Category Archives: Japanese Art

Sōtatsu: Pieces of the Past

<em>Screen with Scattered Fans</em>; Tawaraya Sōtatsu (act. ca. 1600–40); Japan, early 17th century; six-panel folding screen; color, gold, and silver over gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1900.24

Screen with Scattered Fans; Tawaraya Sōtatsu (act. ca. 1600–40); Japan, early 17th century; six-panel folding screen; color, gold, and silver over gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1900.24

Stories about looting historic tombs and architectural sites are common fare in today’s media. Given the images that accompany these updates, of crudely severed elements hacked from pillaged ruins or plundered gravesites, the idea of considering cultural “fragments” in a positive light is akin to wearing mink at a PETA convention. The concept is is rightly tainted by associations with destruction and misappropriation.

But not all fragmenting is fundamentally destructive. Our current exhibition Sōtatsu: Making Waves (through January 31, 2016) is incomprehensible without an understanding of what could be called Tawaraya Sōtatsu’s (active circa 1600–40) strategy of fragmentation. Instead of theft and pillage, his process more closely resembled collaging—taking scraps from here and there and arranging them in a way that simultaneously displaced and expanded the original meaning.

Sōtatsu worked in a period of incredible social change. Though the population of Kyoto didn’t understand it at the time, a national solidification was taking place in the early seventeenth century. Japan was becoming the defined country we know today, emerging from a time when region, rather than nation, was the framework of identity.

This new national unity required a shared past. The world of classical literature—poetry, tales of adventure and romance—previously had been the purview of the aristocracy. Learning the classics, creating an interpretive framework for their revered words, and creating imagery to enhance those words were all elite activities—that is, until society began to come apart.

From his beginnings as a commoner, a fan painter, and an illuminated manuscript specialist, Sōtatsu eventually gained access to the highest levels of “the old order” (having the emperor’s consort as a patron, for instance)—a remarkable feat. With that access, he was able to view the artworks that had been sequestered, allowing him to pick apart Japan’s past and then energize and distribute it to a far more diverse audience.

Sōtatsu was not going at some beautiful stucco wall relief with a pickaxe. But he and his studio mates were doing an extraordinary amount of foraging, accessing largely out-of-reach collections and seeing one-of-a-kind paintings—often long, horizontal historical or literary narratives. They copied episodes depicted in such works and reinterpreted them onto folding fans, some of which were surely sold out of Sōtatsu’s Kyoto shop, the Tawaraya. He and his fellow artists also produced a folding screen whose surface was decorated with such fans, swirling as if they were being carried away on a rushing stream.

Detail, Screen with Scattered Fans

Detail, Screen with Scattered Fans

Our current ability to arrange pieces of an art historical past into chronologies of artist, style, culture, and so forth gives us a window onto the primary works that Sōtatsu studied. These thirteenth- and fourteenth-century paintings, which we now know in their completeness, are often accessible in museums today. But how many who viewed Sōtatsu’s repurposed snippets in the 1600s would have seen the original works from which they were extracted? Your chance of knowing his sources—via art history books and exhibition catalogues—is exponentially greater than that of a typical townsperson in Sōtatsu’s day.

So what did Sōtatsu’s contemporaries make of these fragmented images? My guess is that many simply saw an affectation of the past: a brush with the classics, an obscure recounting of the history of a temple or shrine, or a vaguely generalized image of warriors riding off to battle, for example. Sōtatsu’s folding fans served as portable image quotations from the past, allowing ancient narratives to float across social boundaries.

In many cases, fragmenting has resulted in losing the thread of a cultural history, at least for a while. But in Sōtatsu’s case, it offered up bite-size bits of a past that many, many more people were able to appreciate than ever before.

Another period of great dispersal or fragmentation of Japanese art occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Revisit Bento in the coming weeks to learn more about that amazing period.

