Kamisaka Sekka and Rimpa/Rinpa @ the Clark

Monday, May 28, 2012

Opening day for Kamisaka Sekka

It shouldn’t happen, but it had been twenty-seven months since I last visited the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture, even though it is only a bare twenty-eight miles from my door.  I was very aware of missing several interesting exhibitions, and my only excuse is busyness.  So earlier this month, I stole an afternoon I didn’t really have, and went to see the opening of Kamisaka Sekka, 1866-1942: Tradition and Modernity (running through July 28).  In truth, the presentation goes far beyond this one artist, and gives a history of the Rimpa School (琳派 Rimpa or Rinpa), of which Kamisaka was its last great master.

Detail from Kusunoki Masashige before the Battle, Kamisaka Sekka (ca. 1918)
I have long been intrigued by most things Meiji.  It astounds me that a nation could—by an act of will—redefine itself so quickly.  Japan leaped from 17th Century feudalism to 20th Century modernity in barely half a century.  It made an art of copying Europe and America in major areas of life, and yet managed to accomplish its leap with most of its national character intact.  Compared to, say, a similar effort in China under Mao Zedong, it was almost bloodless, and so much smoother.

Kamisaka Sekka
Kamisaka Sekka was three when forces loyal to the teenaged Emperor Meiji put down the last vestiges of the Tokugawa Shogunate.  He had been born into a samurai family near Kyoto, but a major plank in modernization was the abolition of the Samurai class.  Many former samurai turned to the arts.  Others became foreign students, sent to the west to bring back modern thought and technology.  Kamisaka did both.  After mastering Rimpa, he studied in Glasgow, Scotland, and returned home to become the father of modern Japanese design.

From Blue Iris, Nakamura Hōchū (d. 1819)
Kamisaka considered Rimpa to be Japan’s only native school of art, with all other styles coming first from China.  Rimpa originated early in the 17th Century, and could appear as hanging paintings, folding screens, decorative fans, lacquer ware, textiles, ceramics, woodblock, or books of prints.  Kamisaka worked in each of these.  Backgrounds often bore calligraphy and a distinctive gold or silver sheen, against which objects appeared in strong colors, sometimes with bold outlines and other times with no outline at all.  Subject matter often came from plants, flowers, or birds, but sometimes came from legends, the theater, or popular stories.  Because the patrons who supported it were wealthy, Rimpa exudes a stylized lavishness.

Noh Scene: Hagoromo, Kamisaka Sekka (ca. 1920-1940)
Perhaps a hundred guests came for a presentation by Dr. Andreas Marks, Director and Chief Curator at the Clark Center, which is just south of Hanford.  I came with little prior knowledge (though after returning home, I realized I have a Rimpa hanging in my living room).  Rimpa had three bursts of development, spread over some two hundred years, and I enjoyed the overview and introduction to the key individuals.
Moon and Waves, Suzuki Kiitsu (1796-1858)
Pieces by several of the earlier masters caught my attention.  Suzuki Kiitsu’s Moon and Waves achieves wild excitement with very simple colors and lines, with a modern appearance in stark contrast to my image of Tokugawa feudalism.

I enjoyed Kamisaka’s more traditional work, with less of a European influence.  He was sent with the assignment to discover what Europeans would like to see in Japanese art.  He accomplished the task well, but Edwardian tastes are not my tastes.

Pages from “All Kinds of Things” (“Chigusa,”), Kamisaka Sekka (1903)
A gentlemen saw me admiring Suzuki’s Bush Clover and Pampas Grass and came to tell me he had enjoyed it for several years, hanging in his bedroom.  I asked if he was Mr. Clark, and he corrected me, “Bill.”  At that moment, we were interrupted by the start of Dr. Marks’ talk, and we did not get to finish our conversation, but I must point out that in three visits to the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, I have never yet been approached by either Victoria or Albert.

Detail from Bush Clover and Pampas Grass, Suzuki Kiitsu (1808-1841)

Grasshopper detail from Autumn Grasses and Moon, Sakai Ōho (1808-1841)

Seven Lucky Gods, Kamisaka Sekka (ca. 1920-1930)
Morning Glories, Kamisaka Sekka (ca. 1920-1940)
As a westerner, it is impossible to enter the world of Japanese art without some kind of guide.  The iris is the symbol of summer and the trademark of Rimpa.  Hollyhocks symbolize the passage of time.  Seven specific grasses and the moon speak of autumn.

Takasago, Kamisaka Sekka (ca. 1920-1930)

Hollyhocks, Sakai Ōho (1808-1841)

I enjoy visiting the Clark Center.  As a small museum, it has a special personality.  After my previous visit—a samurai exhibit, I got too busy to post anything on this blog.  Then, last summer I had the chance to see a similar presentation, in London.  I came away impressed that the Clark had done a better job telling the samurai story than had the Victoria and Albert.  The difference is, even if a visitor can devote most of one day to the Victoria and Albert, one still feels the pressure to race from item to item, running from antiquity to the present, and from continent to continent.  There are thousands of things to see.  Yet in the samurai room, the Victoria and Albert was outdone by the Clark.  The Clark told a richer story, and gave visitors a more intimate setting.
Samurai at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, July 2011

Samurai at the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture, January, 2010
I may get back for a second look at the Rimpa before it closes, July 28th.  Then I look forward to a two-part presentation of landscapes, beginning in September.

For more on the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture

For my previous review of the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture:


I have heard of the Clark Center, but have never been. This is another kick in the seat to go. Thanks.


Steve said...
June 1, 2012 at 7:20 AM  

The Clark Center? That sounds familiar...where is it? I love Japanese art. Thanks for posting the pics.

June 29, 2012 at 7:37 AM  

Which direction are you coming from, Homecoming Tour? We're in Central California. The Clark Center is on 10th Street, south of Hanford, not quite an hour south of Fresno.

Brian said...
June 29, 2012 at 11:02 PM  

Thanks for the post. Asian art is so beautiful. The whole culture is just amazing.

July 26, 2012 at 1:32 PM  

Asian always tigers....

December 9, 2012 at 4:24 AM  

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