Tawaraya Sotatsu: Making Waves

The Beach at Sumiyoshi, Tales of Ise, episode 68, Japan, 1600-40, poetry sheet mounted as hanging scroll, ink, colours, and gold on paper, 24.45 x 20.9 cm (image); 40.6 . 33.2 cm (overall) © The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund, 1951

THE DETROIT INDUSTRIALIST, Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919), who made five visits to Japan between 1895 and 1911, managed to assemble a formidable collection of Japanese art in the intervening years. On 18 October 1906, he acquired Waves at Matsushima, a pair of six-fold screens by Tawaraya Sotatsu (circa 1570 to circa 1640), a Japanese artist little known in the West at the time.

By then Freer had amassed most of the Japanese section of his multi-faceted collection of Asian art, whose quality was dependent on his own discerning eye as well as on the best critical advice offered by a distinguished circle of connoisseurs whom he had cultivated. The same year, Freer pledged his collection of Asian art to the American nation through the vehicle of the Smithsonian Institution.

Waves at Matsushima by Tawaraya Sotatsu an Important Acquisition

Today, Waves at Matsushima, now acknowledged as one of Freer’s most noteworthy acquisitions, forms one of the highlights of Sotatsu: Making Waves at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC, the first major exhibition outside of Japan that is devoted to the revered 17th-century master.

The show was five years in the making, and is probably the only opportunity to view more than 70 of Sotatsu’s celebrated masterpieces from Japan, the US and Europe together with homage works by later artists.

One of the Most Important and Influential Japanese Painters

‘This is an unprecedented moment, the chance for American audiences to discover one of the most important and influential Japanese painters of the past 400 years through his greatest works,’ says James Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art at the Freer/Sackler. ‘

Sotatsu’s designs profoundly changed both Japanese and Western art, yet only now is his name emerging from the shadows. His works are instantly recognisable, with bold, almost abstracted design, vibrant colours, lavish fields of gold and silver and tarashikomi (the manipulation of layers of damp pooled ink). These innovations later became known as the Rinpa style, and 2015 – its designated 400th anniversary year – seemed an auspicious time to bring all the pieces of the Sotatsu puzzle together.’

First Compendium on Japanese Painting

However, Sotatsu remains shrouded in mystery. Although Kano Eino’s Honcho gashi, ‘A History of Japanese Painting’, dated 1693, the first compendium of its kind listed more than 400 other painters, no mention was made of Sotatsu although the author resided in Kyoto.

The artist was known to be active in the city in the last decades of the 16th century when Japan, emerging from a turbulent 150-year civil war was being unified by the warlords Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Moreover the rigid lines separating the different social classes were gradually beginning to dissipate as a mercantilist society was being formed.

‘Sotatsu was one of a number of very talented commoners who were able to “take possession” of visual interpretation of a classical past,’ says Dr Ulak. That interpretation and its representation in calligraphy and image was once the purview of the aristocratic class. Social turmoil in the 15th and 16th centuries effectively broke the hold on the aristocracy’s exclusive rights. Sotatsu, his collaborator Hon’ami Koetsu (1558-1637), and others, experimented with new forms of moveable type printing to gradually expand dissemination of text and imagery.’

First Came to Be Noticed  Around 1602

Tawaraya Sotatsu first came to light around 1602, when he repainted three frontispieces to the 12th-century decorated sutra, Heike nokyo, ‘Lotus sutra donated by the Heike family’. He next collaborated with Koetsu until around 1615, supporting the latter’s calligraphy with his own designs to produce shikishi, ‘poetry cards’ and elegantly decorated handscrolls such as the Kokin wakashu, ‘Anthology of Poems Past and Present’.

Their artistic output might be understood against the shift from a manuscript-to print-based culture in early 17th-century Japan. A number of private printing projects first developed in and around Kyoto, but as a critical mass of publishers gathered in the city as well as in Osaka and Edo, a flourishing printing industry emerged by the 1640s.

Skilled At Creating Luxury Papers for Famous Calligraphers

‘Sotatsu was skilled in creating luxury papers for use by famous calligraphers – such as Koetsu – or for use as illuminated manuscript back papers for religious texts,’ Dr Ulak goes on to say. The deluxe literary texts they produced included no libretto book covers, excerpts from classical poetry anthologies and transcriptions of popular songs, bound books, handscrolls, albums, and poetry sheets.

