Waves of Matsushima

Discover Tawaraya Sōtatsu Influential Artistry

Waves at Matsushima (1628) by Tawaraya SotatsuSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Today Tawaraya Sōtatsu, whose distinctive seal and signature you see here, is recognized as one of the most dynamic and inventive painters in the long history of Japanese visual expression. However, during his lifetime, he toiled as a member of a class of craftsmen who worked in relative anonymity.

Active from about 1600 until 1640, he designed and applied the final artistic elements to high-end paper documents and folding fans.

Today we might recognize him as graphic artist, quietly innovating at the cutting edge of popular iconography. The products of the Tawaraya, his shop and studio in Kyoto, were well regarded, and his clients included aristocrats and members of the merchant class.

These lush screens, each 12 feet in width, were produced by Sōtatsu in the 1620s. They are of a type traditionally displayed as a backdrop during special occasions, such as the visit of a dignitary, or in celebration of the changing seasons. Today they are acknowledged as among the most influential works of a man whose groundbreaking artistic achievements and resounding influence went largely unrecognized for nearly 300 years after his death.

Recognition of Sōtatsu’s powerful stylistic impact on subsequent generations of famous artists had long been lost to history.

But in the late 1800s a group of influential Western collectors, including our museum’s namesake, Charles Lang Freer, encountered Sōtatsu’s work, and for the first time understood its effect on those artists who came after.

They recognized Sōtatsu’s artistic DNA flowing through two centuries of renowned artworks created not only in Japan, but eventually in the salons of Europe as well.

The screens were likely commissioned by the merchant Tani Shōan, to celebrate the opening of the Zen temple Shōunji in the late 1620s in Sakai, a port on the Inland Sea. The temple founding coincided with Shōan's retirement.

Such commissions were traditionally reserved for hereditary members of the “painterly” class, regardless of the relative merits of their artistic ability. But “craftsmen” like Sotatsu were fortunate to live at a time of unusual social fluidity, when some were able to break through rigid class distinctions and gain acceptance by dint of sheer talent alone.

Shōan’s fortune was largely based on a thriving sea trade that extended to China and Southeast Asia.

The merchant class in Sakai was deeply engaged in activities including tea ceremony, poetry groups, and other manifestations of cultural refinement.

Both the aristocratic and ecclesial establishments were dependent upon the wealth of successful merchants like Shōan to advance cultural causes.

Although now known as "Waves at Matsushima," the scene likely represents no particular geographic location.

The name and association with the celebrated Matsushima coastline, on the northeast Pacific coast of Honshū, wasn't attached to the screens until the early 20th century, 300 years after they were crafted.

The imagery invokes Japanese iconography of stylized water renderings that were related to the miraculous gifts of the sea...

...and an eventual return to safe harbor at the end of a journey.

The sumptuous screens are also a symbolic statement of Shōan’s aspirations for the afterlife, and this roiling detail may even reference a fabled island of immortality.

Sōtatsu was first and foremost a craftsman, and he intended the viewer to see the inner workings of his craft.

He decorated documents that dealt with extremely refined subject matter such as ancient aristocratic poetry and illustrated court and religious narratives—but in his art he sought to reveal the construction and inner workings of an image rather than polish the “building blocks” until they were invisible.

Notice here the dark outlines, intentional layered bleeding of pigments, and the clear remainders of pigment granules.

The materials used to create the pigments were often intentional left visible.

The technique he made most famous was tarashikomi, a pooling of pigment or ink in partially dried layers, which encouraged random, semi-translucent shapes to take form. The patterns that result suggest both dimensionality and ephemerality, and thus uncertainty.

Some silver pigment, such as the outline of this strange design pattern—a cloud or perhaps an island—has tarnished to black over time. This very same design pattern is found on an important 12th century Buddhist sutra cover repaired by Sōtatsu early in his career, and suggests the lingering influence of his early craft endeavors on his later large scale works.

Although Sōtatsu’s signature style and treatment of nature became a hallmark of Japanese art, recognition of his influence faded to obscurity after his death around 1640, and throughout much of the Edo period that endured through the 1860s,

Sōtatsu’s groundbreaking contributions were eclipsed by the reputations of his contemporary Hon’ami Kōetsu and, in the next generation, Ogata Kōrin, whose designs and paintings were deeply indebted to Sōtatsu.

Works by Kōrin and his followers were all the rage in Europe in the mid- to late nineteenth century and had a great influence on Western art movements. However, it was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—thanks in part to the efforts of our patron, Charles Lang Freer—that the art world came to recognize Sōtatsu’s consequential influence; not only on his Japanese artistic descendants, but through them, eventually on European artists as well.

Credits: Story

Jame Ulak
Senior Curator of Japanese Art
Freer|Sackler Galleries
Smithsonian Institution

Marc Bretzfelder
New and Emerging Media Producer
Office of the Chief Information Officer
Smithsonian Institution

Credits: All media
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