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.