Exhibitions/ Turning Point

Turning Point: Oribe and the Arts of Sixteenth-Century Japan

October 21, 2003–January 11, 2004
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

This exhibition explores the genesis of the dramatic stylistic changes in Japanese art during the brief but brilliant Momoyama period (1573–1615), which witnessed the struggles of ambitious warlords for control of the long-splintered country and Japan's first encounter with the West. The first comprehensive examination of the subject in the West, the exhibition presents nearly two hundred objects—paintings, ceramics, lacquerware, and textiles from public and private collections in Japan, the United States, and Canada—that together illustrate the political, economic, and social forces underlying the unprecedented changes in the arts and aesthetics in late sixteenth-century Japan. Chief among these forces was Furuta Oribe's (1543/44–1615) innovative approach to the practice of the tea ceremony, culminating in the unique development of the strikingly bold and colorful ceramics known as Oribe. The new creative energy that marked this period found expression not only in Oribe ceramics but in all the arts, which with their shared motifs, designs, and compositions evidence a collaboration among artists never before witnessed in the history of Japanese art.


The exhibition is made possible by Nomura Securities International, Inc.

Additional support has been provided by the Toshiba International Foundation.

The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in collaboration with The Museum of Fine Arts, Gifu.

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The exhibition opens with a group of Chinese and Japanese tea utensils favored by the influential tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522–1591), Furuta Oribe's mentor and predecessor as tea master to the ruling shogunate. An imported Chinese stoneware tea bowl and tea caddy and a bronze flower vase, all dating from the Southern Song dynasty in the thirteenth century, demonstrate Rikyu's preference for simple yet elegant objects, an aesthetic also expressed in the early Japanese tea ceramics produced under his influence.

The finely crafted Chinese wares contrast markedly with the tea ceramics produced in Japan at the end of Rikyu's lifetime at kilns in Mino (modern-day Gifu Prefecture), Furuta Oribe's native province, which reflect the tastes of the emerging aficionados of tea among the newly powerful merchant class in the capital Kyoto, southwest of Mino. Roughly formed, covered with thick white or gray glazes, and decorated with naturalistic designs, these ceramics represent a new technology introduced to Japan by Korean potters. Of special note in the exhibition is a square Gray Shino dish with the design of a wagtail, an Important Cultural Property in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum.

Also featured in this section are two large groups of recently discovered pottery shards: one excavated from a kiln site in Mino, the major center of ceramics production in the Momoyama period, and the other from the former residence of a ceramics merchant in Kyoto, the primary center of ceramics consumption during the period.

The second section of the exhibition demonstrates the mid-sixteenth-century impact on all of the arts of Japan's first encounter with Europeans and Christianity. The arrival of Portuguese missionaries and traders aboard carracks in the southern port city of Nagasaki were recorded by Japanese artists on folding screens, ceramics, and lacquerwares, revealing the Japanese fascination with these exotic foreigners, the clothes they wore, and the strange objects delivered by their great sailing ships.

Featured in the exhibition are a rare missal stand and European-style portable cabinet in black lacquer, which combined the newly fashionable mother-of-pearl inlay with the traditional maki-e technique of sprinkled gold powder. These objects were made by Japanese artisans for export to Europe, where such pieces were in great demand and put to sacred as well as secular use. A European-made globe, maps of the world produced both in Europe and in Japan, a Black Oribe tea bowl decorated with the image of a cross in underglaze white, and an Oribe ware candle stand in the shape of a European gentleman, all of which epitomize the Japanese curiosity about European culture, are included in the exhibition. These are among the very few such objects that survived the Japanese government's stringent prohibitions, initiated in 1638, against the practice of the Christian faith and the subsequent self-imposed isolation of the country from the outside world.

Born in 1543 or 1544, about the same time as the first arrival of Portuguese merchants in Japan, Furuta Oribe worked closely with the principal characters who shaped the political and artistic climate of sixteenth-century Japan. Like many other warlords of the time, he cultivated a keen interest in the tea ceremony, and in the vacuum created by his mentor Rikyu's death, Oribe's name became increasingly associated with tea. Rikyu had already begun to move away from dependence on Chinese and Korean tea utensils, preferring Japan's indigenous products. Oribe went a step further, intentionally cultivating the beauty of the imperfect. With its enormous cracks resulting from several weeks of firing at a high temperature, the famous water jar from the Iga kiln nicknamed "Burst Pouch," an Important Cultural Property in the Gotoh Museum, Tokyo, was considered by Oribe as a vessel endowed with a unique beauty.

