Although sometimes referred to as a movement, Rimpa was really a style or sensibility passed on, with breaks in the flow, throughout the Edo period (1615-1868) and into the 20th century. Although painting was its most conspicuous medium, Rimpa was about design, total effect, taste that embraced calligraphy, textiles, ceramics and lacquer. You painted Rimpa, but you also wrote it, wore it, and ate your sushi and drank your tea from it.
That said, the style is hard to define. Seasonal change in nature is its recurrent subject. But the Rimpa version of nature is often highly stylized, posed, poeticized, simultaneously abstracted into ornamental patterns and rendered with fantastically detailed accuracy.
The results are nothing if not eye friendly. Colors tend to be bold, with lots of green, red and blue on gold. Images are often crisp and distinct, readable from afar, like advertisements. Even Rimpa’s subtleties — and they are many — feel emphatic, demonstrative, like mini tours de force: the artist is now showing us how skilled he is, how refined, how witty.
The Met and Japan Society exhibitions together add up to one of the largest Rimpa displays seen outside of Japan in years. The Met’s gives us a broad view of the style; the Japan Society’s, a more concentrated one.
“Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art,” drawn largely from the Met’s permanent collection by John T. Carpenter, a curator in the Asian art department, describes Rimpa’s historical trajectory in thrilling strokes, as a style passed on from hand to hand, mind to mind.
The idea of transmission is embedded in the very word Rimpa (alternately spelled Rinpa), which translates as “school of Korin.” The reference is to Ogata Korin, an artist central to its history. Korin, born in Kyoto in 1658, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, studied painting under teachers associated with the conservative, Chinese-influenced Kano family style favored by the Tokugawa warrior elite.
But Korin, independent in spirit and antiquarian in his interests, began looking elsewhere for his models, specifically to the work of Japanese artists of an earlier generation, like Tawaraya Sotatsu (who died around 1640) and the calligrapher Hon’ami Koetsu (1558-1637). In them he found an alternative to Kano academicism — a simpler, more direct approach to nature and the expression of emotions.
Koetsu’s art, almost exclusively calligraphic, is alluring in an intimate way. A 10th-century poem inscribed by him on a sheet of plain white paper is tiny in size but designed for detonation. The word “love” stands big and bold, near the center of the page, with the poem’s other words scattered here and there, so you have to piece together the meaning. When you do, you find that what promised to be a valentine is exactly the opposite:
If I die of love,
No other name than yours
Will be raised in blame,
But no doubt you’ll just say,
That’s life; nothing lasts forever.
Sotatsu, who has a reputation as an influential landscape painter, is an elusive figure. No large-scale painting indisputably by him survives, though the Met has several folding screens attributed to his studio, all superb in different ways.
One eight-panel screen looks back to court art from a previous age, with characters from the 11th-century “Tale of Genji” acting out dramas of desire and intrigue amid stage-prop trees and houses on a field of gold. An extraordinary six-panel screen also seems to be delivering a story of some kind, but about what? All it shows are two open boats floating, ominously empty and unmoored, on a roiling silver sea.
These are the artists Korin was looking at. He too turned to literature for subjects. His masterpiece, “Irises at Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges),” a panoramic vista painting — spread over two screens — of an iris garden transected by a thin eight-plank bridge, is based on another classic, “The Ise Stories.” The precise reference is to an episode in which a young courtier, coming upon flowers, is moved to compose a love poem using irises as an image. In the painting, though, no figure appears. The viewer becomes the beguiled poet-protagonist.
The restrained romanticism of this picture darkens in another Korin painting owned by the Met, the two-panel screen “Rough Waves,” dating from around 1705. Here the influence of Sotatsu, who specialized in moody seascapes, seems clear, though Korin’s image of the ocean is very much his own, a monstrous, rearing, grasping force brushed in ink on a gold ground. Whatever its intended content, Korin’s Sotatsu-inspired painting impressed itself indelibly on yet another Rimpa artist, Sakai Hoitsu, who is the subject of the ravishing Japan Society retrospective “Silver Wind: The Arts of Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828),” organized by Matthew P. McKelway, an associate professor of Japanese art at Columbia University.
Hoitsu was of aristocratic samurai lineage but opted out of family politics by taking Buddhist vows. We know a lot about his life, partly because he kept a diary. But the salient historical fact was his absolute devotion to the art of Korin, who had died long before Hoitsu was born.
At some point in that past the Sakai family had commissioned work from Korin, so Hoitsu had some pictures on hand to study and made strenuous efforts to locate more, eventually publishing illustrations of 100 Korin paintings. The truest evidence of his respect, though, lay in his emulation of the master’s art, most spectacularly in the six-panel screen “Waves” (1815), a direct but utterly original response to Korin’s “Rough Waves.”
Hoitsu began his picture with a distinctive feature. As if to establish an enveloping atmosphere of fogs and snow flurries, he painted directly on a silver-leaf ground. This tractionless surface let his inked brushes slide and glide around calligraphically, producing images of natural emanations more abstract than Korin’s but no less vivacious and threatening.
The result is a powerful example of a painting hand on the move — you can imagine Willem de Kooning looking on, lost in admiration — yet a physically fragile thing. Designated a national treasure by the Japanese government, “Waves” has traveled to the United States for the first time and will stay only six weeks, through Nov. 4. Installed at Japan Society next to Korin’s “Rough Waves,” on loan from the Met, it’s the high point of two exhibitions that are already at an exalted level.
Hoitsu seems not to have gone the demonic way of “Waves” again, turning instead to more benign subjects: courtly tales, portraits of mythical poets, and the creatures and seasons of the world. He kept a busy studio in Edo — present-day Tokyo — where he badgered hard-working assistants, some of whom, like Suzuki Kiitsu (1796-1858) and Sakai Oho (1808-1841), went on to big careers.
Kiitsu gets his own gallery in the Japan Society exhibition, and his deluxe floral screens and snarling ink dragons suggest something of Hoitsu’s range. And a single painting by Oho at the Met, the 1830s “Autumn Maple,” sums up the fine-tuned ornamentalism and exacting realism of Hoitsu’s late style.
In carrying his teacher’s influence toward the future, Oho also carried the traces of Korin and Sotatsu and of the many unnamed artists who, related by taste if not blood, constituted the Rimpa DNA. The Met goes so far as to locate that genetic information in 21st-century ceramics by Nakamura Takuo, Okada Yuji and Sakiyama Takayuki, with which Mr. Carpenter rounds out his survey. This makes sense, or at least feels good. Rimpa, an art of greetings and partings, tailor made for a season of shortening days and dropping leaves, lives on.
“Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art” runs through Jan. 13 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org. “Silver Wind: The Arts of Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828)” runs through Jan. 6 at Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, Manhattan; (212) 832-1155, japansociety.org.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 28, 2012
An earlier version of this review and schedule information with it misspelled a word in the title of the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show is “Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art,” not Rimpa. As the review noted, the word has alternate spellings.
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