Written by  FEDERICO QUASSO

Translation by ELENA D’OTTAVIO

In 1615, a quarter of a century after the unification of Japan thanks to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the new Shōgun gave a little plot of land just outside Kyōto, to the well-known ceramicist and handwriting of the time, Hon’ami Kōetsu; where he was joined by other famous craftsmen and gave birth to a small community. In this climate of stability, peace and cooperation borned the Rinpa.

400 years later this event, the city of Kyōto held an exhibition, the first ever in his birth place, whose only subject is the Rimpa, sectioned in its main steps during the entire Edo period (1600 – 1868).
Starting right from that Kōetsu who was founder, and then moved to the three major artists who in the next two hundred years maintained and increased the fortune and fame of this current, the Kyōto National Museum celebrates the anniversary through a process that brings together all the major masterpieces from other museums, temples and private collections, and which builds a great visual encyclopedia of artistic taste of the old capital between the 17th and 19th century.

Rinpa is an aesthetic style that reflects the artistic and classic literary tradition, typical of the Heian period  (794 – 1185), without remaining a  simple exercise in style of classical mold but revisiting and bringing art into the daily decorative household goods. During the exhibition, in fact, you can admire numerous lacquered and finely decorated boxes which served to contain make-up and jewelry, or cups and plates with floral motifs, or even fans embellished with gold leaf.

The path opens, as mentioned, with Hon’ami Kōetsu. Born shortly after the middle of 1500 in a family of craftsmen specialized in the manufacture and repair of high quality swords, he became an artist in creating bowls for the tea ceremony using the Raku technique, of which there are two examples. His fame grew, however, and he established himself thanks to his skill in calligraphy: you can see a roll of more than 13 meters on which the artist has masterfully penned some famous Waka (poems composed of 31 syllables) of Heian period. The feature that elevates the work as a masterpiece is that the realization of the illustrations represented groups of cranes in flight, as a backdrop to these poems by Tawaraya Sōtatsu, who is the second great master of Rinpa.

We don’t know much about Sōtatsu biography, including dates of birth and death, what is certain, however, is that he was a master of the decoration of the fans with scenes from the masterpieces of classical Japanese literature, such as the Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji the shining prince) or the Ise Monogatari (Tales of Ise). In addition to these magnificent objects, during the route there is located opposite to works even more complex, obtained by exploiting the major surfaces of the small fans; in particular the artist uses ink on paper, sometimes in the Chinese tradition, by taking advantage of the gray scale, and sometimes with typically Japanese taste, using the color.

The subjects are mostly inspired by the natural environment; there are flowers, grass, autumn leaves, and rural scenes as a pair of oxen or rice cultivation. All this, in the best aesthetic Japanese, meticulously painted, but at the meantime, only mentioned in some sections and details.

Pannello Rinpa

The Rimpa should not be understood as a school, a continuous tradition in which forms and techniques were taught directly from master to disciple; rather it is a feeling, a passion for the classic aesthetics that resulted then in the individual artists in a studio and a reinterpretation of the purely personal illustrious examples of the past. This is in fact what happened from Sōtatsu on, and which culminated in the work of Ogata Kōrin: born after the mid ‘600 into a wealthy family, he was able to observe and study closely the works of his predecessors, upholds the lesson but acquiring his own style of painting. With him the Rinpa reached its peak, and Kōrin exerted a great influence on artists who followed him: in fact, the term Rinpa, dating back to times closer to us, could be translated as “School [Ko] rin” . Some of the masterpieces that can be admired include paintings using ink on paper representing natural subjects, but also human figures drawn from the aforementioned Monogatari. Also in a room alone is worth the price of admission, bears his signature one of three copies of the screens on which are represented the god of thunder and the god of the wind (the other two by Sōtatsu and Sakai Hōitsu, the fourth grand master). You may well encounter the diversity of styles between the three, which, while maintaining a close relationship with tradition, innovate each in their own way, someone through a different use of color, and someone through more dynamic bodies.

In the last rooms the paintings give way to everyday household goods : here we find, in addition to those already mentioned, even small tools, such as brightly colored combs or clothing: in particular caught my attention two kimonos dating back to the 18th century, each decorated with a pattern of autumn leaves of maple, and the other with wisteria.

Kimono Rinpa

In a city like Kyoto, strongly linked to its past as the Capital both political and cultural, the exhibition for the four hundredth anniversary of Rinpa was welcomed as a real event, and although it was opened a few days ago already seen an influx of public out of the ordinary.
We want grant to the public itself, the conclusion of this article (assuming that the judgment on the show is much more than positive): we have noticed the presence of people of all ages, and each of them was attentive and interested, patient and polite despite queues that were formed to look closely at the works. When you are abroad, it always seems like you want to make comparisons with Italy and Italians, and that they will always come out as losers. Far from making preaches or launching invectives, we merely take note of the capacity of the Japanese people to stay connected to the past and to make the best of it, which, it seems, it is a good point on which to build a future.

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