A National Treasure Placed in Context

"Wisteria" by Maruyama Ōkyo and Edo Period Screens
Nezu Museum, Tokyo
July 28 - August 26, 2012

While in Japan vacationing with my in-laws, I had the good fortune to catch an exhibit built around an Important Cultural Property (an official designation) of Japan: an exquisite pair of six-panel screens by Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-1795). The other ten byōbu (screens) in the exhibit are valuable for much more than context; several of them are just as remarkable as the featured work, and this two-gallery exhibit kept me occupied for over an hour. It was too breathtakingly beautiful not to document.

Most of the works are quite large; a six-panel screen is generally about five feet high and twelve feet wide, and many of the works here are pairs of such screens. The first item in the exhibit is "Grasses and Flowers" (six-panel screen, ink & color on paper, 17th century, I'nen seal) from the studio of Tawaraya Sōtatsu, co-founder of the Rimpa school of painting. Though that style tended to use black outlines around the figures, this work instead has delicate daubs of unoutlined color, like half-dreamed flowers in mist. The next work, "Summer and Autumn Flowers and Grasses" (a pair of six-panel screens, ink & color on paper, 17th century, I'nen seal) comes from the same studio, as its seal shows. Here the colors are delicately outlined with black ink, and there is no background. Most of the color in this nicely structured pair of soothing pieces comes in the center panels.

"White Magnolia, Hemp Palm and Banana Plants" (two-panel screen, ink & color on paper, 18th century) is attributed to Tatebayashi Kagei. It's a fine example of Tarashikomi, "an ink painting technique where dark ink or other pigments are dropped onto still-wet areas of ink," also a typical aspect of Rimpa style. Only the white blossoms of the flowers are outlined. The piece is striking in its raw starkness, and feels modern. Tsuruzawa Tangei's "Autumn Grasses" (two-panel screen, ink & color on gold-foiled paper, 18th century) has the classic gold-background look of this period. While on the one hand gold-foiled paper appealed to samurai who wanted to flaunt their wealth and power, it also eliminates the need to outline white bits. Though the gold background is obviously artificial-looking, otherwise the painting on this piece is realistic and timeless.

The third wall of the first gallery was devoted to two pairs of screens depicting the same subject, the Red Cliff of Chinese poet Su Shi's famous 1082 odes. The fluid lines and fantastical shapes of Nagasawa Rosetsu's "Red Cliff" (pair of six-panel screens, ink & slight color on paper, 18th century, designated an Important Art Object) brought to my Western mind thoughts of Roger Dean's style. In particular, the second screen suggests a cross between "Relayer" and "Close to the Edge." A student of Ōkyo, Rosetsu (1754-1799) uses a huge amount of empty space to frame his images. His starkly black pine trees and outlines of mountain peaks contrast with stylized wave patterns. It's structured such that one screen builds in height from low left to high right, and vice versa. The only use of color is in the few men's faces and their beige boat. Tani Bunchō's "Red Cliff" (pair of six-panel screens, ink & color on paper, 19th century) is much more colorful and has a light gold background. Though it has heavy outlines (for an unrealistic, highly stylized look), otherwise it has the Impressionist mistiness of a watercolor, and the men depicted are tiny in comparison to Rosetsu's figures. In another contrast to Rosetsu's earlier screens, Bunchō's (1763-1841) have the weight of the compositions in their center panels, rather strongly.

The centerpiece of the exhibit, Ōkyo's "Wisteria" (pair of six-panel screens, ink & color on gold-foiled paper, dated 1776; detail of right screen shown above), gets a whole wall to itself. The exhibit notes that he "established his own uniquely realistic painting style based on his study of Chinese painting and creation of countless sketches from life." While the former doesn't begin to explain the magic of his art, as basically all Japanese artists of his era were also influenced, directly or indirectly, by Chinese painting, the life sketches bit was more unusual, believe it or not; some of his contemporaries even criticized his work as too realistic. Actually, there's a certain amount of stylization here; use of gold-foiled paper automatically makes the scene a bit unrealistic, and the wisteria on these screens come from nowhere, spatially speaking, as they are unsupported.

