Tag Archives: Sōtatsu

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.

Fan Favorite Finalists: Like Your Vote

Like your Fan Favorite at facebook.com/freersackler.

Vote for your Fan Favorite at facebook.com/freersackler!

Inspired by Tawaraya Sōtatsu’s Screen with Scattered Fans (top left), visitors to our Sōtatsu exhibition—both in person and online—emulated his work on their own fans. Of the dozens of entries to our Fan Favorite contest, a team of Freer|Sackler judges narrowed down the candidates to five finalists. Vote for the one that you think should win a Sōtatsu gift basket by liking its image in our Facebook gallery. Voting is open until 11:59 pm on Monday, January 25.

What were the parameters? As emphasized by James Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art, we encouraged participants to choose a design that suited the fan’s curved shape. We also suggested that entrants adapt popular images or famous scenes for their fans, as Sōtatsu—who began his artistic career as a maker of finely decorated papers and folding fans—once did. Finally, we looked for entries that were creative, beautiful, or simply stood out from the pack. Which will you choose? Vote now!

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.”

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.