Closer examination of some of their work suggests Sotatsu and Koetsu’s pictorial idiom was developed with the papermaker, Kamishi, or Kamiya Soji, who oversaw the overall production of paper as an artistic ground, from the creation of wooden moulds to their application.

Soji’s seal was impressed on the back of nearly twenty ‘gold and silver’ works, including the famous Crane Scroll influenced by Ming (1368-1644) paintings of ‘One Hundred Birds’. The scroll is notable for its calligraphy in black sumi ink being inscribed over underpaintings of bird images in gold and silver pigments.

Kyoto Painters

Sotatsu’s stewardship from around 1600 to 1640, of the Tawaraya, a highly regarded painting studio in the Gojo-dori, ‘fifth avenue’ of Kyoto, was critical to his artistic and professional development. The Tawaraya was an eya, a type of painting enterprise that emerged in 16th-century Kyoto and other urban centres where an assortment of small portable painting formats, among them folding fans, album leaves and tanzaku, ‘painting slips’ were on offer.  The eya was distinguished from edokoro, ‘studios’ that serviced commissions from the imperial court, the shogunate, leading temples and shrines.

The Tawaraya, as an eya, lay outside the control of any single institution. It was at liberty to depart from convention and establish its own distinctive renderings of classical themes. By sponsoring deluxe editions of the Tale of Genji and the Tales of Heike, as well as other poetic canonical works and literary texts, it played an important role in their dissemination – until then exclusive to the aristocracy and the monastery – to the urban population at large.

‘Sotatsu was gifted not only as a fan designer/maker, but also as a paper conservator for ancient documents, including important Buddhist sutras,’ says Dr Ulak. ‘His skills placed him in close contact with important calligraphers and court patrons at a time when these skills were in great demand due to the breakdown of the traditional court painting studios.’

The Tawaraya gave Sotatsu access to an influential clientele including the tea master Sen Shoan, the wealthy merchant Suminokura Soan and eventually to elite patrons, such as the courtier Karasumaru Mitsuhiro (1579-1638) and the abbot Kakutei of the Daigoji temple.

Transition from Artisan to Court Painter

Soon he made the transition from artisan and town painter to court painter. As early as 1616, the emperor Go Mizuno-o had been alerted to a Tawaraya painting of autumn maple leaves. Sotatsu’s contacts among the aristocracy probably led to the commission to paint the mural décor of the Yogen’in temple in 1621 – and possibly to the awarding of his honorific Hokkyo ‘Dharma Bridge’ title by the imperial court – subsequent to which the emperor himself commissioned three pairs of screens from Sotatsu in 1630.

Painted Fans Mounted on a Screen by Tawaraya Sotatsu

Painted Fans Mounted on a Screen, widely acknowledged as a masterpiece, was probably commissioned around 1630 and are unrivalled in the precision of their provenance. They have been documented in the imperial holdings since the time of their making and were originally kept in the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. However they are now at the Sannomaru Shozokan, Museum of the Imperial Collections in Tokyo.

The pair of eight-panel folding screens has three fans on each panel, and a total of 48 fans overall, depicting scenes from the military epics, the Tales of Hogen and the Tales of Heiji, as well as scenes and birds and flowers from the Tales of Ise.

Floating Fans Genre of Japanese Painting

The ‘floating fans’ genre was one of the Tawaraya’s achievements. ‘The fan, in a very real sense, was the implement that formed Sotatsu’s aesthetic sensibilities,’ says Dr Ulak. ‘On a challenging curved format of alternating planes, the artist and his associates extracted myriad visual quotations from paintings that depicted tales of classical literature and legend – narratives of war, romance, and the founding of temples.

The linear of continuous narrative was broken and single scenes began to stand for the whole. This kind of dissemination led to a form of visual dissemination of classical texts whereby users understood the gist of a story or episode by virtue of the image, rather than by a careful knowledge of the text. In this way, Sotatsu sent once-sequestered and little-seen imagery into the streets, although the process was a gradual one.’

Recent conservation work in 1989 has dated the backing papers of Painted Fans Mounted on a Screen to the Genna (1615-1624) era. A major discovery was found while they were undergoing conservation: a Tato seal taking the first syllable from each of the artist’s name Tawaraya Toshichiro, was found impressed on the back of a fan.