And that's part of the magic: the graceful deployment of the branches, leaves, and blossoms unfolds across the space unhindered by that particular aspect of reality; as utterly realistic as the elements present look, what we get here is their essence outside of a particular scene. There is far more gold background than paint, putting an intense focus on the watery branches. Ōkyo used tsuketate, "outline-free single brushstroke technique," and his black ink is so thinly applied over the told that it usually looks brown, which of course is perfect for branches. They sport green daubs of leaves and gracefully dangling blossoms of white mixed with blue and purple. Despite the context-free positioning of the wisteria, it nonetheless has a bewitching three-dimensionality.

I've already mentioned Ōkyo's use of space. The structural flow is almost casually organic and unconstrained. The right screen's far left panel has only one small branch continued from the adjacent panel, with a few small leaves and no flowers. The left screen's far-right panel is entirely gold; the "motion" starts on the far left, with the most color, and ebbs and flows to the right, gently ending in two downward blossom streams, the most rightward one smaller. The sense of proportion is masterful yet unforced, very natural-feeling.

The quality of the following work is hardly lower: Tsubaki Chinzan's "Birds and Flowers" (pair of six-panel screens, ink & slight color on paper, dated 1852). On the right screen, four swallows (or so the annotation says; I only saw three) fly through peach trees; on the left, plum trees with reeds and geese. There's more acknowledged Chinese influence here; Chinzan's inscription on the right screen says that it's modeled after Chinese Qin Dynasty painter Yun Nantian. Chinzan uses tsuketate (AKA "boneless") technique, but despite the "slight color" annotation, there's more than a little -- it's fully of lovely pink blossoms and boldly streamed brown-gold branches. In the right screen, the weight is again centered, more or less; most of the image is in panels 2-4. It's so fluid as to be nearly abstract, yet still clear in depiction. The left screen has one goose coming in for a landing; this alone is a masterpiece for its depiction of action caught in time.

Moving to the smaller second gallery is jarring, and not because of the change of location; "Two Chinese Emperors (pair of six-panel screens, ink & color on gold-foiled paper, 1661) by Kano Tan'yu (1601-1674) seems out of place amid all these outdoor nature scenes. It depicts the titular subjects largely, indoors in cut-away view, though there is still plenty of greenery. While an exhibit of Edo screen paintings would perhaps be overly skewed to nature without an example of this sort of painting, the shift in viewing gears made it hard for me to be interested in this work.

Interestingly, the next picture is by the previous work's artist's younger brother, Kano Naonobu (1607-1650). "Landscape with Birds and Flowers" (pair of six-panel screens, ink & slight color on paper, 17th century) is totally different not only in subject matter but in style, very minimal, full of (off-)white space. It's more about painterly gesture than depiction -- if it were dated 2012, I'd believe it. Except for the three birds, you'd never guess the subject matter without the guidance of the title; the flowers are contorted squiggles. Well, "contorted" makes it seem tense, but it's anything but; it's very free, very relaxing.

The style and subject of the last piece causes a bit more whiplash. Kano Munehobu's"Civet Cats and Cherry Blossoms" (pair of six-panel screens, ink & color on gold-foiled paper, 17th century) is heavily gold and shows the first animals (if we don't count humans) featured in the exhibit. The three cats, two playing together, are very colorful beasts, their mouths and eyes heavily outlined, with seemingly human expressions. Here is an ancestor of contemporary kawaii culture. The flora is oddly realistically unreal as well, the branches and flowers floating discontinuously; this is not specific to Munehobu's style, however, as it was a standard stylized presentation.

Though my tastes lean heavily towards the works in the first gallery, with Kano Naonobu's piece the only work in the second gallery I found aesthetically satisfying, the other works helped present a fuller historical view of the Edo screen. Overall, this was a knockout exhibit that I'm extremely happy to have managed to see. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.