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

October 21, 2003–January 11, 2004

Paintings, Lacquerware, and Textiles

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.