The aesthetic sensibilities of Kyoto

Kyoto National Museum

Rinpa and Kyo-yaki

The aesthetic sensibilities of Kyoto: Rinpa and Kyo-yaki 
The country’s political center shifted from Kyoto to Tokyo (then known as Edo), when the shogun established his government there in the 17th century. However, Kyoto—a city with a history stretching back to the 8th century and at the time still the seat of the imperial family—remained a fountainhead of refined culture. This is more than demonstrated by the output of artists from the Rinpa (or Rimpa) school, such as Tawaraya Sotatsu (dates unknown) and Ogata Korin (1658–1716), and potters such as Nonomura Ninsei (dates unknown), who perfected Kyo-yaki (Kyoto ware), characterized by overglaze enamel decoration. Such embodiments of innovative, elegant beauty originating in Kyoto were loved and sponsored by court nobles and wealthy merchants, nurturing the city’s unique aesthetic sensibilities that survive to this day.

Anthology with Cranes
by Tawarawa Sōtatsu / Inscription by Hon'ami Kōetsu
17th Century


Tawaraya Sōtatsu (n.d.) painted the gold and silver design, over which Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637) has brushed waka (Japanese poetry) verses by the celebrated poet Kakinomoto Hitomaro and others from the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets collection.

The beginning of the scroll shows a group of cranes flocked on the ground. Eventually they fly off and out of the pictorial space, only to successively descend back into the painting. They then glide over the sea before suddenly veering up above the clouds, fluttering down to the sea again, and finally coming to rest with their feet in the water. The artist creates a breathtaking sense of dynamism in the cranes’ flight as they soar away and then descend again. As many viewers have pointed out, the sequence of the cranes’ movements has exactly the same impact as an animation strip.

Sōtatsu used gold pigment for the birds’ beaks, legs, and parts of their wings, with all other areas painted in silver. His elegant rendering of forms with minimal brushstrokes is truly stunning. At the beginning of the scroll, the land is painted in long sweeping areas of gold, but later varying intensities of gold pigment are used to express the clouds and haze above.

The artist skilfully uses gold, along with silver for the ocean waves, to create a marvelous sense of change in the elevation of the cranes in flight. Major differences in height are depicted. This sophisticated composition manages to defy the upper and lower limitations of the handscroll format and superbly exploits the long, horizontal pictorial surface.
In modern parlance, this is a superb collaboration between the painter, Sōtatsu, and calligrapher, Kōetsu.

Waterfowls in Lotus Pond
by Tawaraya Sōtatsu
17th Century

Two grebes swim in a pond where lotus flowers blossom. It is a very simple scene, but the artist has infused it with life and interest.

He uses subtle differences of tone to differentiate the upper and lower surfaces of the lotus leaves on each stem and create bowl shapes; the lotus on the right extends upwards, the one on the left folds down. One flower is in full bloom, whilst he other has already begun to lose its petals.

As if echoing this contrast, one of the grebes swims forward creating small waves, whereas the other is static, resting its feet. The passing of time, the opposition of movement and stillness, dry and wet, are masterfully expressed.

Although only Sōtatsu’s seal ‘Inen’ appears in the lower left corner of the picture with no signature, the high quality of the piece leaves no doubt that this is the work of Sōtatsu. The liberal use of tarashikomi (an ink-painting technique in which ink of different concentration is added before the lower layer has dried, creating pooled areas with blurred edges) indicates that it dates from relatively early in his career. Notwithstanding, it is a tour de force demonstrating Sōtatsu’s consummate achievement in ink painting.

Taigong Wang
by Ogata Kōrin
18th Century

The Chinese sage Lu Shang, also known as Taigong Wang, avoided the world by dangling a fishing line in the Isui River; however, King Wen (1152–1056 B.C.E.), who consolidated the Zhou dynasty, made use of his talents. The composition of this painting was taken from a Chinese publication, Xianfo qichong (Daoist Immortals and Buddhist Figures, the Strange and Venerated), but transformed into a much larger work.

All of the lines in the work are clearly meant to converge on the figure of Taigong Wang, which then create a remarkably uniform work. At the same time, the face of the sage has a cheerful or bright expression, while the gold-leaf background spreads to create a warm and serene atmosphere. The painting is not easy to forget.

Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716) was the central figure in the world of painting in Kyoto during the Genroku, Hōei, and Shōtoku eras (1688–1716). He was born to the Kariganeya family of drygoods merchants and first studied Kano-style painting. He then came to admire the decorative works of Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637) and Tawaraya Sōtatsu (n.d.), and his works acquired a much more brilliant quality. He also contributed designs known as Kōrin-style or Kōrin-design for lacquer ware, textiles, and other decorative arts. His younger brother, Kenzan, and Sakai Hōitsu inherited his style, which then gave birth to the Rinpa lineage of painting. From the painting style, the signature of Hokkyō Kōrin, and the seal “Kansei”, scholars believe that Kōrin painted this screen before he left Kyoto for Edo in 1704 (Genroku 17), at age forty-seven.