A Glimpse of New Year’s Gold

Tea bowl with design of chrysanthemums; Nin’ami Dōhachi 仁阿弥道八 (1783–1855); Japan, Kyoto prefecture, Kyoto, Gojozaka, Edo period, early 19th century; F1896.55

Tea bowl with design of chrysanthemums; Nin’ami Dōhachi 仁阿弥道八 (1783–1855); Japan, Kyoto prefecture, Kyoto, Gojozaka, Edo period, early 19th century; F1896.55

How are you welcoming in the first day of 2016? Decorated with chrysanthemums, this bowl may have been made for a tea gathering, or chanoyu, to celebrate the New Year. Bowls newly made for New Year’s chanoyu events often were decorated with fragile gold leaf, which wore off in the course of a single use. Artist Nin’ami Dōhachi used a thick white-clay solution to model the relief decoration of chrysanthemum blossoms, a floral motif that is closely associated with autumn through winter.

Friday Fave: Sugimoto’s Seascapes

An installation shot from the exhibition, "Seascapes: Tryon and Sugimoto," Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2009

An installation shot from the 2009 Freer|Sackler exhibition “Seascapes: Tryon and Sugimoto.”

The Freer|Sackler has always been a place of serenity and introspection for me. I enjoy the tranquility of sitting and viewing a work, letting my mind wander and slowly digest the nuances of the piece in front of me. This intimate relationship between art and viewer, for me, is mirrored in the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto.

My first exposure to his work was at the Baltimore Museum of Art. As I turned the corner into a side gallery, I saw a black rectangle the size of a chalkboard. From afar, it appeared as a modernist void, but as I moved closer, subtle details slowly appeared. A horizon, a slight gradation of black and white, filled the space.

That particular piece was a black-and-white photograph of the ocean. It is part of Sugimoto’s Seascapes series, long-exposure photographs of water horizons taken over several hours. The resulting large-format prints are hazy, dreamlike images that are tranquil and meditative. His focus on perceiving the ephemeral is captured in these snapshots of light and time and are simply beautiful in their peacefulness. The images are recognizable, but as if recalled from a memory.

I was delighted to discover that the Freer|Sackler has a series of Sugimoto’s ocean photographs. My personal favorite is Boden Sea/Utwill, demonstrating the artist’s mastery of portraying tonality and near formlessness. Air, water, time, and light all come together in a single photograph. The image is so simple, yet it encapsulates the essence of life on this planet.

While none of Sugimoto’s photographs are currently on view in the galleries, you can always see them online (along with the entire museum collection) at Open F|S.

Come visit! While the Freer Gallery closes for renovation on January 4, 2016, the Sackler Gallery remains open and as dynamic as ever. Learn more about our plans for the future.

Inspired By the Dark

Nocturne: Grey and Silver—Chelsea Embankment, Winter; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1879; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.143a–b

Nocturne: Grey and Silver—Chelsea Embankment, Winter; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1879; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.143a–b

Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Winter light can be exquisite when it changes in late afternoon, as the dark comes earlier and earlier. A wonderful way to take it in, I think, is to walk through our galleries—especially in the Freer, with its central courtyard—and watch the day turn into night.

Artists have long captured changing daylight and dusk and the chromatic layers of evening. James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturnes shimmer with the texture of variable light, turning the surface of the canvas (or paper) into visual poetry. Kobayashi Kiyochika is another favorite artist in our collections whose celebrated woodblock prints were featured in the exhibition Kiyochika: Master of the Night in 2014. The exhibition was held concurrently with An American in London: Whistler and the Thames. Whistler’s London and Kiyochika’s Tokyo were often depicted at night—two distinct worlds separated by nearly six thousand miles, but linked by the play of shadow and light.

For centuries and across cultures, artists have been inspired by the night. If you search for the word “night” on Open F|S, you’ll bring up more than 450 works of art. If you choose “dusk,” you’ll get to see 25 more.

While the Freer goes dark from January 4, 2016, through mid-2017, the Sackler will remain open and as dynamic as ever. Learn more about our plans for the future.

Friday Fave: Trees

Trees; Sōtatsu school, I’nen Seal; Japan, mid-17th century; pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, colors, and gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, F1962.30–31

Trees; Sōtatsu school, I’nen Seal; Japan, mid-17th century; pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, colors, and gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, F1962.30–31

I’m not sure if it was the bold color or dramatic composition that first caught my eye. Vivid green pigment brilliantly contrasted against gold foil. An incredible variety of trees, each captured in considerable detail. Striking black ink trunks, festooned with large glossy leaves or spiky delicate ones. Viewed head-on and tightly packed into a constricted space, each tree is arranged precisely across six adjoining panels. It’s as if they are on display in my favorite garden catalog.

