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Exhibitions/ Kyoto: Capital of Artistic Imagination/ Exhibition Guide

Kyoto: Capital of Artistic Imagination

At The Met Fifth Avenue
July 24, 2019–January 31, 2021

Exhibition Guide

Kyoto was not Japan's first capital. The country's original permanent capital, Heijō-kyō, was established in 710 on the site of present-day Nara, following the short-lived existence of a palace in Fujiwara-kyō, from 694. Based on the city plan of Chang'an (the capital of China's Tang dynasty), Heijō-kyō was built on a grid with the imperial palace to the north; a similar layout was later used for Heian-kyō (Kyoto). Over the course of the eighth century, the city saw the acceptance of Buddhism as the official religion of state. However, as high-ranking monks became increasingly powerful, Emperor Kanmu (737–806) and the Fujiwara clan relocated the capital, in 794, to the site of present-day Kyoto.

Before the institutionalization of Buddhism, most people followed Shinto, a religion indigenous to Japan that is based on the veneration of divine presences (kami). Seen as forces in nature that manifest as mountains, animals, waterfalls, and even ancestors or aristocratic families, kami are associated with specific places to which they can be summoned. By the ninth century, widespread belief held that kami were actually incarnations of Buddhist deities. At many sacred sites, Shinto and Buddhist deities were therefore venerated side by side, leading to a fusion of religious iconographies and the formation of a Shinto visual tradition. The image of the freely roaming deer, for example, is associated with the Kasuga Shrine in Nara, which enshrines five divine beings who are both Buddhist and Shinto in nature.

Selected Artworks

Buddhism came to Japan in the mid-sixth century through Korea and China, and is said to have spread quickly under the patronage of Shōtoku Taishi (574–622), the second son of Emperor Yōmei (518–587) and prince regent. As the foremost proponent of Buddhist teachings, Shōtoku recognized that Buddhism was a powerful political tool for strong, centralized governance.

By the late eighth century, Kyoto was already a center for the establishment of several Buddhist schools, including the Tendai and the Shingon sects, which were esoteric in nature and primarily aimed at the aristocracy. In 1175 Hōnen founded Pure Land Buddhism (Jōdoshū), which offered salvation to people from all walks of life through belief in Amida Buddha. Hōnen's successor, Shinran, continued this populist approach and founded the True Pure Land sect (Jōdo Shinshū).

Though initially brought to Japan from China centuries before, in the twelfth century Zen (Chinese: Chan) Buddhism became more firmly established and was especially popular with the elite warrior class and aristocracy. Beyond their recognition as religious leaders, abbots of prominent Zen temples, such as Daitokuji and Tōfukuji in Kyoto, assumed significant political and cultural influence.

Selected Artworks

The thriving culture of the Kyoto court aristocracy during the Heian period (794–1185) gave rise to artistic developments such as colorful narrative paintings, elegant kana (phonetic writing) calligraphy styles, and the production of refined garments and lacquers. Murasaki Shikibu's classic The Tale of Genji recounted the genteel lifestyle that characterized the golden age of the capital. This era of relative peace ended in a military rivalry between the Taira and Minamoto families over dominance of the imperial court, as recorded in The Tale of the Heike. The Minamoto emerged victorious and established a military government ruled by the shogun in Kamakura, far east of Kyoto, in 1192.

The Muromachi period (1392–1573) that followed took its name from the Kyoto district in which Ashikaga Takauji (1305–1358) formed his shogunal government. By returning the capital to Kyoto, he could monitor the court's activities while taking advantage of the city's artistic traditions and trade networks. The era notably saw the commissioning and production of high-quality armor and swords befitting a society dominated by samurai. During this age, monochrome ink painting inspired by Chinese landscapes, chanoyu (the ritual of preparing and drinking matcha, or powdered green tea), and Zen practices were highly esteemed by the military elite.

Selected Artworks

During the Muromachi period (1392–1575) the Higashiyama, or Eastern Hills, culture prospered in Kyoto, especially under the reign of the eighth Ashikaga shogun Yoshimasa (1436–1490). Yoshimasa's retirement villa Ginkakuji, or the Silver Pavilion, served as a venue for various cultural pursuits such as tea gatherings (chanoyu), incense appreciation, Noh theater, ikebana, and the enjoyment of ink painting. Zen Buddhism and the concept of wabi-sabi, which advocated discovering beauty in the impermanent and incomplete, profoundly affected aesthetic principles, as did the collecting practices of the Ashikaga shoguns (Higashiyama gomotsu), which prioritized priceless karamono (Chinese artworks). The continued esteem for monochrome ink painting, based on Chinese precedent and perpetuated by the newly founded Kano school, helped establish painting conventions for centuries to come. Moreover, the practice of tea drinking was formalized under the master Murata Jukō (1423–1502), who integrated the taste for Chinese art with the appreciation of more rustic Japanese wares. Refined lacquerware for the aristocracy and military elite continued to be produced in Kyoto. The Ōnin War (1467–77), which began as a political dispute over the successor to shogun Yoshimasa, escalated into an eleven-year conflict that destroyed Kyoto and catalyzed the century-long Sengoku period, the "Age of the Country at War."

