Rimpa Legend Paints "Silver Wind" Through Japan Society

This weekend is your last chance to immerse yourself in color and nature, as well as technique and discipline, at Japan Society Gallery’s latest exhibition, Silver Wind: The Arts of Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828). And it truly is the arts of Hoitsu, who took advantage of a life of privilege to become a painter, poet, and, eventually, a Buddhist priest.

Japan Society’s retrospective focuses on the bold and elegant style of Rimpa and how Hoitsu, who was heavily influenced by Rimpa’s founder, Ogata Korin, expanded the movement. Culled from several private collections and loans from prestigious museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Silver Wind celebrates the 250th anniversary of the artist’s birth and brings visitors in touch with Rimpa, “an early modern artistic movement that produced works of daring visual innovation often fused with allusions to classical Japanese literature,” says Matthew P. McKelway, curator of the exhibition and Takeo and Itsuko Atsumi Associate Professor of Japanese Art at Columbia University.

The exhibition follows Hoitsu’s life and career in six sections: Hoitsu’s early works, his discovery of Korin, his circle of collaborative associates, his love of the classics, his turn to nature, and a section dedicated to his best student. A member of a prominent feudal family in Edo, Hoitsu studied art, literature, martial arts, and Noh theater with Japan’s most elite artists and teachers.

Sakai Hoitsu, Japan Society, NYC, Rimpa, Ogata Korin, Japanese art, nature, color, four seasons
"Maples and Cherry Trees" by Sakai Hoitsu. Lent by the John and Celeste Fleming Family, courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

Quite possibly Hoitsu’s best teacher was a man he never met. Ogata Korin, Japan’s master painter and the force behind the Rimpa movement, died 45 years before Hoitsu was born. Hoitsu began painting in the Rimpa style during his 30s, making direct copies of and compiling books on the works of Korin and his brother, Ogata Kenzan.

Hoitsu wasn’t merely a copier reproducing the works of the artist who inspired him. He was a loyal student of Korin’s school of art, but he put his own stamp on the Japanese art world, eventually developing the style known as Edo Rimpa. Korin’s influence is evident even in Hoitsu’s early work, which focused on Ukiyo-e paintings of courtesans. Hoitsu’s use of bold colors and seasonal themes are landmarks of the Rimpa school, into which Hoitsu would not fully delve until after 1797, when he became a Buddhist priest.

Sakai Hoitsu, Japan Society, NYC, Rimpa, Ogata Korin, Japanese art, nature, color, four seasons
"Birds and Flowers of the Twelve Months" by Sakai Hoitsu. Feinberg Collection.

One room of the retrospective focuses on “Hoitsu’s Circle,” displaying his collaborations with other artists. It shows Hoitsu’s reach into the artistic community and his sphere of influence. Having grown up in a privileged household and having been exposed to prominent and influential people did not deter Hoitsu from interacting with and learning from the common folk, which he had the opportunity to do as a Buddhist priest.

My favorite part of Silver Wind is the section on Edo Rimpa and especially Hoitsu’s Birds and Flowers of the Twelve Months, a fantastic example of how seriously the Japanese take the four seasons. We may roll our eyes at the frequency with which “Japan has four seasons” is uttered, but a deep appreciation of the seasons has guided Japanese arts for millennia. Hoitsu’s work is no different. As the name indicates, Hoitsu paired plant life with birds – or in some cases, frogs – representative of each month, creating a series of twelve delightful scrolls that give us a glimpse of Hoitsu’s natural environment as each month progresses and the seasons change.

Birds and flowers are categorized by month, as dictated by ancient East Asian poetry. In Hoitsu’s Birds and Flowers of the Twelve Months, the artist updated the traditional pairings found in haikai poetry, replacing some of the themes with the nature he encountered in Edo.

The exhibit ends with the works of Suzuki Kiitsu, considered Hoitsu’s most talented pupil. Perhaps the end was the only logical place to put it, but it took away from the stunning pieces that led up to Kiitsu’s success. That said, Kiitsu’s Morning Glories folding screen is irresistible and reminiscent of his teacher’s immense talent and attention to detail.