These initial impressions have stayed with me for decades. Literally. Although smartphones make it much easier today to take pictures of art, there’s still something really tangible about owning a high-quality reproduction. My now faded postcard is a bit worse for wear and tear—pockmarked with pinholes from its prominent display on every office bulletin board I’ve ever decorated—yet its power still holds. At 7 x 15 inches, it’s big enough to have a presence, and its thick card stock is sturdy enough to withstand the test of time. It shows one of a pair of six-panel folding screens that were last displayed at the Freer almost fifteen years ago.

The screens can now be seen in their rightful place of honor in the exhibition Sōtatsu: Making Waves, on view through January 31, 2016. When I first saw them again, they struck me as breathtaking both in their scale and luminosity. The greens and golds just glow. They are much larger than I remembered and much more detailed. Although painted hundreds of years ago, they seem very contemporary and speak to the astonishing power of Japanese art and design. I’ve had the postcard over my desk for years, but seeing the screens in person is a powerful experience that reminds me of the old Marvin Gaye song “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”

Halloween Help from Freer|Sackler

Mask; Japan, Momoyama or Edo period, 17th–18th century; wood, pigment, lacquer; Collected by Seymour J. Janow and gifted in his memory by his family, F2003.5.16

Mask; Japan, Momoyama or Edo period, 17th–18th century; wood, pigment, lacquer; Collected by Seymour J. Janow and gifted in his memory by his family, F2003.5.16

Not sure what to wear for Halloween this year? You’re on your own when it comes to finding the right costume, but if you’re looking for a mask, we’ve got your back—or at least your front—covered.

This demon mask, given to the museums a dozen years ago, is the perfect scary accessory. It was made in Japan sometime between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Masks have a long and extensive history in Japan that dates back to the prehistoric Jomon period; they often have been used in dance, court rituals, and religious ceremonies. This mask portrays a long-nosed demon (known as tengu in Japanese lore) and was used in Shinto shrine performances.

For Halloween success, follow these simple instructions. First, print the mask as large as you can. Next, carefully cut it out. Make a small hole on either side (near the cheeks would work well) and run a string or elastic through them. Put it on and voila: You and the demon mask are now one! Scare your friends and loved ones, and the candy seekers at your door.

More scary masks can be found when you search the Freer|Sackler collections on Open F|S, as well as on Bento and our Facebook page.

Sōtatsu Rules the Waves!

Sōtatsu: Making Waves is the first in-depth examination of Tawaraya Sōtatsu (active circa 1600–40), one of the most influential yet elusive figures in the history of Japanese visual culture. The exhibition brings together for the first time more than seventy of Sōtatsu’s masterpieces from collections in Japan, Europe, and the United States, along with homage pieces by later artists that demonstrate his long-ranging influence. The Freer|Sackler is the only venue in the Western Hemisphere for this major Sōtatsu retrospective.

Museum founder Charles Lang Freer is widely credited with introducing both Sōtatsu and his frequent collaborator Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637) to Western audiences. A prescient late nineteenth-century collector, Freer amassed several of Sōtatsu’s most noted paintings, including Waves at Matsushima and Dragons and Clouds. Due to restrictions in Freer’s will, the works cannot travel outside our Galleries. This exhibition is a watershed moment in our understanding of Sōtatsu, bringing together the masterworks Freer collected with others from around the world.

This evening, we’re open for a sneak peek of the exhibition from 5:30–8:30 pm. Explore the art, literature, and creative genius that shaped Sōtatsu’s legacy through curator-led tours, games, hands-on art activities such as block printing and fan painting, and refreshments. The evening also includes a film screening and performances by the Levine Music Jazz Quartet.

Tomorrow, the official opening day for Sōtatsu: Making Waves, join us for the free public colloquium Sōtatsu in Washington: Insights, Discoveries, and Reflections and hear from the international scholars who conceived and developed this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.