Selected Artworks

Kyoto's revitalization after the "Age of the Country at War" took place in the second half of the sixteenth century under the warlords Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598), who successfully reunified Japan. The Momoyama period (1573–1615), named after an area of suburban Kyoto, was characterized by art produced in a sumptuous, dynamic style associated with grand castles and residences of feudal lords known as daimyos. The lavish application of gold to architecture, lacquer furnishings, folding screens, and even silk garments became a hallmark of the period. Art patronage played a major role in legitimizing and proclaiming social status. The bold taste of high-ranking warriors was the most influential in the art world, although the wealthy urban merchant class later revived interest in Heian-and Kamakura-period courtly taste. At the same time, the military elite also cultivated the aesthetic of wabi-sabi (the understated beauty of the impermanent and incomplete), advocated by the prominent tea master Sen no Rikyū (1522–1591), who redefined tea practices and established wabicha, tea of refined and humble style.

In addition to continued trade with and travel to and from China and Korea, the arrival of Portuguese and Dutch merchants and Catholic missionaries from Europe brought new technologies and goods to Japanese society. The creative exuberance of Momoyama-period art reflects the era's social and cultural dynamism as well as the willingness to renew age-old artistic traditions.

Selected Artworks

Artists of the Kano school developed two distinct styles: one featuring bright colors set against a gold ground, and the other a mannered interpretation of traditional Chinese ink painting. Other Kyoto-based painters produced contemplative, lyrical ink compositions and revived courtly themes, while the military class favored Confucian subjects. A genre of screen painting showing the restored capital's bustling life and famous landscapes also emerged in this period.

The tea master Furuta Oribe (1544–1615) gained a devoted following among high-ranking military patrons and commissioned utensils that cultivated intentional imperfection. In textile art, the taste of the elites is visible in Noh robes embellished with gold and silver, as well as in tsujigahana silk robes that intricately combine stitch-resist dyeing and ink painting. The most significant development in lacquer art was the Kōdaiji-style flat maki-e (images made with sprinkled gold and silver powder), a technique that could be applied to large furniture pieces to create bold, easily recognizable patterns.

High-quality lacquers made for the European market were also produced in Kyoto until the 1630s. These included chests, coffers, and cabinets richly decorated with   and inlaid mother-of-pearl. Luxurious imported fabrics such as Chinese brocaded silk and European wool were used to create colorful battle surcoats for high-ranking warriors.

Selected Artworks

Tea rooms function as a place where like-minded individuals can escape the outside world and enjoy a few moments of tranquility, precious art objects, and a refreshing bowl of tea. With the development of the sukiya architectural style during the Momoyama period (1573–1615), tea gathering rooms (chashitsu) were built not only within monasteries and residences of the military elite but also in private dwellings, villas, and later also in townhouses.

The most important place in the room, as can be seen here, is the alcove (tokonoma), which is reserved for a precious hanging scroll painting or calligraphy, treasured artworks placed on the dais, and a display of flowers (chabana). The guests sit in front of or next to the tokonoma. The room is made of simple, subdued natural materials. Shōji windows made of latticed wood and covered in translucent Japanese paper filter light, while tatami mats line the floor. An ideal tea room is four and a half tatami mats in size, but they can be even smaller. The host or tea master sits on a tatami mat (temaeza, which can be a shorter mat) to prepare tea, using either a portable brazier (furo) between May and October, or a sunken hearth (ro) between November and early May.

Wabi Tea and Japanese Wares

In preparation for the tea ceremony, the host makes a careful selection and combination (toriawase) of utensils in order to tell a story or create a mood appropriate to the season or festivity. The present display focuses on the taste of the renowned tea master Sen no Rikyū (1522–1591), who created uniquely Japanese, austere surroundings for the tea ceremony, preferring domestic utensils that were often imperfect or irregular, a reflection of wabi-sabi aesthetics. Here, a letter about sake, penned by Sen no Rikyū, hangs in the tokonoma alcove; the carved bamboo tea scoop (chashaku) at left is also attributed to him. The tea bowl, titled Twilight by the Maples (Kaedegure), is attributed to Raku Chōjirō (died 1592), the first-generation master of the Kyoto-based Raku family of potters. The freshwater jar (mizusashi), in front of the tea bowl, is an example of early seventeenth-century Iga ware, while the used-water container (kensui) at back, is a sixteenth-century Chinese copper vessel. Some tea utensils could be unadorned, everyday objects that were repurposed for their aesthetic qualities or simplicity, such as the ladle rest (or kettle lid rest, futaoki), which is a seventeenth-century fishing weight.

