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Koetsu and Sotatsu: The Deer Scroll

Rating: 16 votes, 4.50 average.
Presently I thought I'd move a number of the longer postings I have made... with some editorial improvements (I hope) into my blog. From the "favorite paintings" discussion on the "general chat" board I thought that first I might move this brief discussion of a marvelous piece of art by the Japanese masters, Koetsu and Sotasu:

I thought I'd post a little on some of the art I have been looking at recently in tandem with my recent foray into Asian... and especially Japanese literature/poetry. In the West since the era of the standardization of letter forms under Charlemagne (who couldn't read) and the introduction of the movable type printing press by Gutenberg, calligraphy has lost its status as one of the central art-forms. Indeed, today it would be hard to think of a single known calligrapher or when I last witnessed an exhibition of recent calligraphic art.

Certainly, since Charlemagne there have been book artists for whom the layout and the look of letters on the page has been imminently important; I think especially of designers such as Aldus Manutius, founder of the Aldine Press...

...and William Morris, especially famed for the Kelmscott Chaucer...

But none of these equal the expressive quality of the written word... of calligraphy... as a visual for of communication as one might regularly find in Islamic manuscripts...

or in the spontaneous calligraphy of Chen/Zen calligraphers in China and Japan...

or even in earlier European books.:

Perhaps the only major artist/author to come close to such a merger of the written word as both a visual and literary art was William Blake...

As an artist/bibliophile... and ardent admirer of the book as an art object, it probably shouldn't be so surprising that Blake is such a central figure to me.

Exploring Asian art and literature recently... and especially that of Japan... I have been greatly enamored of what must surely be one of the greatest creative partnerships in the history of art. The artists of whom I am speaking are the Japanese masters, Hon'ami Kōetsu (本阿弥光悦)-1558-1637 and Tawaraya Sōtatsu (俵屋宗達)-early 1600s. Kōetsu was born into a family of swordsmiths and mastered the craft himself. Like many aristocratic Japanese artists of the era (and not unlike the Renaissance artists) he was accomplished in a broad array of artistic forms, including ceramics, enamels, lacquer, and calligraphy. As a calligrapher, he was deeply inspired by the great poets of the Heian period (794 to 1185)... the so-called "classical era" or "golden age". Sōtatsu was primarily a painter and creator of beautiful papers for use in calligraphy. He is credited with having developed a "wet into wet" style of painting in which one color is dropped into another still wet color so that the two "bleed" together forming a marvelous atmospheric effect that is difficult to control and is deeply admired by the Japanese, who had a great respect for the spontaneous in art. Kōetsu and Sōtatsu worked together for some 15 years producing marvelous works of art in which the text, calligraphy, paper, and painting all merged to create a marvelous visual and literary work of art. There are suggestions that the close relationship of the two artists may have been so long-lasting due to their being related by marriage.

Kōetsu and Sōtatsu developed a form of visual art in which calligraphy was equal to painting... a concept not uncommon in Japanese, Chinese, and Islamic cultures. Both painting and the calligraphic forms served to illuminate the classical Heian poems. In this work...

... the artists illustrate a poem describing thunder in the pines. Bolder calligraphic characters... closer to Chinese in manner... suggest the explosion of sound that thunder makes, while other... more elegant and more characteristically Japanese-style symbols suggest the rain falling onto the pines below.

In other examples the calligraphy and painting merge into a single entity to an even greater degree. Of course the artists had the advantage of building upon a poetic tradition that was very image-based. Most of the classical Japanese poetry is very short and simply paints an exquisite and intensely imagined visual image:

In a gust of wind the white dew
On the autumn grass
Scatters like a broken necklace

-Bunya No Asayasu

In the spring garden
Where the peach blossoms
Light the path beneath,
A girl is walking.

(both tr. Kenneth Rexroth)

Kōetsu and Sōtatsu often created works in which the calligraphic form is almost an inseparable part of the visual image. Here, for example, illuminating a poem upon willow trees, the characters are lost within the foliage of the tree:

In another example, the calligraphy illustrates the water and water-lilies as much as the painted image:

The same can be said of this illumination of a poem upon bamboo:

Or that portraying a beach with pines and billowing clouds:

One of the most marvelous creations of the partnership of Kōetsu and Sōtatsu must be the so-called "Deer Scroll" in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum:

The Deer Scroll illuminates 28 poems of autumn from the Shin Kokin Wakashū (新古今和歌集) or New Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems, an anthology compiled beginning in 905 and concluding c. 1439. The Seattle Art Museum owns but half of the entire scroll, or about 30 feet. The scroll was divided by a Japanese collector in the 1930s and the remaining portions of the work are owned by 5 Japanese museums and several private collectors. There are also a few missing pieces. The interactive Deer Scroll website at the SAM...

...offers a pdf. file going into greater detail exploring the scroll and the artists involved. More importantly, it offers an interactive view of the entire scroll as it originally existed... using computer enhancements of black and white photographs of the missing portions. One may scroll through the work and zoom in close upon the imagery... or click upon links to translations of all of the poetry. The site offers a fabulous view of a fabulous work of art.


Updated 10-01-2008 at 10:17 PM by stlukesguild



  1. Virgil's Avatar
    I enjoyed. Wonderful. Thanks.
  2. stlukesguild's Avatar
    Thanks for taking a look, Virgil... By the way... I noticed the link to the Seattle Museum was broken... the new one should work. (Or at least it worked for me)
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