Suzuki Kiitsu's Morning Glories is the signature work of art in the exhibition A Sensitivity to the Seasons: Summer and Autumn in Japanese Art, open through October 23. Assistant Curator Sinéad Kehoe discussed this splendid work with me.
Jennette Mullaney: The naturalism of the flowers and leaves contrasts beautifully with the gilded paper. What role does this contrast play in Kiitsu's work?
Sinéad Kehoe: A tension between the decorative and the natural is a primary feature of Kiitsu's painting, and indeed of Rinpa School painting as a whole. Whereas earlier artists working in this style were more involved in the creation of highly patternistic works, Kiitsu was receptive to the Western realism then being incorporated into the works of followers of Maruyama Ōkyo. Kiitsu was active right at the end of the Edo period—by that point, there is some availability of Western drawings, paintings, and even newspaper materials. So he would have had access to Western perspectival and naturalistic drawing and painting, as well as Western printed materials. In this work, Kiitsu contrasts a sophisticated sense of pattern—the cascading array of flowers against the strong golden ground—with the naturalistic rendering of the flowers.
The golden background with polychrome elements in the front is really something that derives from Heian-period painting. The Rinpa School is named after Ogata Kōrin, famous for works such as his iris screens. Yet the true originator of the Rinpa School was Tawaraya Sotatsu, who was very interested in the revival of a style of polychromatic painting that was practiced in the Heian period, particularly in the tenth through twelfth centuries, in Japan.
Sotatsu was the chief conservator of the Heike Nokyo, which is a Heian-period set of beautifully executed copies of the Lotus Sutra—one of the principal Buddhist scriptures; his engagement with the set was a catalyst for much of his later work. Each chapter of the sutra has a frontispiece with delicately painted images featuring a rich application of scattered squares of cut gold and silver. Sotatsu took to heart the sense of balance between the golden and silver elements and the polychromatic elements in these scriptures, and it is an outgrowth of his exploration of that particular balance between the metallic and the polychromatic that we're seeing in Kiitsu's work. The transference of this aesthetic from the intimate format of the handscroll to the monumental form of the folding screen is highly effective in an interior setting, where the gold can be used as a reflective surface to bring light into the room.
Another element to keep in mind is that Ogata Kōrin was the son of a textile designer, while Kiitsu was the son of a textile dyer. So in addition to Heian-period aesthetics, an appreciation for the decorative surface of textile informed the paintings of both artists.
Jennette Mullaney: Was there an association between the military elite and the use of gold as a display of power and wealth?
Sinéad Kehoe: I think that in many cases, yes, the interiors of Momoyama- and Edo-period castles featuring works painted by members of the Kano School—who had the official patronage of the bakufu, the military regime—did include a lot of gold for those purposes. But at the same time, the imperial court and quite-well-known merchants and military families who essentially sympathized with the court were active in Kyoto. The Rinpa style—if we wish to break artistic activity of the period into two really clear-cut categories, which, of course, never holds up perfectly in the real flow of history—is more favored by the imperial realm in Kyoto. However, by the time Sakai Hoitsu, who's Kiitsu's teacher, and Kiitsu are painting, they've transported the Rinpa style to Edo, to the new eastern capital of Japan.
So I think gold need not always mean power—or it can mean a different kind of power. It's not necessarily in-your-face ostentation. It may be treated in a much more subtle fashion. And if we think about the way Kōrin, for example, and his brother Kenzan were operating, they were not simply painters and ceramicists. But, in addition, they did designs for lacquer boxes and other decorative works that would have combined the use of maki-e, or sprinkled gold powder set into a black-lacquer surface. So the interplay between gold and this glossy black surface would have been part of their vocabulary as well. These sorts of designs were imbued with a subtlety and complexity that was perhaps absent from many of the works of Kano painters, and signaled to the viewer that a sense of refinement was active in the life of the person in possession of the work of art.
Jennette Mullaney: You mentioned Sotatsu and the sutras, and many other Japanese works reference religious or literary works. Does Morning Glories make any such references?
Sinéad Kehoe: I think in the case of Morning Glories, it's so disembodied from any specific references that it would be difficult to pin it to any one reference. I would imagine that the reference would be literary rather than religious, although those are not mutually exclusive categories in Heian-period court poetry.
