The rebirth of uniquely Japanese art from Rimpa

By Robert Reed / Special to The Japan NewsOne of the most fascinating stories in Japanese art history is about the birth of what is now one of the most popular “schools” of traditional painting. But calling it a school is somewhat of a misnomer, because it actually refers to what could be described as a “dotted line” of art that stretches back about 400 years, with big time gaps between its proponents.

What’s more, the school didn’t even have a name — let alone the direct instruction through a succession of masters and apprentices that normally constitutes a school of art in the traditional Japanese context — until it was dubbed the Rimpa for a 1972 exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno, Tokyo. The name means the School of Rin, referring to the great painter Ogata Korin (1658-1716).

Now, an exhibition titled “The Art of Edo Rimpa” currently running at the Idemitsu Museum of Arts in Marunouchi, Tokyo, is exploring a faction of this dotted line of Rimpa artists that emerged in Edo (now Tokyo) a little over two centuries ago. By current definition, the school was born in Kyoto around the year 1615 as a result of the collaborative work between Honami Koetsu (1558-1637), a famed calligrapher and designer, and painter Tawaraya Sotatsu (?-ca 1640).

From that starting point, however, Rimpa art didn’t begin to form its broken line of succession until Korin discovered the paintings of Sotatsu some decades after his death. So moved was Korin by Sotatsu’s clearly decorative but also stark and compelling painting style that he made virtual copies of some of his greatest works, while naturally adding his own stylistic changes. And it was these masterpieces that, in turn, inspired the Edo painter Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828) another century later to again paint near copies of Korin’s interpretative reproductions of Sotatsu paintings, like “Wind God and Thunder God,” the Hoitsu version of which is on view in this exhibition.

Also on display is his version of Korin’s famous “Irises at Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges),” now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

One might naturally wonder how an Edo branch could emerge so far from Rimpa’s birthplace in an era before museums and photographic reproduction, and also at a time when even personal travel was limited.

“In fact, there were already many Korin paintings in Edo in Hoitsu’s day,” the show’s curator Nobuhiko Hiromi said. “And since he was the son of a wealthy regional lord, he was in a social and financial position where he would have been able to see them.” Hoitsu was born and raised in Edo as a son of the lord governing the Himeji domain, part of what is now Hyogo Prefecture.

Although photographic reproductions of old paintings were not yet available, Hoitsu and his apprentices were able to publish collections of woodblock prints recreating in miniature the subject matter and compositions of Korin paintings, which other painters could then refer to. These prints are another interesting type of work on display.

Though their styles were different, this decorative art from Sotatsu to Korin to the transplanted Edo line of Hoitsu and his leading apprentice, Suzuki Kiitsu (1796-1858), is largely about capturing the subtle beauties of nature in tastefully simplified compositions.

A prime example chosen for the first wall of this exhibition is Hoitsu’s “Draft for Screens of Summer and Autumn Grasses,” a study for a work intended to be painted on the reverse side of Korin’s famous “Wind God and Thunder God” byobu screen painting, now in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum.

Displayed next to this painting is Hoitsu’s own “Wind and Thunder Gods” folding screen painting, executed with the same dynamic composition as Korin’s, and also Sotatsu’s before him.

One of the most famous of all Rimpa paintings is Korin’s “Red and White Plum Blossoms” in the collection of the MOA Museum of Art in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture. In this exhibition, there are two “Red and White Plum Blossoms” byobu from the Idemitsu museum’s own renowned collection of Rimpa art.

One is attributed to Korin and the other is by Hoitsu. Displayed side by side, these paintings give us a wonderful opportunity to compare Korin’s more decorative style — of flatter, more stylized subjects painted on a gold-leaf background — with Hoitsu’s more realistic style, based on solid knowledge of how plum trees grow and painted on a more subdued silver-leaf background.

Almost all the works on display in this exhibition are from the Idemitsu collection. According to Hiromi, the event has a special focus on the museum’s fine examples of Kiitsu’s art, which began as a faithful pursuit of Hoitsu’s style and was based on the keen study of his natural subjects, but later showed periods of return to a style closer to that of Korin. A fine example is Kiitsu’s large pair of screen paintings, “Trees and Flowers of the Four Seasons.” Another is his two-fold byobu, “Autumnal Grasses.”

Much like the composer Felix Mendelssohn discovering the all but forgotten music of J.S. Bach in German libraries nearly a century after it was written, the Rimpa school was a case of painters discovering amazing painters of a century before — not once, but twice. This is an exhibition about that second discovery and the uniquely Japanese art it inspired.

“The Art of Edo Rimpa” runs through Nov. 5 at the Idemitsu Museum of Arts in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. The facility is closed Mondays (except for Oct. 9). Visit for more information.

Reed is a Tokyo-based art journalist and translator in the field of fine and performing arts.Speech

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