Selected Artworks

When Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616) established the shogunate in Edo in 1603, the imperial court was excluded from political decisions and Kyoto's role restricted to ceremonial and cultural activities. This completely restructured and bifurcated political regime profoundly affected art and cultural life in Kyoto. As a result, aesthetic priorities were effectively split into two categories: nostalgia for aristocratic heritage in Kyoto, and grandiose sensibilities of the shoguns and daimyos (feudal lords) in Edo. From the eighteenth century, the increasing economic power of the merchant class, the rapid expansion of urban centers, and the growth of literacy widened the audience for the arts beyond the traditional base of the nobility and military elite.

From the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, the Kano school functioned as an official painting academy. Artists of the Tosa and Rinpa schools revived courtly taste and yamato-style painting. The painters Maruyama Ōkyo and Matsumura Goshun, both working in the Shijō area of Kyoto, studied nature closely and were also influenced by Western tradition. Independent masters—so-called eccentric artists such as Nagasawa Rosetsu and Itō Jakuchū—created individual styles. The Literati style (Bunjinga), inspired by Chinese examples, was represented prominently by Ike Taiga, Yosa Buson, and Tani Bunchō.

Selected Artworks

During the Edo period (1615–1868), Kyoto excelled in the design and creation of decorative art. It became a major textile production center for customers of the court, samurai, and the growing merchant class. Comprehensive shopping guides directed both locals and travelers to the appropriate workshops and shops in the capital. By the early eighteenth century, the talented fan painter Miyazaki Yūzensai perfected a rice-paste resist-dyeing technique (named yūzen, after him) that further established the city as a leader in textile art. Elegant Noh costumes and sumptuous kosode (robes with small sleeve openings) were produced primarily in the Nishijin district of Kyoto.

Known for consummately crafted maki-e lacquer, Kyoto artists produced writing sets, wedding trousseaux, incense boxes, and various kinds of household items featuring seasonal patterns and compositions based on literary classics. Boldly abstract Rinpa-style lacquers with varied textures were also very popular.

In ceramics, the burst of color and decorative design that characterized the art of the Momoyama period (1573–1615) became prominent again with Nonomura Ninsei, whose vivid overglaze patterns were inspired by the beauty of the changing seasons and landscapes of the city. Kyoto ware (Kyōyaki) traditions were carried on most prominently in the Rinpa style by Ogata Kenzan, and later Nin’ami Dōhachi. Okuda Eisen (1753–1811) and Eiraku Hozen (1795–1854) opened up new possibilities of design and production that laid the foundation of ceramic art during the Meiji period (1868–1912).

Selected Artworks

Landscape Prints of the Kamigata Region

In the early nineteenth century landscape became a popular subject of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, which had long focused on actors and beauties. Artists such as Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) represented views and famous locations in the Kamigata area (now known as the Kansai region, centered on Kyoto and Osaka). Print series such as the Eight Views of Ōmi, which depict scenic locales near Kyoto, including Lake Biwa in present-day Shiga Prefecture, were inspired by the Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers, a popular painterly subject in China and Japan in the medieval period.

Landscape series also took inspiration from the genre known as meisho-e, or "pictures of famous places" renowned for their literary associations and for their scenic beauty. Edo-period illustrated guidebooks were a reference for artists, and improvements in Japan’s system of roadways led to an increase in tourism and a greater demand for landscape prints. In 1832 Hiroshige made a trip between Edo and Kyoto along the famed highway Tōkaidō, lodging at its fifty-three overnight stations and making sketches of everything he saw. He finished the series with compositions depicting the Kyoto area. The artist also created the Famous Places in Kyoto series in the 1830s and revisited the subject several times later in his career.

Kamigata Prints

As the second-largest urban center in western Japan, Osaka fell within Kyoto's cultural radius during the Edo period (1615–1868). The Kamigata (Kyoto-Osaka) region was largely responsible, along with Edo (present-day Tokyo), for the development of the theatrical form known as Kabuki. The plays popular in Kamigata drew their subjects from Kyoto's ancient court culture and from the burgeoning merchant life of Osaka. They featured complex plots—many of them love stories—but maintained elements of realism, passion, and humor.

By contrast, Edo Kabuki was flamboyant, energetic, and brash, with plots involving powerful heroes and supernatural elements popular in warrior culture. Kabuki actors were celebrities and often took part in cultural activities beyond the theater, such as poetry salons. Commercial publishers exploited Kabuki's fame by producing actor portraits and scenes from plays in full-color woodblock prints.

The early nineteenth century marked the heyday of Kamigata-e. In contrast to the Katsukawa and Utagawa styles of actor prints that predominated in Edo, the facial expressions in Kamigata-e have an exaggerated quality. The actors are neither beautified nor idealized, and sometimes are twisted into impossibly angled poses.

Selected Artworks

Scenes in and around the Capital (detail), 17th century. Japanese, Edo period (1615–1868). Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, gold, and gold leaf on paper, image (each): 61 7/16 in. x 11 ft. 6 11/16 in. (156.1 x 352.2 cm), overall (each): 66 15/16 in. x 12 ft. 3/16 in. (170 x 366.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015 (2015.300.106.1, .2)