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National Treasure Collection: The Red and White Plum Blossoms

2023.01.27(Fri) - 2023.03.14(Tue)


The exhibition presents select masterpieces from the Museum’s art collection, which mainly consists of articles of Oriental art from Japan, China and other countries in Asia. The founder Okada Mokichi (1882-1955) and encompasses a wide range of outstanding artworks of historical significance as well as of aesthetic excellence, ranging from paintings and calligraphic works to sculpture, handicraft, and beyond. Ogata Kōrin’s Red and White Plum Blossoms, for example, is acclaimed to be the most accomplished masterpiece by the artist, and it is today a registered National Treasure. This pair of uni-fold screens depicts two plum trees—red and white—arranged asymmetrically. A gold-leafed background accentuates the patterned designs of plum blossoms and water flow, and the overall expression makes it a set of exquisite decorative screens.
The exhibition presents thee three National Treasures housed in the Museum, the other two being the Tea-leaf Jar with a design of Wisteria by the establishing authority of Kyoto ware, Nonomura Ninsei, and the Tekagami Kanbokujo, one of Japan’s three best known calligraphic albums. The exhibition also includes a selection of masterpieces of each genre of arts.

Red and White Plum Blossoms (National Treasure), Ogata Kōrin, Edo period

Ogata Kōrin was inspired as a young man by the work of Tawaraya Sōtatsu, but later he developed his unique artistic style which traveled across the oceans to influence the art scenes in Europe. Its power is eloquently evident in the details of the designs of these screens: the red and white plum trees, patterned petals, and flowing water. While the red plum is depicted in full view, the white plum swerves out of the canvas, forming a sublime asymmetry. The water in the middle follows an exquisite curving line. The plum flowers without outlines, the unique layout of buds, the mossy tree trunks rendered using the tarashikomi technique (by smudging wet ink), and the organic pattern that expresses the current—all these unique components together unfold a very dynamic and highly decorative design on the screens. This work culminates into a masterpiece that showcases the rich and sophisticated artistry with which Kōrin enchanted the world. The signature on the right screen is Seisei Kōrin, and inscription on the left is Hokkyō Kōrin. Both screens have a round seal which reads “Hōshuku.” This is believed to be one of Kōrin’s last creations.
In 2001, new facts about the screens were discovered through a scientific investigation using the latest technology. The gold background, which occupies most surface area, was in gold leaves as opposed to a paint. The pattern that embellishes the flow in the middle contained silver, and silver sulfide was extracted from the parts that looked black, suggesting that silver foil was applied and chemically treated with sulfide to render the dark color.

Tea-leaf Jar with a design of Wisteria (National Treasure), Nonomura Ninsei, Edo period

Nonomura Ninsei (dates of birth and death unknown) is a master potter of Kyoto Ware, originally from a village in mountains north of Kyoto. He acquired basic skills of pottery in Seto before opening his kiln in Kyoto, in the vicinity of Ninnaji temple. His name Ninsei was an artist name combining “Nin” of the Ninnaji and “Sei” from his birth name Seiemon. He created many stylish and elegant pieces of ceramics commissioned by prominent figures in Kyoto who frequented the temple. In particular, Kanamori Sōwa was an important figure who introduced Ninsei to the cloistered Emperor Go Mizunoo and many members of his Imperial salon, who became Ninsei’s clients. His work is mostly known for elegant forms meticulously executed through dexterous throwing and highly refined designs in overglaze. He made many tea leaf jars, water containers, tea bowls and other implements for the practice of tea chanoyu, and this tea leaf jar with wisteria design is said to represent his best work. It embodies the refined aesthetic culture of the 18th-century Kyoto. The immaculate details are astounding—the wisteria is ingeniously distributed over the body of warm white base, and the flowers and vines are outlined variously in red, purple, gold, and silver. The leaves are depicted with details such as capillaries. The body is extraordinarily thin and even. The motif comfortably matches the elegant form of the jar. A large branding of his name “Ninsei” is marked on the bottom. This jar was previously held by the Kyōgoku family of the Marugame domain (present-day Kagawa prefecture).

The Calligraphy Album Tekagami Kanboku-jo (National Treasure), Nara to Muromachi period

The classical calligraphic album Tekagami Kanboku-jō is a highly acclaimed calligraphic work, deserving to be one of the three most accomplished writings in Japan, along with Moshiogusa and Minu Yo no Tomo, today housed in the Kyoto National Museum and the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, respectively. It is considered to be one of the earliest calligraphic albums ever collated. Record shows that it served Kohitsu Ryochu (1655–1736), an appraiser of classical calligraphic work before being acquired by Masuda Donnou (1847–1938). The title “Kanboku-jō” signifies a castle of brush and ink, aptly named for the finest collection of calligraphic mastership. It contains 311 fragments, collected over the period between the eighth and fifteenth centuries.