Oribe ceramics—more than one hundred of the finest examples of which are assembled for the first time in this exhibition—made a sudden appearance in the late sixteenth century. Never had so many different vessel shapes and brilliant glazes been attempted, and the uninhibited designs, both naturalistic and abstract, are strikingly "modern." The thick glazes, in deep vitreous green, warm pink, or coal black, combined with a seemingly artless and playful decoration, create what an eighteenth-century observer described as an object not unlike that made by a child. Oribe's liking for accidentally warped or damaged vessels may have led to the willful distortion that characterizes many Oribe teabowls, such as the well-known clog-shaped tea bowls. Other Oribe ceramics display clearly Western influences, as seen in the carracks depicted on a lidded dish and the set of five dishes in the shape of stemmed glassware, which are included in the exhibition. A featured selection of Oribe-type ceramics produced in the Seto area, south of Mino in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries illustrates the renewed energy of Mino potters who attempted a revival of this singularly innovative era in the history of Japan's ceramic industry.

The stylistic and technical innovations distinguishing the Momoyama period found expression not only in Oribe ceramics but also in painting, lacquerware, and textiles, many superb examples of which are presented in the final sections of the exhibition. In their shared themes, designs, patterns, and colors, these works suggest that there was some dialogue among the individuals working in these different areas of the arts during this period.

The warlords' ambitions to control the nation and its capital inspired the development of the paintings of Kyoto and its suburbs known as rakuchu-rakugai. Usually executed on screens, these pictures illustrate famous scenic spots and important monuments that served as settings for seasonal festivals and entertainments. The exhibition traced the swift evolution of genre painting from these encyclopedic visualizations of Kyoto and the lives of its citizens to compositions that focus on a single activity, the most popular of which is cherry-blossom viewing. The most cherished example of this genre is a pair of screens, a National Treasure in the Tokyo National Museum, painted by Kano Naganobu (1577–1654), the youngest brother of Kano Eitoku (1543–1590), the renowned giant of Momoyama-period painting. Screens depicting visiting Europeans (Nanbans) in the port city of Nagasaki enjoyed great popularity for a brief period before the expulsion of the Christian missionaries in 1638. A screen by Kano Naizen (1570–1616), also featured in the exhibition, demonstrates how the costumes of the traders and missionaries arriving on Portuguese carracks and the exotic goods that they brought with them were depicted by the Japanese artist with a keen eye for detail. The depiction of large crowds was soon replaced by that of individual figures of male and female theatrical performers, while a close scrutiny of sumptuously decorated garments emerged as a main subject of painting. Known as tagasode byobu ("Whose Sleeves?" screens), such paintings feature garments decorated with the same innovative patterns and dazzling color schemes found on lacquerwares and ceramics of the period.

The Momoyama period also witnessed many extraordinary advancements in the lacquer and textile industries. Ingenious new methods were devised for the production of lacquerwares intended both for export and for domestic consumption. Especially notable is the design device called katamigawari (alternating sides), in which the surface of the object is bifurcated into areas of contrasting colors in gold and black. This decorative technique, derived from Japanese textiles of earlier periods, became in the hands of sixteenth-century lacquer craftsmen a vehicle for dramatic and strikingly modern designs, as seen on a writing box lent to this exhibition by the Tokyo National Museum. This decorative device is commonly employed in Oribe ceramics, such as a fan-shaped dish with a handle from the Ohmatsu Museum, Gifu.

Clothing and textile design, once governed by rigidly imposed codes of dress, underwent a similar transformation as silks with woven designs were replaced with fabrics decorated by painting and by dyeing and embroidery techniques. By the late sixteenth century, Japanese textiles displayed an astonishing variety of rich designs achieved by a number of innovative methods. Especially impressive is a renowned group of resist-dyed textiles known by the poetic name tsujigahana (Flowers at Crossroads). Some sixteenth- and seventeenth-century garments employing this technique were donated to Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines after the death of their owners, where they were remodeled into vestments or altar cloths. Small fragments have survived and been collected by museums and private collectors. The large number in the exhibition vividly illustrates the close relationship among Momoyama paintings, ceramics, lacquerwares, and textiles.

During the Momoyama period, which lasted less than a half century, new ideas and foreign influences resulted in an explosion of innovative forms and styles in ceramics, paintings, lacquerware, and textiles on a scale not witnessed in Japan before or since. This phenomenon was terminated abruptly after the forced suicide of Furuta Oribe, who was reputedly implicated in a conspiracy against the shogunate, in 1615 and the promulgation of a feudal order by the new Tokugawa rulers, who promoted conservative policies in all aspects of Japanese life, including the arts. The recent research and discoveries from excavations presented in the exhibition will continue to provide invaluable new information on Oribe's role as guiding spirit and catalyst of aesthetic developments in that brief but brilliant period.