Term Paper: Japanese Artist Tawaraya Sotatsu

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Tawaraya Sotatsu is one of the biggest names in the history of art in Japan. He was not always considered thus, however. He had fallen into obscurity for several centuries after his death, and it was not until the early 20th century that there was a sudden resurgence of interest in the painter's work. This probably had more than a little to do with the fact that Sotatsu's highly intricate designs appealed to the Modernist sensibility of the 20th century, which was always on the look out for new innovations. Some have even gone so far as to consider Sotatsu as the first true abstract artist.

Sotatsu indeed played a central role in cultural activities throughout the course of the Momoyama period, which lasted from 1573 until 1615. This period is quite an important one in the history of Japanese art, as it marked the first time that Japanese artists had fully broken away from the dominant Chinese influence. According to Tanaka and Grilli (1956), Sotatsu played a major role among artists in court circles and was a close friend of Hon-ami Koetsu, known as the "Leonard da Vinci of Japan" in his heyday for his wide variety of both artistic and scientific skills and talents.

What has impressed art historians and other scholars over the ages is the fact that Sotatsu was apparently unschooled as an artist. He was a true artistic visionary whose talent propelled him on a marvelous career, rather than going through the standard routes of apprenticeships and orthodox training schools. While some have suggested that he had a minimum amount of training, it is more likely that he was completely self-taught.

Tawaraya Sotatsu: His Life

It is not known the exact dates of Sotatsu's birth and death. It has been established that his career was already going by the year 1602, during which time he allegedly assisted Koetsu in repairing the world famous sutra scroll, which had been donated by the Taira family to the Itsukushima shrine in the year 1164. Sotatsu certainly would not have been entrusted with such an enormous task had he not already proven himself to be a painter of considerable merit.

It is also known that Sotatsu had earned the rank of hokkyo by 1630. This title was only given to artists of certain maturity who had achieved a lot in the course of their careers. This honor upon Sotatsu is confirmed by one of the few surviving documents relating to the artist - an inscription in Karasumaru Misuhiro's hand at the end of the Life of Priest Saigyo, a famous pictorial scroll. This document also confirms that Sotatsu had a highly developed comprehension of the ancient Japanese art of Yamato scroll painting.

A letter written by Sen Shoan that has survived also mentions Tawaraya Sotatsu by name. Shoan was the son of the esteemed tea master Sen Rikyu. In this letter, Shoan says that Sotatsu invited him to a tea ceremony. This confirms that Sotatsu belonged to the elite circle of Kyoto tea masters and aesthetes who would become massively influential in the establishment of groundbreaking new trends in the arts in Japan. This letter must have been penned sometime before 1614, the year of Shoan's death.

Another, undated letter, allegedly stemming from Sotatsu himself, links him directly to the Daigoji in Kyoto. The letter takes the form of a brief note written to Priest Kaian from that temple. It is a thank you note for a gift of boiled bamboo shoots. The authenticity of this letter can be confirmed by the fact that the Daigoji still owns two of Sotatsu's most important works, the screen of the "Court Dance" as well as a fan screen. The Daigoji also used to own the important screen of the Tales of Genji.

The problem with delving further into the details of Tawaraya Sotatsu's life is that very little is known, and what is thought to be true cannot be confirmed empirically. There are brief mentions of Sotatsu's name in a variety of surviving documents and diaries from this era. But it is not always certain whether or not the authors are speaking of the same Tawaraya Sotatsu. It is not known, for instance, whether Sotatsu's father was a textile merchant or a fan manufacturer. It is also believed that Sotatsu may have been related to Koetsu by marriage, as the two men are alleged to have married two sisters. This has not been confirmed, however.

All that is really known about Sotatsu is that he was active as an artist in the first half of the seventeenth century. As it is generally agreed that he had a close relationship with Koetsu, this would naturally infer that the two men were around the same age. Thus, it is believed that Sotatsu lived sometime between the years of 1570 and 1640.

Tawaraya Sotatsu: His Work

What is more interesting than the artist's life, however, are the beautiful paintings that he managed to create in the course of it. There are only a few that have been definitely assigned to him, with a lot more attributed either to him or one of his followers. Many of these works contain the signature "Sotatsu" followed by a circular seal that reads "Inen." No one knows for sure what the meaning of this last term is; some believe it is associated with a particular atelier or school. This seal has become the source of endless debate among scholars. It appears on some of the works attributed to Sotatsu - but not all of them. Rather than get caught up in this debate, however, we will now turn our attention to some of the paintings themselves.

The Saigyo scroll is the sole work that contains a trusted inscription - not by Tawaraya Sotatsu, but by Karasumaru Mitsuhiro, a writer whose style is generally considered to be inimitable. This is not an independent creation, of course, but Sotatsu's effort to recapture the style of a painting that was several hundred years old. It is the retelling of an old story; however, it was not necessary to change the quality of the individual's handwriting in the new version - nor would it have been expected of Sotatsu to do so. What his patrons would have wanted was a copy of the contents and the narrative of the original, while also adhering in some matter to the original creator's style. But Sotatsu goes beyond the call of duty in this work, by perfectly capturing the original's qualities in fine, intricate detail. This attention to the tiniest detail is rooted in the artist's clear interest in Yamato painting, which is the typical Japanese style of painting from several centuries before Sotatsu's own time. This archaistic interest of Sotatsu's surfaces in several more of his best-known works.

The Saigyo scroll contains many elements that have emerged as defining characteristics of Sotatsu's style. While many of the design features employed are typical of the Kamakura period, what designates this as a true work of Sotatsu are the soft lines to be found throughout. In the original version, the characteristic high key and clear tones of the Yamato period are featured. In Sotatsu's rendering, however, Sotatsu added the special Japanese tarashikomi technique, featuring wet over paintings of dark, rich color blots. This results in an enrichment of the surface of the image, as well as a rounding of forms. Occasionally, writers attribute the invention of this technique to Sotatsu himself. It is more likely, however, that this represents a development of the wet "splash ink" method that many other painters in Japan and China had already been practicing.

Sotatsu's turning back to an earlier era in Japanese art is indicative of the Momoyama style. This style would later develop into the Kyoto style of painting of the next two centuries. It should be noted that there were historical reasons why Japanese artists decided to turn to the past during this period. Along with an influx of Zen Buddhism, Japan had also been subject to a wave of Chinese dominance starting around the year 1200. By the time the middle of the sixteenth century had arrived, this wave was mostly depleted. By then, Korea had become the declared enemy. Japan gradually began withdrawing from foreign contacts. China had far less to offer Japan under the last Ming emperors. Japan itself was starting to feel its culture mature as its economy began to stabilize. This boosted Japanese self-confidence and national pride. The idealistic, philosophically inclined Chinese paintings began to appear quaint and out of date. A more decorative, resplendent spirit began to surface in the visual arts in Japan. This new Japanese art movement took its cues in part from the Late Heian period (897 to 1185), a period during which Japan had been nearly self-sufficient. Kyoto emerged as a cultural center that was able to foster the development of artists who took their cues from the past in order to develop their own styles.

Sotatsu thus… [END OF PREVIEW]

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