Sōtatsu: Pieces of the Past

<em>Screen with Scattered Fans</em>; Tawaraya Sōtatsu (act. ca. 1600–40); Japan, early 17th century; six-panel folding screen; color, gold, and silver over gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1900.24
Screen with Scattered Fans; Tawaraya Sōtatsu (act. ca. 1600–40); Japan, early 17th century; six-panel folding screen; color, gold, and silver over gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1900.24

Stories about looting historic tombs and architectural sites are common fare in today’s media. Given the images that accompany these updates, of crudely severed elements hacked from pillaged ruins or plundered gravesites, the idea of considering cultural “fragments” in a positive light is akin to wearing mink at a PETA convention. The concept is is rightly tainted by associations with destruction and misappropriation.

But not all fragmenting is fundamentally destructive. Our current exhibition Sōtatsu: Making Waves (through January 31, 2016) is incomprehensible without an understanding of what could be called Tawaraya Sōtatsu’s (active circa 1600–40) strategy of fragmentation. Instead of theft and pillage, his process more closely resembled collaging—taking scraps from here and there and arranging them in a way that simultaneously displaced and expanded the original meaning.

Sōtatsu worked in a period of incredible social change. Though the population of Kyoto didn’t understand it at the time, a national solidification was taking place in the early seventeenth century. Japan was becoming the defined country we know today, emerging from a time when region, rather than nation, was the framework of identity.

This new national unity required a shared past. The world of classical literature—poetry, tales of adventure and romance—previously had been the purview of the aristocracy. Learning the classics, creating an interpretive framework for their revered words, and creating imagery to enhance those words were all elite activities—that is, until society began to come apart.

From his beginnings as a commoner, a fan painter, and an illuminated manuscript specialist, Sōtatsu eventually gained access to the highest levels of “the old order” (having the emperor’s consort as a patron, for instance)—a remarkable feat. With that access, he was able to view the artworks that had been sequestered, allowing him to pick apart Japan’s past and then energize and distribute it to a far more diverse audience.

Sōtatsu was not going at some beautiful stucco wall relief with a pickaxe. But he and his studio mates were doing an extraordinary amount of foraging, accessing largely out-of-reach collections and seeing one-of-a-kind paintings—often long, horizontal historical or literary narratives. They copied episodes depicted in such works and reinterpreted them onto folding fans, some of which were surely sold out of Sōtatsu’s Kyoto shop, the Tawaraya. He and his fellow artists also produced a folding screen whose surface was decorated with such fans, swirling as if they were being carried away on a rushing stream.

Detail, Screen with Scattered Fans
Detail, Screen with Scattered Fans

Our current ability to arrange pieces of an art historical past into chronologies of artist, style, culture, and so forth gives us a window onto the primary works that Sōtatsu studied. These thirteenth- and fourteenth-century paintings, which we now know in their completeness, are often accessible in museums today. But how many who viewed Sōtatsu’s repurposed snippets in the 1600s would have seen the original works from which they were extracted? Your chance of knowing his sources—via art history books and exhibition catalogues—is exponentially greater than that of a typical townsperson in Sōtatsu’s day.

So what did Sōtatsu’s contemporaries make of these fragmented images? My guess is that many simply saw an affectation of the past: a brush with the classics, an obscure recounting of the history of a temple or shrine, or a vaguely generalized image of warriors riding off to battle, for example. Sōtatsu’s folding fans served as portable image quotations from the past, allowing ancient narratives to float across social boundaries.

In many cases, fragmenting has resulted in losing the thread of a cultural history, at least for a while. But in Sōtatsu’s case, it offered up bite-size bits of a past that many, many more people were able to appreciate than ever before.

Another period of great dispersal or fragmentation of Japanese art occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Revisit Bento in the coming weeks to learn more about that amazing period.

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