Kiitsu, through his association with his teacher, Sakai Hoitsu, was highly involved in haikai poetry, as well as the appreciation of tea ceremony and also Noh theater. So he was very much a part of literary circles and circles that participated in highly stylized forms of theater. So it would be possible—were we to know the original patron of these screens—to make some inferences about what the morning glories might mean in this specific case. However, I think in many ways, they're simply evocative of the season, and both flowers and seasons are used as the jumping-off point for the composition of poems.
Jennette Mullaney: You mentioned seasonal imagery, which is prevalent in Japanese art. Why is it such a widely used subject source? What is it meant to convey?
Sinéad Kehoe: We often hear—to the point that it's almost cliché—that Japanese culture is really tied to nature and the natural rhythms of life and the seasons. And, of course, this is not unique to Japan. There are many other places in the world where people are fond of nature and attentive to the seasons.
I think what makes Japan special in its appreciation of the seasons is the tremendous level of codification of the appreciation. It's highly ritualized and comes with a whole array of practices. Some of that, we could say, could be related to Shinto practices, much in the same way you would have harvest festivals and so forth in old Europe. You do have many very old festivals in Japan tied to those sorts of cycles of agriculture and what times of year you have access to certain parts of nature. For example, falling cherry blossoms are fun to have a gathering underneath, and yet at the same time, their gentle trail to the ground reminds you that life is not forever. And when you have snow in the winter, you can sit in a room with a specially designed window called a "snow-viewing window," where you can enjoy tea or a warm sake, and just look out and watch the snow falling. But not just through any random window. It's a window specifically designed for that purpose.
So I think it's just the level of curation of nature that is quite remarkable in Japanese art and culture. It is something I don't think I see in so many other places.
Jennette Mullaney: Morning Glories is the signature image of the exhibition A Sensitivity to the Seasons: Summer and Autumn in Japanese Art. What else can visitors expect to see in this exhibition?
Sinéad Kehoe: The installation focuses on both summer and autumn imagery, and in this case, because the rotation is shorter in duration than most—it will only be up for four months—we have a special opportunity to put out a large number of textiles. We normally rotate our textiles half of the way into a six-month rotation, so they're only out for three months. This protects the silks from the light—which can fade the colors and lead to other sorts of deterioration. Thus, we normally put out fewer textiles because it's hard work for the textiles to be taken up and down, and each time you move them, you risk damage to the delicate materials of which they're made. They don't really like being moved around too much. We've also complemented the display of textiles with stencils for textile design, and pattern books featuring what would have been the most fashionable designs at the time. Assistant Curator Joyce Denney and I had a wonderful time selecting the works, and it was terribly difficult to put away a few that simply wouldn't fit. People will have to come back in the future for those.
As you might imagine, garments are very attuned to the seasons. Not just in the weight of the textile being used for the garment, but also in the patterns. I mean, you wouldn't wear a summer flower in the middle of winter, necessarily. Although you might, if you were aiming for a particular juxtaposition. In fact, we have examples in which autumnal motifs appear on summer garments to "cool off" the wearer by the simple power of suggestion.
In addition to the textiles, we've also put together a number of very beautiful paintings. Along with the Kiitsu painting of Morning Glories, which is one of the real gems of the collection, we've also put out a two-fold screen of persimmons, an autumn theme, by his master, Sakai Hoitsu. And we will have Autumn Ivy by Ogata Kenzan, Kōrin's brother, which is a tremendous burst of red ivy leaves and a very small, contained painting that might easily have been hung on a wall during a tea ceremony as part of the seasonal presentation for the event. And I think it will be amusing for people to walk around and sort out which flowers belong to which season because I realize that these days, many of us are quite disconnected from nature and don't have as many opportunities to view flowers and to contemplate them and really learn about their names and when they bloom. So it's a nice opportunity to do that without a garden.
Jennette Mullaney: Yes—a person can obtain a hothouse flower when it would normally be out of season. You can have morning glories in the middle of winter.
Sinéad Kehoe: And perhaps even persimmons in June!
Jennette Mullaney: Very true!
Sinéad Kehoe: So, it's a nice way to bring a bit of the botanical indoors, and to remind us of the glories of the natural world. Of course, at the end of the galleries, we also have lovely floral displays provided by the International Ikebana Society, and a beautifully framed view of Central Park through the Temple of Dendur.
Jennette Mullaney is associate email marketing manager in the Department of Digital Media.
Exhibition page: A Sensitivity to the Seasons: Summer and Autumn in Japanese Art