Japanese Master Tawaraya Sōtatsu has been making waves for centuries

A new exhibition offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the work of legendary Japanese Master Tawaraya Sōtatsu.

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The first major exhibition in the Western hemisphere devoted to the revered 17th-century Japanese master Tawaraya Sōtatsu debuts Oct. 24 at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries. “Sōtatsu: Making Waves,” on view through Jan. 31, 2016, is the first and only opportunity to see more than 70 of Sōtatsu’s celebrated masterpieces from Japan, the U.S. and Europe together, along with homage works by later artists.

An unlikely genius who emerged from the most turbulent period in Japanese history, Sotatsu (ca. 1570–ca. 1640), was a commoner whose powerful designs revolutionized Japanese visual culture and brought traditional courtly arts to the masses. Highlights include the celebrated screens “Waves at Matsushima,” “Dragons and Clouds” and his arguably most famous work, “Painted Fans Mounted on a Screen” from Japan’s Imperial Collection, as well as paintings on folding screens, poem cards and handscrolls and designs for luxury book editions.

Sōtatsu’s works are instantly recognizable, with bold, almost abstracted, design, vibrant colors, lavish fields of gold and silver and tarashikomi (dropping ink onto a wet background to create delicate detail). These innovations later became known as the Rinpa style, which permeated Japanese decorative arts for almost four centuries.

Much of his life, however, remains a mystery. “Making Waves” will explore how Japan’s massive social upheaval allowed a common Kyoto fan-shop owner to become a sophisticated designer with aristocratic connections. Later, a resurgence in his popularity in the early 20th century inspired new generations of Japanese artists, styles such as Art Deco and Western luminaries such as Gustav Klimt and Henri Matisse. As a result, Sōtatsu’s 400-year-old work appears unexpectedly modern.

Museum founder Charles Lang Freer collected several of Sōtatsu’s most noted paintings and is widely credited with introducing both Sōtatsu and his frequent collaborator Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637) to Western audiences. Because of restrictions in Freer’s will, the works cannot travel.

The related exhibition “Bold and the Beautiful: Rinpa in Japanese Art” traces Sōtatsu’s long-ranging influence through the work of later Rinpa artists, especially Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716), his brother Ogata Kenzan (1663–1743). The exhibition features almost 40 works from the Freer’s remarkable collection of Rinpa paintings, ceramics, prints and lacquers, emphasizing the style’s bright, elegant simplicity.

Japan’s cultural leaders have declared 2015 the 400th anniversary of the Rinpa style, commemorating the 1615 founding of the Kyoto artist colony where Rinpa emerged. In a year rich with Rinpa displays throughout Japanese museums, the Smithsonian’s “Making Waves” and “Bold and Beautiful” will be the only major U.S. presentations.

Posted: 15 October 2015
About the Author:

Alex di Giovanni has been editing The Torch since August 2006. Prior to joining the Smithsonian, she worked as a writer and editor for the National Geographic Society, Plexus Scientific, The Nature Conservancy, The National Foreign Language Center and St. Martin’s Press, among others. She has the best job in the world.