January 9, 2013

At the Met: Japanese Art, A Full Emptiness

Tawaraya Sotatsu, Waterbird in Flight, 1630s; hanging scroll, ink on paper.

There is currently a beautiful exhibition in the Asian galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that will only be open through the weekend. Titled Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art, it focuses on a tradition in Japanese painting and design based on the work of Ogata Korin (1658-1716), a painter from Kyoto, whose most famous work is the Eight-Planked Bridge, a stunning composition of irises across two six-paneled screens. Walking through the show, I felt elevated by the fresh, close attention to nature, and by the fluidity of the calligraphy (which I wrote about in this blog post). At the link to the exhibition above, you can read about the definition of Rinpa, including its "bold, graphic abbreviation of natural motifs", but to me it seemed simply a great collection of Japanese painting and design. For instance, the painting above was made before Korin's birth, yet has a similar drama in its composition to later works. What I found most fascinating about these works, and what I chose to focus on in my photography and in this post, is the remarkable power of the careful placement of objects within large empty spaces. The flight of the bird upwards animates both the space above and below it; our body feels air and light rising to the elegant calligraphy.

Ogata  Kenzan, Plum Tree and Hollyhocks, 1743; pair of six-panel folding screens, ink and color on gilt paper.

The gold background of folding screens brings light and depth to its varied surface. The composition of reaching branches also enlivens the screen. There is a perfect balance between line, shape, and space.

Attributed to Tosa Mitsumochi, Red and White Poppies, early 17th century; six-panel folding screen, ink and color on gilt paper.

The backgrounds never feel simply left over, even with a work such as this, with carefully rendered poppies on a gold field. The angle of the flowers, their openness or density, the way some sit above a geometrically patterned wall, all create a conversation with those seemingly bare spaces that fills them with feeling.

Flowering Plants and Vegetables of the Four Seasons, early 18th century; pair of six-panel folding screens, ink and light color on gilt paper.

The natural world is shown here with great refinement and delicacy, and the empty spaces become illusions of actual space: a clump of grasses rising out of a river, a vine in front of concealing mists.

Box of Five Trays with Crabs and Waves, 17th century; gold maki-e on black lacquer

A similar aesthetic of simple drama, of forms within a largely empty space, is also found in some of the stunning objects made in Japan, such as this lacquer box. Elegant curves of waves contrast with spiky crabs' legs, all floating on a depth of black.

Spring and Autumn Trees and Grasses by a Stream, second half of 17th century; pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, gold, and silver on paper. 

Curving forms of tree trunks and masses of leaves rise above a ground bare of all but a few thin stems of grasses or flowers. I love this part of the screen which balances a lower emptiness with all the forms at its top.

Suzuki Kiitsu, Irises and Stream, mid 19th century; hanging scroll, ink and color on silk.

Similar to the hanging scroll above, this painting uses a dramatic placement of form at the bottom of a long rectangle; it is even more daring in that there is nothing above to pull our eye upward. But still it works....how? How does the artist manage with such simple means to create enough energy to fill the blank surface? 

Furuya Korin, Korin-style patterns, 1907; one of two volumes, ink on paper.

I am ending this post with a nod toward Japanese textile design. This is a book of patterns for textiles, based on Rinpa designs and intended for Kyoto kimono manufacturers. The gathering of irises at bottom, the line of the bridge leading upward to a few spears of leaves, with all the rest water, is an elegant composition.

Kimono with Pines and Mist, second quarter of 20th century; silk, hand-painted and paste-resist dyed with painted gold accents. 

I gasped when I saw this. Part of the astonishment is the drama of the kimono shape, but it is heightened by the flowing shapes of pines at the bottom and rising up the sides, floating on a rich black ground, a ground which is so present, a counterpoint to the irregular curves and subtle tones of the pines. There are so many lessons for me here: about simplicity, about balance, about careful observation of the natural world, and about how drama and excitement can come from subtle shifts of shapes in space. 


  1. Whoa, that kimono made me gasp too!
    So glad to read about this exhibit. Thank you!

    1. You're welcome, Susan; I'm glad you liked it, and had that same reaction to the kimono.

  2. Knock out images here Altoon. And yes, that kimono! Thank you for vetting this for all us who won't be able to see the exhibit.