Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries- ‘Sotatsu: Making Waves’

Amy Henderson
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Tawaraya Sohatsu, ‘Waves at Matsushima’ (detail), early 1600s. Collection Freer Gallery of Art

The Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries are currently presenting a “once-in-a-lifetime exhibition” showcasing the powerful designs of the revered 17th century Japanese master Tawaraya Sotatsu.  Sotatsu: Making Waves is the first major exhibit in the Western hemisphere devoted to the artisan who revolutionized Japanese visual culture by bringing traditional courtly arts to the newly-emerging urban masses of Edo (now Tokyo), Japan. xxxxx

Sotatsu (ca. 1570-ca. 1640) was a craftsman who made finely decorated papers, folding fans, and screens at his Tawaraya shop/studio in Kyoto. He worked in an era when Japan’s class structure— traditionally a rigid hierarchy composed of samarai, farmers/peasants, artisans, and merchants—was being transformed by urbanization and mercantile growth. Sotatsu’s work widespread popularity among art lovers of the rising merchant class, but he nurtured ties with an elite clientele as well.

Right: Tawaraya Sotatsu, Screen with Scattered Fans, early 1600s. Collection, Freer Gallery of Art.

Although his powerful and distinctive designs had a major impact on Japanese visual culture, Sotatsu vanished into obscurity after his death. His reputation was eclipsed by the next generation’s Ogata Korin, whose designs and paintings were enormously indebted to Sotatsu’s work. Sotatsu remained unknown while Korin enjoyed a major vogue during Europe’s Japonism rage in the mid-and-late-nineteenth century. It was only after the turn of the century that Sotatsu’s significance was re-discovered, largely because of the efforts of collector Charles Lang Freer, a connoisseur who would found the Freer Gallery in 1923.

Freer’s perceptive eye helped identify some of Sotatsu’s work at the turn of the 20th Century, and thereby reclaimed this artisan’s role as a leading chronicler of Kyoto’s social and cultural transformation in the 17th century. Freer collected several of Sotatsu’s paintings and is credited with introducing this artisan to Western audiences. Sotatsu: Making Waves is the first and only opportunity to www.artesmagazine.comsee more than 70 of Sotatsu’s masterpieces gathered from collections in Japan, the U.S., and Europe.

Left: Waves at Matsushima (detail)

Although much of Sotatsu’s life remains a mystery, this exhibition is intended to explore how Japan’s massive social upheaval “allowed a common Kyoto fan-shop owner to become a sophisticated designer with aristocratic intentions.” (F/S press release) The resurgence of his popularity in the early 20th century inspired new generations of Japanese artists, as well as “styles such as Art Deco and Western luminaries such as Gustav Klimt and Henri Matisse.” As exhibition curator Dr. James Ulak agrgues, “Sotatsu’s designs profoundly changed both Japanese and Western art, yet only now is his name emerging from the shadows.”

Sotatsu’s singular contribution was to bring traditional courtly arts to the masses. He created folding fans and folding-screen paintings that captured bird’s-eye views of Kyoto and displayed visual quotations extracted from classical and legendary narratives. By presenting this work for the newly-emerging urban class rather than for a samarai elite, Sotatsu “sent once-sequestered and little-seen imagery into the streets” (Ulak, “Introduction” to catalogue, p. 11).

Below: Tawaraya Sotatsu, Waves at Matsushima, Japan, early 1600s. Collection, Freer Gallery of Art.

The centerpiece of this exhibition is a masterwork that Charles Lang Freer identified as Sotatsu’s in 1906. He purchased the six-fold screen Waves at Matsushima “After much dickering of a most exasperating nature….(The dealer’s) original price was ten thousand dollars but I cut his prices exactly in half.”  This screen had been held from the 17th to the early 20th century by the Zen temple in Sakai, a port on the Inland Sea. The temple was built by a major sea trading merchant, and he likely commissioned Sotatsu’s screen to the temple’s opening in the 1620s.

Right: Waves at Matsushima (detail)

Although called “Waves at Matsushima” in the early 20th century, the six-fold screen actually depicts no particular geography. Rather it invokes a general Japanese iconography associated with the miraculous gifts of the sea and a return to safe harbor. As Nakamachi Keiko points out in the catalogue essay about this work, “Anyone who stands before the screens is overwhelmed by the power of the seascape. The mountain-like waves, composed of lines in gold and sumi ink, fold into each other in complex ways.” The fluidity and continuity of the panels suggest a visual serial drama, ebbing and flowing between rough waves and rocks and sandy shores. (79)

“Waves at Matshuchima” is a gripping way to begin an exhibition that includes poetry cards, handscrolls, folding screens, woodblocks, and No drama librettos. Among Sotatsu’s best-known productions are multiple poetry sheets (shikishi) depicting scenes from the 10th century literary classic, Tales of Ise. Sotatsu created a key event for each of this work’s 125 episodes. Sotatsu also produced an eight panel folding screen visualizing The Tale of Genji, using ink, color, and gold on gilded paper.

Below: Tawareya Sotatsu, The Barrier Gate and Channel Buoys from the Tale of Genji (Side 1 of 2-sided screen), Japan, 1631. Seikado Bunko Art Museum.

Sotatsu’s shop/studio in Kyoto was called the Tawaraya, and it specialized in designing, producing, and repairing beautiful paper used by calligraphers. Tawaraya became famous for its finely-decorated folding fans. Folding fans were highly popular in urban Kyoto: people could easily carry them on the street, tucking them into sleeves when not in use.

In addition to making his work available to a wider public, Sotatsu developed a technique that was itself revolutionary. Traditionally, the application of the tarashikomi technique involved random pools of pigment and ink, but Sotasu “subtly subverted the tradition. He used ink to depict the ordinary subjects of everyday life—puppies and plants—in a style that took on an allusive ambiguity.” Instead of the solid, opaque colors traditionally associated with narrative painting, Sotatsu “used pooled ink and randomly changing color to indicate the underlying Buddhist theme: the unreliability of the visual world” (exhibition text, “Inkwork” section).

Right: Tawaraya Sotatsu, Dragon and Clouds (detail), Japan, early 1600s. Gift of Charles Lang Freer, Freer Gallery of Art.

One of the fascinating themes curator James Ulak has conveyed throughout this exhibition is that Sotatsu celebrated his position as an artisan/craftsman: he dealt with refined subject matter such as ancient aristocratic poetry and illustrated court and religious narratives, but “he sought to reveal the construction and inner workings of an image rather than polish the ‘building blocks’ until they were invisible.” He was “first and foremost a craftsman,” and indeed “he apparently wanted his audiences to appreciate his work” by seeing the media he had used to create them. He had no interest in contending that his work was “art,” a pursuit in which the “building blocks” become subsumed by a higher creative intent. (exhibit catalogue, “The Visibility of Craft”)

I thought about the relevance of Sotatsu’s celebration of “building blocks” as I walked through the Renwick Gallery’s Wonder exhibition in Washington. Each room is filled with large constructs that proudly display their artistic “bones,” including sculptural stacks of index cards by Tara Donavan and giant bird’s nests by Patrick Dougherty.

As we begin 2016, it’s perhaps well-worth celebrating the long lineage of building blocks that fill us with “wonder.”

By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer                           

Sotatsu: Making Waves is co-organized by the Freer and Sackler galleries and the Japan Foundation; it will be on display until January 31, 2016. There is an exhibition catalogue edited by Yuko Lippit and James T. Ulak, Sotatsu (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution: Washington, D.C., 2015).

Amy Henderson is a cultural critic and Historian Emerita, National Portrait Gallery

See Elaine King’s, Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C., review here:


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