Rinpa Aesthetics and the Art of Poetry

Caroline Hayes—

Upon visiting two exhibitions currently on display in New York City on the subject of the Japanese Rinpa aesthetic—at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art and at the Japan Society, Silver Wind: The Arts of Sakai Hōitsu (1761-1828)—I noticed a recurring motif: poetry. I turned to the exhibition catalogues for each show and found extensive research on the Rinpa tradition and its dedication to poetic form.

“Rinpa,” also spelled “Rimpa,” is a modern term referring to a style of Japanese pictorial art that arose in the early seventeenth century, perhaps even earlier. Rinpa, “school of Kōrin,” derives its name from the painter Ogata Kōrin, yet there was no Rinpa school of artists in the traditional sense of the word.  Rather, Rinpa is an art-historical term for various artists across several generations who shared stylistic preferences and brushstroke techniques. The aesthetic prefers bold, highly stylized, even graphic renderings of the natural world. It is also often interested in characters, poets, and sages. While the Rinpa art form has inspired generations of Japanese visual artists for centuries after its emergence, it has also undoubtedly been influenced by and contributed to the history of Japanese poetry.

Waka is a short form of Japanese court verse written in five units, usually separated as lines, which contain a specific phonetic pattern (5-7-5-7-7). Since ancient times, poetry has played an integral part in Japanese court ceremony and social interaction. Rinpa painters and calligraphers often inscribed this form of poetry on lavishly decorated poem cards (shikishi). Alongside the poems, the clientele of Rinpa artists preferred images of the Poetic Immortals from the time of Kōrin into the modern age. This style stemmed from Japan’s tradition of painting individual poets in codified groups to symbolize the elegant composition of verse.

Painted and illustrated versions of poems by the Thirty-six Poetic Immortals (a list of writers from the eighth century to tenth century) and the One Hundred Poets (from The Ogura Collection of a Hundred Poems by a Hundred Poets, arguably the most important poetry anthology in Japanese history) were particularly of interest to artists working in the Rinpa aesthetic.

Kōrin created numerous renderings of the Thirty-six Poetic Immortals, one of which innovatively depicts all of the poets crowded together in a single tableau. The two-panel theme on woodblook was repeatedly used as a template for future Rinpa artists. Artists Tatebayashi Kagei (active mid-eighteenth century) and Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828) use Kōrin’s composition of the Thirty-Six Poetic Immortals almost exactly, yet each artist left his own style. Why did this poetic subject endure as such a potent subject for Kōrin and his artistic descendants? An answer to this question is found in the exhibition catalogue Silver Wind, by Matthew P. McKelway: “It is possible that [these artists] sought in the poets a metaphor for themselves and their own projects, all sharing a common clause in an artistic movement traversing the gaps of time and distance that separated them.”

A preoccupation with the “Poetic Immortals” is only one facet of the Rinpa aesthetic’s fascination with poetry. Many of the masterpieces of the Rinpa followers include entire poems, which allow calligraphy to become a prominent stylistic choice for Rinpa artists and so continue Japan’s enduring tradition of calligraphy as a means of artistic expression. The experimental projects undertaken by the Ripna aesthetic fuse poetry with a certain set of stylistic tools and work to create highly evocative works. Language and image exist harmoniously in the world of the Rinpa artist.

The catalogue Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art is by John T. Carpenter, curator of Japanese art in the Department of Asian Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition catalogue Silver Wind: The Arts of Sakai Hōitsu (1761 – 1828) is written by Matthew McKelway, Takeo and Itsuko Atsumi Associate Professor of Japanese Art History at Columbia University and features contributions by Tadashi Kobayashi, former professor of art history at Gakushūin University, Tokyo and Toshinobu Yasumura, director of the Itabashi Art Museum, Tokyo.

Caroline Hayes is a student at New York University and former Yale University Press intern.

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