a busy corridor with glare-ful lighting, hence it was very difficult to take decent pictures, so I apologize for the image quality. The works themselves, however, are amazing.

Detail, sarung, mid 19th to early 20th cent.

Batik is a traditional method of wax resist surface design on cloth.  Artisans use a tool called a tjanting (pronounced chan-ting) a drawing implement with a small metal reservoir for melted wax connected to a minute spout. Hot wax is drawn on the fabric; when the fabric is dyed the wax-coated areas resist dye penetration, remaining white. Then the wax is removed, revealing the design. The process is explained very well here http://java.eyelid.co.uk/batik.html

The exhibit at the Met featured women's wrappers, including the sarung (from whence comes our English word sarong), a similar garment called kain panjang, and men's head wraps. Most of the items were made in the mid- to late- nineteenth century and early twentieth century, and are notable for many reasons, including:  excellence of execution; synthesis of imagery from Europe, Java and China; and graphic appeal.

Sarung, still stitched, late 19th century.

The sarung was originally rectangular pieces of fabric whose ends were sewn together to form a tube. The wearer then stepped into this tube of cotton, pulled it up and then gathered and belted the garment to provide secure coverage. The example above is displayed with its seam intact, unlike the other cloths on exhibit, giving an impression of the apparel as worn. It would have been instructive if the exhibit had included some contemporary photographs of Javanese wearing similar garments.

Detail, sarung.

The bird and floral motifs of this sarung show Indian and European influences, but this imagery was popular with the Chinese community as well, so this textile would have appealed to the polyglot of ethnicities that formed the Javanese community during  Dutch colonialism.

Man's head cloth, mid 19th to early 20th century.
Detail, man's head cloth.

Detail, sarung, attributed to workshop of Mrs. Willemse, ca. 1900.
Detail, sarung, attributed to Mrs. Willemse, ca. 1900.

The sarung in the images above, from one of the Javanese-run workshops which developed in the late 19th century, features a lotus, in the fullness of mature bloom, as well as cranes, Chinese symbols of longevity. This garment would have appealed to middle-aged Chinese women with aspirations to long and happy lives.

Detail, kain panjang, mid 19th - early 20th century.

The geometic example above, in indigo and subtle off-white and taupe, shows just how precise and detailed batik can be in the hands of a skilled artist.

Kain panjang, early to mid-1940's.
Detail, kain panjang.

The cloth above was made during the Japanese occupation of Java, which began in 1942 (Java had been part of the Dutch East Indies colony for three centuries prior to World War II.) Supplies of fine cotton fabric were blocked during the war, so the length of the wrappers diminished. To compensate for this the batik artisans added value through extremely detailed designs in multiple colors; the result is a lush fabric counterpoint to the deprivation of wartime.

Wall hanging, workshop of R. Soelardi, early 20th century.

Detail, wall hanging.

The batik textile in the two images above is not a piece of apparel but a wall-hanging, probably made to appeal to Europeans looking for souvenir of their time in Java. The image represents shadow puppets in a scene from the Ramayana. (Although most Javanese today are Muslim, the popular shadow puppet repertoire is largely based on Hindu epics.)At right the brave and clever monkey warrior Hanuman confronts the giant Prahasto. All ends well in the epic, and this batik was a good way to conclude the exhibit.

12 January 2013

Les Troyens - an opera on New Year's Day

Entrance to the Met, dressed up for the holidays.
My daughter recently bought two tickets for the the Metropolitan Opera's presentation of Berlioz's grand masterpiece, Les Troyens, and gave them to her loving parents - what a nice present for New Year's Day.

This opera, adapted from Virgil's Aeneid and not often performed due to its length, is really two works in one. The first two acts, of five acts in all, dramatize Trojan princess Cassandra's desperate and unsuccessful attempts to save her city, and her betrothed, from the doom she knows is somehow lurking in that large wooden horse the Greeks parked just outside the walls of Troy.

The final three acts follow Trojan warrior and survivor Aeneas to Carthage, and answer the question: Will he stay with beautiful, noble Dido, Queen of Carthage, who has fallen for him big time, or continue on to conquer Latium and become the ancestor of Julius Caesar?  We all know the outcome, but such is the convincing acting and singing by Bryan Hymel, as a truly anguished Aeneas, that we can believe he might just tell the gods to go find someone else to sail to Italy.

The stage, surmounted by Mary Callery sculpture.

An opulent interior.

The performance lasted five hours, with two 30-minute intermissions, but, really, that's shorter than most baseball games, only without the hot dogs. The singers, orchestra, dances, sets and costumes were all that one expects from the Met, and it was easy to follow the libretto on the Met Titles system - a digital screen in front of each seat displays the text of songs and dialog, in your choice of languages.

The cast  and conductor take a bow.

I had never been to the Met before, and the building is quite a palace of culture and a relic of a time when concrete was still celebrated for its plasticity as well as its compressive strength. Monumental stairs swoop and soar in the entrance way, leading to aisles and passageways seemingly carved out of deep crimson plush.

Grandeur in concrete and red carpet.

Our seats were way at the end of a row with less than stellar sight lines; however, after Act One, we joined a general migratory movement of every row inwards toward the center aisle and "squatted" in very good seats for the remainder of the opera.  The fellow in the seat next to me, an actor whom I didn't recognize (but then I watch little television) mentioned that he took a backstage tour, costing $20, and found it fascinating.  Sounds like a future field trip to me.

Chandeliers designed by Hans H. Rath of J. & L. Lobmeyr, Vienna.

Gleaming gold soffit, white light and red carpet.

The Met's comprehensive website also describes the art and costume exhibits on display in the lobby and hallway areas - there are even wall cases featuring stage jewelry worn by various luminaries.  One exhibit features paintings, reliefs and busts of famous singers, conductors and composers, including the treasure below, by sculptor Malvina Hoffman (1885-1966), who studied with Auguste Rodin.

Emma Eames as Desdemona, by Malvina Hoffman.

Opera is a wonderful stimulus for all the senses (even taste, with champagne at intermission) and the Met's facility, with its visual displays, restaurant, and activities reflects this omnivorous sensory experience.