Journey to Zen Kyoto


Visitors to Kyoto and its residents will be able to experience a unique exhibition in October. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art has partnered with Canon Inc and the Kyoto Culture Association (KCA) to show Masterpieces from Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the institution. Eighteen high-resolution facsimiles of Japanese works, including Japanese Zen art, will be on view at Japan’s oldest Zen temple, Kenninji, which is located in the city.

This setting allows the works to be seen in natural light, something impossible to achieve with the original paintings. This installation will create an experience unlike any usual museum exhibition and allows the National Museum of Asian Art to share its collection with visitors from across Japan and around the world.

Because of legal restrictions that date from the founding gift of Charles Lang Freer, pieces in the Freer Collection cannot be lent. Seeking to find creative and innovative ways to share its Japanese collection with the people of its country of origin, the National Museum of Asian Art initially established this particular partnership over a decade ago. Kenninji has thousands of visitors each day, and the exhibition will take place in the most prominent space in the temple, ensuring the reproductions reach a broad audience.

Kenninji – Japanese Zen Art

Located in the historic Gion district and a stone’s throw from the crowded thoroughfare leading to the popular Yasaka Shrine, Kenninji was founded in 1202 by the monk Eisai (sometimes pronounced Yousai) on the request of Emperor Tsuchimikado and with the support of Shogun Minamoto Yoriie. At first the temple practiced a mix of Tendai, Shingon and Zen Buddhism, but during the tenure of the 11th abbot, Kenninji converted to a purely Zen temple. Eisai (1141-1215) is credited with founding the branch of Zen known as Rinzai, and Kenninji is a Rinzai temple. Eisai is also associated with tea and wrote a book on its properties

The Hojo (abbot’s quarters) displays many paintings and screens owned by the temple, notably a series of 32 sliding doors depicting ‘The cycle of death and rebirth’ by Hashimoto Kansetsu, the famous Nihonga painter from the early 20th century, but probably the most well-known artworks are a pair of screens by Tawaraya Sotatsu (circa 1570-circa 1640), from the early 17th century that depict Fujin and Raijin, the Gods of Wind and Thunder. Actually what is displayed are copies as the originals are in the Kyoto National Museum.

Waves at Matsushima

The Smithsonian’s screens on view in Kenninji in October include Sotatsu’s Waves at Matsushima, acknowledged as one of Freer’s most noteworthy acquisitions. This pair of screens marks an important stage of Sotatsu’s career and shows his transition from ink painting to polychrome yamato-e painting. Its treatment in style, technique and material differed considerably from that of the Dragons and Clouds screens, an ink monochrome work depicting the auspicious moment when dragons miraculously appear in watery clouds, leading white wave crests to rise up and soar.

Waves, which was probably conceived later, is a powerful seascape with unique mountain-like waves in gold and sumi ink, forming a ‘thousand waves’ pattern with eddies and wave crests. Although the manner of depicting waves was influenced by Ming painting, Japanese themes that were incorporated include kizui ‘auspicious omens’, or ‘miraculous events’, usually found in the traditional painting of oceans. Elements suggesting the realm of the immortals also borrowed from the hamamatsu zu byobu, ‘pine shore screens’ genre dating from the Muromachi (1333-1568) to the Momoyama (1568-1615) periods.

Ogata Korin

A screen by the most famous Rinpa artist, Ogata Korin (1658-1716), is also part of the exhibition. Probably best known for his screens of irises and red and white plum blossoms, the artist was extremely successful during his lifetime and worked across many disciplines, including hanging scrolls, fan paintings, lacquer ware, textiles and ceramics.

Rinpa art is usually associated more with Kyoto, its nobles and élite craftsmen, along with an artistic tradition influenced by courtly, poetic ideals, together with the practice of Zen and the tea ceremony. The name for the movement comes from the second character of the family name of Ogata Korin (1658-1716), who is considered the leading exemplar of the Rinpa school of decorative art with the school later named after him (Korin plus ‘ha’ – school of).

All were much inspired by the area’s rich nature. The sober, monochrome aesthetics of the tea ceremony had almost a monopoly on taste through the 15th and 16th centuries and it is as if in defiance of this – as well as to celebrate the new political stability and affluence – that extraordinarily talented artists and craftsmen began to explore a freer, more exciting use of colours, pattern and form. The Rinpa school was less regulated than other movements and did not have a continuous teacher/pupil system in place. Many artists mastered the style through their own independent study and observance of existing works and not through direct pupillage. Artists also expanded their practice to encompass lacquerware, ceramics, and textile design.

Rinpa Style Characteristics

Characteristic of the Rinpa style is the dramatic sense of design and pattern, unusual techniques of painting, and a flair for exciting composition. Drawn outlines were often ignored, and tarashikomi – the application of ink or pigment to pool on wet paper – was a chosen method for shading or colouring. Gold or silver was often used in leaf-form as background, or as a finely ground dust mixed with liquid agent for painting, and, as clients for Rinpa works tended to be from the elite classes, both materials and pigments were usually of the best quality.

While the Rinpa artists had no enforced limits to their artistic expression, they all seemed bound by an awareness of the refined taste that is associated with Kyoto – a taste for colour, line, texture and form that has become easily recognisable and harmonises with modern aesthetic ideals. Also inspired by the monumental paintings of the Momoyama period (1573-1615), Rinpa painters began to create large screen-paintings with a gold or silver background that were mainly used for delineating space in aristocratic and court households, and temples.

In this time of great debate on what should and should not be held in institutions – and a sharp focus on other country’s important works of art in the custodianship of other nations – it is timely to seek direct and also creative ways to move forward. Chase F Robinson, the Smithsonian’s director said of this Japanese partnership, ‘As the museum enters its second century, we are focusing on making our work accessible to even more people to promote understanding of Asian arts and cultures. This exhibition at Kenninji demonstrates how shared stewardship of objects is one way to make that possible’.

Japanese Paintings at the Smithsonian

Canon and KCA created these facsimiles of the most important Japanese paintings and Japanese Zen art in the museum’s collection using a combination of advanced printing technology and traditional craft, such as hand-applied gold leaf and traditional fabric mountings. For several years, as part of the institution’s shared stewardship efforts, it has been making available replicas of Japanese hanging scrolls and screens to audiences in Japan. The most recent project was the creation of high-resolution facsimiles, Maple Leaves on a Stream (front) and Mountain Views (reverse), Screen with Scattered Fans and Landscapes, Flowers, and Trees of the Four Seasons, three of the most important art works in the museum’s collection – all on show in October. A previous project was a large exhibition of 13 works by Hokusai at the Sumida Hokusai Museum in 2019. The facsimiles are created by ink-jet printing high-resolution photographs of the originals and mounting them using traditional artisans and materials.

From 13 October to 3 November, Kenninji Temple, Kyoto, and