Cypress Trees; By Kano Eitoku; Pair of four-panel folding screens; Azuchi-Momoyama period, dated 1590 (Tokyo National Museum)

Wed, Aug 14, 2019

Japanese art according to Sophie Richard: Looking at Japanese masterpieces

By Sophie Richard

The “Masterpieces of Japanese Art: From Sesshu and Eitoku to Korin and Hokusai” (May 3 – June 2) exhibition organised at the Tokyo National Museum by the Tsumugu Project allowed visitors to admire some of the most venerated examples of traditional Japanese art. Benefiting from the ability to draw from the august collections of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, the Museum of the Imperial Collections and the Tokyo National Museum, its curators selected a relatively compact but thrilling group of about forty works of art. Featuring a number of the most significant and beloved themes in Japanese art, these works also provided a delightful opportunity to reflect on some facets of art appreciation in Japanese culture.

Take for example the gorgeous pair of folding screens depicting Cypress Trees by Kano Eitoku, dated 1590 (See photo above). The artist is one of the most important representatives of the Kano school, a lineage of artists who received the patronage of the shoguns. It is impossible not to be impressed by the massive tree that seems to burst out from the surface of the painting against a background of gold leaves. Folding screens, a format emblematic of Japanese art, usually come in pairs and were an indispensable element of interior design. It is worth remembering also that these works would have been placed directly on the tatami floor and zigzagged in order to stand upright: this arrangement of the panels at an angle would enhance the composition and give an impression of depth. And imagine looking at them by candlelight, the gold background softly glimmering!

The Tales of Ise: Yatsuhashi Bridge; By Ogata Korin; Hanging scroll; Edo period, 18th century (Tokyo National Museum)

The Tales of Ise, a 10th century collection of waka poems, provided inspiration to countless artists, in particular the scene at Yatsuhashi Bridge, one of its most famous passages. In the 18th century, two remarkably gifted brothers, Ogata Korin and Ogata Kenzan, took on the theme. In the scene, the central character has left Kyoto, the capital city, and composes a poem while stopping by a bridge surrounded by iris marshes. Korin chose an elegant, descriptive approach while his younger brother Kenzan applies a more abstract and bold treatment, leaving out the figures and focusing on the bridge and the irises. His work also includes the presence of calligraphy, consisting of characters scattered around the paper that allude to the poem written by the tale’s protagonist.

Yatsuhashi Bridge; By Ogata Kenzan; Hanging scroll; Edo period, 18th century (Tokyo National Museum)

The inclusion of script on the painting might be surprising to some viewers, yet this is a distinctive trait of Japanese art. Across the centuries poems have been transcribed onto beautiful decorative paper, the characters forming a refined ornamental scheme along with motifs taken from nature, or sumptuous additions of gold and silver. In the 10th century, there existed a fashion for affixing poems to the surface of folding screens, to complement the painted landscape and express one’s appreciation for it. Calligraphy is a form of art that can perhaps be difficult to comprehend for Western visitors, but it is rewarding to take the time to look at it in detail and notice the different styles and the energy of the brushwork. Thin or thick, elegant or bold, the brushstrokes are believed to reflect the character and mood of the calligrapher.

Hokusai’s enigmatic composition

Finally an enigmatic composition dated 1839 by Katsushika Hokusai, better known for his woodblock prints, is a remarkable – and notably refreshing – illustration of a more unexpected streak in Japanese art. Two paper-thin rinds of watermelon hang from a rope like ribbons, placed above a fruit cut in two, a kitchen knife resting on its vibrantly coloured juicy flesh covered by a translucent piece of paper. What is the subject? Maybe it relates to haiku poetry, in which watermelons can refer to the star festival celebrated on 7th July, but nothing is sure. Dated 1839, the work was painted when the artist was 80.

This exhibition afforded the opportunity to see masterpieces rarely on view, due to their fragility (which requires long periods away from light exposure) and their prestigious provenance. Panels provided detailed information in four languages, making the event not only attractive but also truly accessible for international visitors. When I went to the exhibition however, I noticed that only Japanese visitors were present. I therefore warmly encourage all art lovers to seek out and visit the upcoming exhibitions organised by the Tsumugu Project.



Art Historian


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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