Rinpa School: Treasures of Kyoto

Paris is full of Japanese treasures this autumn and no more extraordinary than those that can be seen at Musée Cernuschi: Treasures of Kyoto, Three Centuries of Rinpa Creation, which presents priceless masterpieces on show for the first time outside Japan.

This exhibition, organised as part of the season Japonismes 2018: les âmes en resonances, includes one of the great national treasures of Japan, The Gods of Wind and Thunder by Tawaraya Sotatsu, available for viewing during the first four weeks of the exhibition. Conserved in the Kennin-ji Temple in Kyoto, it is only presented to the public on very rare occasions. The rarity of this event reflects the importance given by the two governments of the 160th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and France. More than 60 works are on display in a chronological presentation created in four sections, representing the different generations of artists in the Rinpa movement.

The Rinpa School

The Rinpa decorative art movement is considered to be one of the leading schools of Japanese painting that  first appeared at the beginning of the 17th century with paintings in this style still being created today. The ancient capital of Japan and the cradle of the country’s traditional culture, Kyoto has always been a centre of artistic production and the origin of the refined style of the Rinpa school.

Perhaps the most dynamic effect of the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo (now Tokyo) at the beginning of the 17th century was the economic growth and rising interest in the traditional arts. It was then that the two major cities started to define their distinct characters. Kyoto was infused with the refined style of courtiers, tea masters and temple clerics, while Edo culture was brasher, more mercantile and less measured.

Rinpa in Kyoto

Rinpa art is associated more with Kyoto, with its nobles and élite craftsmen, and an artistic tradition influenced by courtly, poetic ideals, together with the practice of Zen and the tea ceremony, and all much inspired by the area’s rich nature. The sober, monochrome aesthetics of the tea ceremony had 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. Foremost among these were followers of the school now known as Rinpa that has continued in recognisable form until the modern period.

Characteristics of Rinpa

Characteristic of Rinpa art is a 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 affluent, both materials and pigments were usually of the best quality.

This unique movement in the history of Japanese art differs from other traditional schools, where style was passed on from master to pupils directly. In Rinpa, however, the artists are united by their spiritual and aesthetic affinities. Their style is characterised by pure forms set off by bright colours and compositions of simple elegance. Their repertoire of themes is inspired by nature, literature, and classic Japanese theatre.

Koetsu and Sotatsu

The first section discovers the beginnings of the style in ‘Koetsu and Sotatsu: the Birth of Rinpa’. The founders of the Rinpa movement represented the elegant aesthetic admired in the circles of Kyoto’s rich merchants. They used precious materials like gold and silver leaf to exalt themes inspired by nature and traditional Japanese culture.

During the 17th century, the partnership between the artists Hon’ami Koetsu (1558–1637) and Tawaraya Sotatsu (active between 1600 and 1640) generated a unique aesthetic stimulated by the classic beauty of the Heian period (794–1185), an era considered to have encapsulated Japanese sensibility and were two of the earliest artists to adopt this new style. Koetsu came from a family of sword-polishers and appraisers and become renowned as a master-calligrapher, as well as a designer of gardens, ceramic and lacquer objects.

The extant works show how the two artists often collaborated, where Sotatsu had prepared a painted scene in gold or silver, over which Koetsu brushed verses in his characteristic, free-style calligraphy. Various examples of hand-scrolls and poem-cards feature painted seasonal subjects such as deer, vines, bamboo and flocks of cranes, and even though as beautiful as they must have been in their original form, a new artistic level altogether is attained by the addition of calligraphy.

The Gods of Wind and Thunder

The Gods of Wind and Thunder by Sotatsu, shown for the first time outside of Japan, is in this section. Due to their fragility, the three major works presented in this section will not be shown for the rest of the exhibition, in order to avoid risk to their state of conservation.

In the second section, the works of the next generation of artists are considered in ‘Korin and Kenzan: Fresh Impetus’. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Ogata brothers, the famous Korin (1658-1716) and the younger Kenzan (166-–1743), injected new life into the style by drawing on the repertoire of traditional themes used by the school’s founders. Korin is considered the leading exemplar of the Rinpa school of decorative art that was later named after him: Korin plus ‘ha’ (school of).

The manner developed by Koetsu and Sotatsu was given new force by the flowing and elegant style of Korin, which can be recognised by his fluent creations, daring compositions, intense palette and harmonious rhythm. Known and appreciated in France during the period of Japonisme, Korin was considered by Parisian art lovers as the most original of the country’s painters – the most Japanese of Japanese artists.

Japanese Painting Techniques

Before entering the third section of the exhibition, visitors can learn about traditional Japanese painting techniques, such as the application of gold leaf and the most commonly used pigments, in an area that evokes the atmosphere of an artist’s studio in Japan. There is also a video to explain the gold-leaf fabrication process.

‘Shiko, Roshu and Hochu: Renewal of the Rinpa Style’ is the title of the third section and looks at the work of the successors to Korin, who were inspired by his style. They took Rinpa art back to its original themes and splendour by returning to traditional themes with subtlety and a simplification of the design. These artists depicted elements of nature on a gold ground, in particular representing the beauty of Japanese landscapes that are dramatically transformed by the changing of the seasons.

The themes and techniques used by the earlier generations of artists were later adopted by Shiko (1683-1755), Roshu (1699-1757) and Hochu (active between 1790 and 1820) in such a manner that it allowed the Rinpa style to be renewed and survive the centuries.

The legacy of the Rinpa School

The final section looks at the legacy of the Rinpa School in ‘Sekka: the Rinpa Heritage in the 20th Century’. During this period, Kamisaka Sekka (1866-1942), who was born in Kyoto, took inspiration from the great works of his predecessors, and shared with them the idea that an artist is above all an artisan with multiple skills. Following in the path of these earlier artists, Sekka did not focus only on painting and engraving and print-making, but also produced designs for ceramics, lacquer wares, and textiles – with the aim of introducing beauty into everyday life.

The diversity of works presented in this section explore the many facets of this extraordinary artist and who is considered to be the 20th-century heir of the Rinpa style. The illustrated albums, Momoyogusa (A World of Things), which made his name as an artist, are presented alongside the most representative paintings of his style. In 1910, Sekka was sent abroad to Glasgow, where he was heavily influenced by Art Nouveau and returned to Japan with fresh ideas to teach at the newly opened Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts. At the end of this section, there is a video explaining the techniques used to create woodblock prints, where large reproductions of details of Sekka’s works have been taken for illustration.

Ceramics and Lacquerware in the Rinpa School

The works on show demonstrate that Rinpa artists were not dedicated purely to painting, but also practised engraving and the decoration of objects made of ceramic, wood, and lacquer. There is a recreation of an artist’s studio and two videos explaining the artistic techniques used by Rinpa artists, whose creative works aimed to introduce beauty into everyday life. Nature has always provided a wealth of inspiration for writers and artists and the Rinpa artists made spectacular screens showing trees, grasses and flowers painted in compositions that demonstrate their strong sense of design and this love and appreciation of nature.

While the Rinpa artists had no enforced limits to their artistic expression, they all seemed bound by an awareness of the refined taste we associate with Kyoto – a taste for colour, line, texture and form that is recognisable to our present-day eyes and harmonises with our modern aesthetic ideals.

Treasures of Kyoto at Musée Cernuschi, Paris, until 27 January 2019, cernuschi.paris.fr

On account of the works’ great fragility, they will be presented in turns, based on four main rotations during the period of the exhibition. The most intensive rotation will take place from 10 to 14 December, on which days the exhibition will be closed to the public