It suggests the screens were a collaborative work rather than the product of single authorship as is usually believed. Examination of the screens’ gauze silk borders offer more clues. Japanese gauze production ceased during the Onin war (1467-1477), but was reintroduced in the Tensho period (1573-1592) by weavers from Ming China. The crisp karakusa, ‘arabesque’ pattern in the gauze was also associated with early Edo textile, and provided pointers to their production period.

Sotatsu’s Contacts with the Aristocracy

Tawaraya Sotatsu was blessed by fortuitous circumstances. His contacts with the aristocracy effectively made him a fully fledged court painter by the 1630s, since the Tosa lineage of painters, who traditionally serviced the imperial court had relocated to Sakai after a dispute concerning succession.

The hand of courtier Mitsuhiro was said to be behind a number of Sotatsu’s datable and important surviving works; such as Life of Saigyo; Bulls of Chomyoji Temple, Kyoto –  inscribed by Mitsuhiro around 1631; and The Barrier Gate and Channel Buoys (Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo), commissioned by the abbot Kakutei in 1631.

Mitsuhiro apparently played an important intermediary role in the commission for Waves at Matsushima, listed in the 1895 Record of the Survey of Old Shrines and Temples as a donation by the Tani Family of Sakai, a major entrepot during the 15th and 16th centuries at the height of trade with Ming China.

When the original Zen temple of Kaieji burnt down in 1615, the wealthy merchant Tani Shoan (1589-1644) donated a new edifice, which opened in 1634 under the name Shounji. To celebrate the event, the family, fervent Zen Buddhists  active in trade, commissioned a pair of screens with an auspicious theme of the sea.

Transition from Ink Painting to Polychrome – Yamato-e

Waves at Matsushima marks an important stage of Tawaraya 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.

Not Known If Apprenticed to a Particular Painter

It is not known if Sotatsu was apprenticed under any particular painter. His works drew from diverse sources such as Chinese and Korean paintings then circulating in the Japanese archipelago. A number of his painted fans and ink paintings were drawn from the Ming dynasty printed book, ‘Marvellous Traces of Immortals and Buddhas’; Xianfo qizong (Chinese), or Senbutsu kiso (Japanese), compiled by Hong Zicheng in 1602, which served as an authoritative source for the illustration of Daoist and Buddhist figures throughout East Asia. Sotatsu encountered many of these works from Kyoto’s temple collections, which were a significant refuge for Sino-Korean pictorial culture in Japan.

Sotatsu School Painting

Around the mid-17th century, I’nen seals appeared on works of the Sotatsu school depicting plants and flowers which were stylistically akin to the colourful plant and insect painting of the Biliang region – Changzhou, Jiangsu in China. Until then floral and plant motifs, and grass and flower paintings, ranked low in the hierarchy of subjects favoured by the elite class for their castles and residences.

However, from the Momoyama to the early Edo periods, the appreciation, collection and cultivation of plants and flowers became enormously popular at court and elsewhere. The art of garden cultivation was very fashionable and the practice of flower arrangement called rikka, ‘standing flowers’, now known as ikebana, received much attention.

The evolving use of the I’nen seal on these works might be understood against a growing social class more interested in natural history, than in hierarchical painting subjects. Moreover, Li Shizhen’s ‘Compendium of Materia Medica’ on Chinese herbalism, Bencao gangmu (Chinese), or Honzo komoku (Japanese) was circulating in Japan by 1604, and a Japanese edition of 1637 suggested that a focus on natural history was developing in early Edo (1615-1868) times.

It has been speculated that Tawaraya Sotatsu was either inactive or deceased when his successor, Tawaraya Sosetsu was conferred the Hokkyo title in 1642. ‘Sotatsu’s story is one of early mastery of small and exquisite techniques used in jewel-like works combining design and calligraphy to adaptation of these skills to larger scale works,’ says Dr Ulak.

‘Freer may have been the first Westerner to take on such a detailed connoisseurial interest in Sotatsu. His passion for what could be the latter’s works led astute dealers to present him with several acknowledged masterpieces by the artist. Indeed, Freer’s prescience predated the ‘Sotatsu boom’ in Japan from the 1910s by at least a decade.’


Until 31 January, Sotatsu: Making Waves is at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Avenue SW, Washington DC, 20560, www.asia.si.edu

A symposium and associated catalogue accompanied the exhibition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Please Add the Values