The museum also owns the records pertaining to Kōrin from the former Konishi family collection (Konishi-ke kyūzō Kōrin kankei shiryō), a primary source for research on Kōrin, and Tiger and Bamboo, one of Kōrin’s individualistic ink paintings.

Square dishes with the Chinese monk-poet, Hanshan (Kanzan), and Shide (Jittoku)
Painting by Ogata Kōrin / Ceramic by Ogata Kenzan
18th century

This pair of square dishes was press-molded. The walls are straight, and the base is chamfered. Each piece is covered with slip, onto which the figure and inscriptions in underglaze iron, and seals in cinnabar are applied before coating the piece with clear glaze. The well of each dish is bordered, and filled with an image of a figure, flanked by an inscription, signature, and seals. An oval-shaped cinnabar seal bearing the characters “乾山” (Kanzan) is applied before each inscribed Chinese poem.

The dishes entered the museum collection as a pair, but it is not known if these are the correct match. The pieces are the collaborative work of Ogata Kenzan and Ogata Korin. Recent studies of signatures, seals, and styles of handwriting indicate that the two began collaborating after Korin returned to Kyoto from Edo in 1709. This pair of dishes is therefore thought to have been made during the seven years between Korin’s return to Kyoto and his death in 1716.

Nail Covers
Attributed to Nonomura Ninsei
17th Century


These ceramic pieces seem to replicate inlaid metal cloisonné nail covers. They were biscuit fired before being given a coating of transparent glaze for a principal firing, and then decorated with polychrome paints, which were in turn fired onto the surface. Because gold paint cannot be fired together with other colors, these pieces must have passed through the kiln at least four times before completion.

The nail covers were passed down in the Kyōgoku family of Muragame. A record of tea ware dating from 1695, when Kyōgoku Takamochi (1692–1724) was clan chief, contains the entry “thirty paired fans, Omuro overglaze enamel fanshaped nail covers”, of which seventeen are thought to correspond to these items. “Omuro” indicates that the pieces were produced in the kiln of the early Edo-period Kyoto-ware master craftsman Nonomura Ninsei, whose work was known as Omuro-yaki.

The chrysanthemum-shaped nail covers are mentioned in the 1734 On’in onsuki dōgu chō (Catalogue of Tea Ware), which dates from the period when Kyōgoku Takanori (1718–63) was domain chief.
Although these small pieces bear neither seal nor signature, the broad range of overglaze colors—gold, silver, red, blue, green—closely resemble those on the Kyōgoku family’s collection of Omuro-yaki overglaze-enameled tea jars and clearly display Ninsei’s salient features.

Stem Plate with Pine, Bamboo, and Plums
18th Century

The upper face of the plate is decorated with pine, bamboo, and plums in overglaze enamels, whilst the foot has numerous auspicious motifs consisting of ‘sacred treasures’ including shippō wachigai (a crest of interlaced circles enclosing diamonds or stars), hōkan (a sutra scroll), hōyaku (a key symbolizing riches), hōju (a sacred gem), hōshō (a diamond shape symbolizing luck at winning ), and chōji, (clove, a rare spice in its time).

The practice of using no red, but restricting the overglaze enamel decoration to a three-color palette of blue, green and gold is a particular characteristic of Kyoto ware from the late seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century; the box for a comparable overglaze enameled jar bears a date of 1732.

Highly proficient technique was required to fire the extremely thin plate without it warping—evidence of a relief platform fitted underneath the plate reveals how this was done. There are areas under the plate where the unglazed clay surface is exposed; these areas where the support would touch the piece were deliberately left
unglazed to prevent it from adhering during firing, therefore, traces of the artist’s resourceful effort remain hidden out of the user’s sight.

Three-tiered Food Container with Ten Noble Plant Design
by Aoki Mokubei
19th Century


Aoki Mokubei is very unusual in that he did not come from a ceramics background; he was born into a family owning a teashop, Kiya, in Kyoto’s Gion district, and only took up pottery at the age of 30. Associated with numerous literati figures like imura Kenkadō (1736–1802) and Rai Sanyō (1780–1832), Mokubei was so well versedin literature that he was known as Shikiji Tōkō,the ‘literate potter’.

Ten varieties of flowering plants decorate the piece; alongside each is inscribed a pair of Chinese characters compiled by the Chinese Song-dynasty scholar-official Zeng Duanbo, who likened each of the ten flowers to a type of friend: ‘poetic friend’, ‘elegant friend’, ‘exceptional friend’, ‘sacred friend’, ‘hermitic friend’, ‘distinguished friend’, ‘excellent friend’, ‘lustrous friend’, ‘pure friend’ and ‘meditative friend’. This design, much loved by the literati, clearly illustrates why Mokubei was called ‘the literate potter’.
Mokubei’s signature is on the underside of the container in underglaze blue, whilst a dated inscription on this container's box, indicates that it was produced by Mokubei prior to the year 1815.

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