Fri, Nov 1, 2019
One of the eras I find most fascinating in Japanese art history is the Momoyama period (late 16th century). Bearing a wonderfully poetic name (Momoyama literally means Peach Hill and derives from a castle that used to stand near Kyoto), this comparatively short period was nevertheless a time of turbulence, great creativity and remarkable contrasts.
After nearly a century of civil wars, three successive ambitious feudal lords reunited the country: Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616). Under these military leaders the arts flourished and became symbols of power. Great towering castles were decorated with colourful gilded screens, people dressed in extravagant clothing and kabuki was born. An exotic element was added to the culture thanks to the arrival of European merchants and missionaries who brought an awareness of different religions, new technologies and previously unknown goods to Japanese society. The Momoyama period saw an explosion of energy and visually rich new designs.
The art of the Momoyama period is characterised by a uniquely appealing and striking style which is often lavish. Precious metals were used to heighten the decorative qualities of paintings, textiles as well as architecture. One outlandish illustration is the Golden Tea Room made for Toyotomi Hideyoshi at the end of the 16th century; it did not survive but a modern reproduction is visible at the MOA Museum of Art in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture.
The residences of the nobility and the samurai shone with sumptuous displays, including sliding doors and folding screens painted in bright colours and covered in gold leaf. The latter must have shone beautifully in rooms lit by candlelight. Imagine the impression created by the two Chinese Lions pacing against an expansive gold background (Imperial Household Agency) by Kano Eitoku (1543-1590), the period’s most illustrious painter. This large-scale painting is thought to have been a gift from Toyotomi Hideyoshi to another feudal lord. It shows two ferocious animals, their curling manes and tails in a stylised flame-like pattern. That form of art, bold and flamboyant, complimented the aspirations of the audacious new leaders.
They enjoyed a range of activities that matched their skills, including sports contests like archery or kemari (a form of football). These pastimes are illustrated on artworks, such as a pair of lively folding screens depicting a dog-chasing event attended by numerous contestants on horses and spectators under a canopy. Great attention was given to their clothes in order to achieve a brilliant decorative effect against the gold background. (Top photo; Attributed to Kano Sanraku; Important cultural property; Agency for Cultural Affairs).
The presence of Europeans in Japan, initiated in the 1540s with the arrival of Portuguese traders, was soon reflected in the arts. A group of so-called nanban folding screens (nanban means Southern barbarians) from the Momoyama period depict the arrival of Portuguese merchants in the port of Nagasaki. Teeming with fanciful Western costumes worn by foreigners with exotic features, the scene is vibrant and colourful, partially covered by golden clouds.
The Momoyama period was a time of intense activity and development in the world of ceramics. For example, one new type with distinctive aesthetics favouring strong decorative patterns in striking copper green glazes and bold, irregular shapes came into fashion. Oribe ware takes its name from Furuta Oribe (1543/44-1615), a warrior who became a prominent tea master after the death of Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). Characteristic of this style is the fan shape, which could be used as a form as well as decorative feature. A delightful example is a food container with a lid (Kyoto National Museum) whose carved surface is animated by a variety of painted designs and a bamboo-like handle.
A lozenge-shaped dish with a bridge handle (Kitamura Museum, Kyoto, Important Cultural Property) is a further illustration of the potters’ inventiveness and of the lavishness of the tableware at the time. Brimming with decorative motifs, the dish is covered in a green glaze on its handle and the areas around the joints juxtaposed with patterns of half-wheels, fishnets and arabesques against a pale background.
Textiles as well, when worn by the ruling class, displayed gorgeous decoration, both in terms of design and of technique. Women’s kimono for example could be embroidered with threads of precious metals, which resulted in a glistening effect. Particularly sumptuous, Noh costumes were also woven with gold and silver, paired with strong colours and bold patterns. Indeed performing arts also flourished in those decades and the revival of Noh, the beginnings of Bunraku and Kabuki theatres further attest to the vitality of the period.
While most of the flamboyant Momoyama architecture has been destroyed, fortunately numerous works of art allow us to discover the Momoyama spirit and admire the cultural accomplishments of this fascinating period that has been called a Golden Age.
Born in Provence and educated at the Ecole du Louvre and at the Sorbonne in Paris, Sophie worked in the art world in New York before moving to London where she now resides. She has been a regular visitor to Japan for the last 15 years. Passionate about Japanese arts and culture, she set out to explore the country’s many museums. In the course of her research she has visited close to 200 venues across the country. Her articles on Japanese museums have appeared in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan. Her first book on the subject was published in 2014 and then translated into Japanese. Her new book “The art lover’s guide to Japanese museums” was published in July 2019. In 2015, Sophie received the Commissioner’s Award from the Agency of Cultural Affairs in Tokyo, in recognition for her work in bringing Japanese culture to a wider audience. (Photo©Frederic Aranda)
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