Osumi Yukie: Master of Japanese Metalwork

Osumi Yukie at work in her studio in Japan

Osumi Yukie at work in her studio in Japan

For Osumi Yukie, the Freer|Sackler’s first artist-in-residence in Japanese metalware design, metalwork is more than an art or a craft—it’s a way of life. She’s been working with metal since the early 1960s. A master of inlay decoration, Osumi transforms silver into objects that are both functional and beautiful. Each piece, including those in Wind and Waves—on view in the Sackler through November 15—can take upward of four months to create, from inspiration to early sketch to finished work.

In her hands, metal becomes imbued with a kind of emotion. She takes a flat sheet of silver and lets it reveal its own story, akin to the way Michelangelo tried to bring the “sculpture” out of the stone. When we had the chance to speak last week (with the help of a translator), Osumi told me, “Metal isn’t a cold or hard thing. It is warmed by my own body temperature and becomes soft and comfortable.” Part of what makes the object special is the way it is used. “People who use my pieces will understand that through usage, the work really does become more beautiful. They enjoy the spirit that is behind the piece as well as its function,” she explained.

"Wind and Waves" by Osumi Yukie

“Wind and Waves” by Osumi Yukie

In July, Osumi was designated a Living National Treasure of Japan, making her the first woman to receive this recognition for metalwork. She holds a degree from the Tokyo University of the Arts and also studied in the United Kingdom.

On Sunday, October 18, from 2–4 pm on Sackler sublevel one, join us for Osumi Yukie’s talk, “A Changing Craft: Japanese Metalwork.” Through words and images, she’ll tell us more about her work, the influence of teachers, and her role today in encouraging a broader appreciation of the art of metalwork.

For more Japanese art, save the date to see Sōtatsu: Making Waves, which opens at the Sackler on October 24. A celebration of the life and work of Tawaraya Sōtatsu—one of the most influential yet elusive figures in the history of Japanese visual culture—the exhibition is the first outside Japan to tell his story.

Action, Anarchy, and Audacity: A Seijun Suzuki Retrospective

Film still from "Branded to Kill"

Film still from “Branded to Kill”

Seijun Suzuki is one of Japanese cinema’s legendary eccentrics. He was fired from his job at Nikkatsu Studios in the late 1960s for, as he put it, making films that “made no sense and made no money.” Over the last couple of decades, he has developed a global cult following for those stylistically outrageous send-ups of gangster movies, as well as the mysterious ghost stories he created upon his return to filmmaking in the 1980s.

Though he is virtually a household name in Japan (he was once voted the country’s best-dressed man), very little has been written about Suzuki in the United States—until now. My book Time and Place Are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki has been published by the Freer|Sackler. To celebrate, we are devoting the next three months to a retrospective of Suzuki’s work, co-organized with the Japan Foundation and comprising more than twenty films, some of which have never before screened in the United States.

We kick things off this evening with Suzuki’s most notorious film, Branded to Kill, the outrageous excesses of which led to his firing from Nikkatsu. After the screening, I will be on hand to sign copies of Time and Place Are Nonsense. For the rest of the month, you can sample films from the most fertile period of Suzuki’s career: the mid- to late ’60s, during which he twisted B movie scripts into dazzling, funny, and shocking artistic statements. These films are rooted both in the gleefully nihilistic outlook Suzuki gained as a soldier in World War II and in the wild, bawdy underbelly of Japanese aesthetic traditions, such as Kabuki theater, that has fascinated him throughout his career.

I hope you’ll join us and come back in November and December, when we delve into Suzuki’s equally fascinating later career. The complete film schedule is available on our website. And if you have friends in other parts of the United States and Canada, please tell them to keep an eye out for the retrospective. Between now and next May, it will be traveling to cities throughout North America.

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Behind the Scenes: Sōtatsu

Sōtatsu maquette (with Batman and Catwoman)

Sōtatsu maquette (with Batman and Catwoman)

To prepare for the upcoming exhibition Sōtatsu: Making Waves, our designers are busy exploring ideas for the galleries. This maquette, or scale model, shows fabric banners that will grace the staircase between the exhibition’s two floors. Superheroes, courtesy of the graphic designer’s son, give us a sense of scale … as well as a sense of power!

Sōtatsu: Making Waves, the first exhibition in the West devoted to the seventeenth-century master Tawaraya Sōtatsu, opens at the Sackler on October 24. You never know who will show up…