Liquid Rimpa: Japan Cultural Envoy 2016 Tosa Naoko and Rimpa school tradition in the 21st century
Back in the early 17th century, a Kyoto fan-maker turned painter named Tawaraya Sôtatsu revolutionized the world of image making. Using bold and elegant brush strokes charged with vibrant jewel like pigments, Sôtatsu created a new visual aesthetic of high opulence and drama that later came to be known as Rimpa. His influence extended far beyond his contemporaries. From Ogata Kôrin, who is arguably the most influential emulator of Sôtatsu, and Sakai Hôitsu active in the late 17th and 18th centuries to Tosa Naoko working in the 21st century, ardent followers of Rimpa have emerged to shape Rimpa over the centuries.
Appointed as Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs’ Cultural Envoy of 2016, Tosa has been exhibiting and promoting Japanese art globally. In autumn 2016 she held an exhibition at the London County Hall and held a special research seminar talk at the Norwich University of the Arts as part of her many international activities. First, let’s begin with a brief overview of Rimpa school history starting with Rimpa co-founder, Tawaraya Sôtatsu (?-1643) before expanding on Tosa’s mesmerising work.
Much of Sôtatsu’s personal life remains a mystery. What we do know is that he was active in 1600 to 1640–a period of major shifts in Japanese society. The decades saw the transfer of power and national capital from the imperial court in Kyoto to warrior rule in Edo (present day Tokyo). The rise of the new political system helped foster a bourgeoning merchant class, who quickly learned to monetize on the public’s seemingly insatiable demand for cultural trappings previously reserved for the courtly elites.
Sôtatsu also benefitted from this cultural transition. He worked closely with Hon’ami Kôetsu, a potter, lacquer artist and calligrapher. Together, they produced outstanding examples of calligraphy on paintings to great effect, such as the waka poem anthology scroll with underpaintings of crane at the Kyoto National Museum. Sôtatsu developed new painting techniques, such as tarashikomi. This trademark technique where paint is dropped into a still-wet ground celebrates the serendipitous outcome as pigments mottle and produce a unique marble-like effect. Prodigious, Sôtatsu shot to fame from a town artist to become part of an elite circle and counted the Imperial court as among his patrons. He was granted the artistic title of Hokkyô by the imperial household in recognition of a set of twenty sliding-door paintings (fusuma-e) he produced for the palace of the imperial prince. He ran a studio that was highly regarded for their ink paintings in “boneless” outline-less technique. It was said that the execution was so superior that no Rimpa artists of subsequent generations could ever match or surpass his work. In short, Sôtatsu’s creative genius was the seed that would later blossom as Rimpa.
After Sôtatsu’s death in 1643, it took a charismatic painter by the name of Ogata Kôrin (1658-1716) to reignite the flame of Sôtatsu’s legacy. Kôrin, a son of a high-end textile merchant and trained painter, was drawn to the archaic yamato-e style painting promoted by Sôtatsu. From around his thirties, he fervently began copying Sôtatsu’s major works. With confident handling of graphic space, he developed his own captivating visual format. Producing energizing works such as the Wind and Thunder God and Waves at Matsushima, his imaginative style embraced abstract impressionism. His unbridled ability to distill nature into simplified decorative forms, as seen in Iris, gave rise to a new radical visual practice.
Kôrin’s influence is perhaps best recognized in the Rimpa, or ‘the school of [Kô]rin’ nomenclature. His popularity was boundless. In fact, Korin is said to have fed the imagination of European giants including Gustav Klimt and Henri Matisse.
Interestingly, the Rimpa tradition is not passed down through hereditary or master-disciple transmission, as was the normal practice in Japan. Rather, the style is promoted through emulation. Sakai Hôitsu (1761-1828), a member of the samurai class, is perhaps one of the most important followers of Kôrin in the Edo period (1615-1868). Born nearly half a century after Kôrin’s death, Hôitsu copiously studied Rimpa masters’ work to produce exquisite colorful body of paintings in his own distinct Rimpa style. Compared to Kôrin, who often preferred depicting scenes from classical literature, Hôitsu drew his inspiration from nature and the four seasons.
Other significant Rimpa artists include Suzuki Kiitsu (1766-1858), Hôetsu’s protégé and later adopted son; Nakamura Hôchû (active ca. 1790-ca. 1820), a Kansai based painter and poet whose work carried a decorative and playful note; and many more who emerged through the centuries and whose practice was not limited to painting, but to textile, ceramic, lacquer and even metal.
Fast forward to the 21st century and we have Tosa Naoko (1961- ). Tosa is an internationally renown mixed media artist. A self-proclaimed ‘Rimpa’ artist, Tosa has dedicated the best part of the past 10 years to develop work that focuses on the visualization of the unconsciousness through combining traditional Japanese aesthetics and digital technology. That is, using digital technology and large format projection mapping, she creates work that explores Japanese aesthetic sensibilities. Her work studies the natural beauty of material and materiality in ultra-slow motion.
Sound of Ikebana is perhaps her first significant Rimpa conscious work. Split into the four seasons, the mesmerizing series of video work uses liquid medium as the subject. Tosa creates an opulent world of exotically moving liquids that reference the splendid visual palette of Rimpa. The audience is left mesmerized by the seemingly gravity defying fluids that morph against the black darkness.
Her creative process is quite simple: using high-speed motion capture camera, Tosa films tiny droplets of thick paint and ink that she disrupts using sound vibration and physical motion. With a macro lens, she sets her camera up close to record the fast-moving shakes and bounce of colors, which she then replays in slow motion. The result is a series of hypnotic video clips to introduce a super slowed down world of pigments mixing, melding, and morphing in unpredictable serendipitous ways.
Tosa calls this glimpse into the natural world that is otherwise too fast to ‘see’ without the aid of modern technology as a new form of Rimpa expression. Her interest in using current technology to uncover the beauty of our natural world that exists, yet hidden from us, has been celebrated as the 21st century iteration of Rimpa tradition. Her work has been exhibited internationally and in unique formats. In Singapore, she mapped her Sound of Ikebana on the tulip flower shaped walls of the Art and Science Museum building. In Kyoto, she collaborated with Kodaiji Zen temple where she exhibited Genesis, a liquid motion video installation in the place of a hanging scroll used to aid meditation.
In March 2017, Tosa plans to return to London to take part in a symposium organized by Goldsmiths, University of London. Her work demonstrates the endurance of Rimpa school style that has continued to be at play for nearly 400 years. Whether in a painted or moving liquid format, Rimpa style is a force of contemporary appeal.
Research, Planning and Public Relations Officer