The Subtle Magic of Koetsu

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Hon'ami Koetsu, the Japanese artist, is scarcely known outside his homeland, but in Japan he is a national treasure several times over-about as famous there as Benvenuto Cellini is in the West. This is because he was one of the supreme masters of calligraphy, an art that matters only to specialists on the American side of the Pacific but is wholly central to Japanese and Chinese aesthetics. It's understandable, therefore, that the show of Koetsu's work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until Oct. 29, though respectably attended, has not been packing in the crowds. This is a boon for those who go to see it. The fewer people looking over your shoulder when you're looking at one of Koetsu's exquisite moments in ink, the better. It wouldn't be as private as this in a Japanese museum.

There is an inverse relationship between the size of Koetsu's work and the scale of his cultural resonance. These tiny, fugitive-looking images, in which luminous fragments of nature-pines bowing before a wind, the undulation of a flock of cranes-were painted in colored inks on handmade paper by his collaborator Tawaraya Sotatsu and then written over by Koetsu, have acquired, for Japanese taste, the sort of cardinal importance that a fresco cycle or an altarpiece might have for ours. Koetsu's work, given the accumulated Japanese reactions to it, is perhaps the ultimate example of the power of the small, the exquisite, the almost marginal.

Koetsu died at 79 in 1637, laden with the esteem of patrons and connoisseurs. He was a devotee of beauty and had given over his life to art with the degree of throwaway fanaticism that entails a horror of self-importance. Koetsu was not a professional artist. He raised amateurism to an extreme level. The rougher and more summary his work, the greater its appeal to the cultivated. He has always been associated with the "Renaissance" of the city of Kyoto, then Japan's capital, after the ferociously destructive civil wars of the 16th century, when Japan was finally stabilized under three successive autocratic warlords. Rather as Italians thought their Renaissance was an upwelling of disciplined classicism-Rome reborn from the ashes of "barbarous" Gothic-so the Kyoto Renaissance strove to recall the spirit of the Japanese past, as far back as the Heian era (794-1185), especially in the domain of writing. It produced an intensely élitist, nobly disciplined and masculine culture whose emblems were the ink brush, the samurai sword and the tea bowl.

It is not certain how Koetsu managed to find a place within this society as one of its principal tastemakers-as, in a sense, its artistic director. The role wasn't a complete sinecure: the ruling warlord, Tokugawa Ieyasu, ordered the seppuku, or ritual suicide, of one of Koetsu's circle, the tea master Furuta Oribe, for some real or imagined disloyalty. But Koetsu ended his days in dignified security, as the quasi-religious head of a community at Takagamine, near Kyoto, part artists' colony and part monkish village.

Koetsu's sources reached back hundreds of years, and yet his way of writing "fat and thin" characters, some bold and emphatic and others trailing to the faintest visual whisper, was peculiarly his own (at least among Japanese calligraphers) and difficult to emulate. His ability to work with space through writing struck his admirers as a marvel. Ernest Fenollosa, the great Boston connoisseur of Japanese art who did the most to introduce Koetsu to a Western audience at the end of the 19th century, went into raptures about it: "Such a unique feeling for spacing, placing and spotting has never elsewhere been exhibited in the world's art. Koetsu's is as new a species in spacing as Shakespeare's is a new species in drama."

This was not solitary art. It rose from collaboration among Koetsu, the painter Sotatsu, a suitably skilled papermaker, and-not least-the dead hand of the poet whose waka, or classic verses, Koetsu was transcribing. Some of the most beautiful things in this show are the shikisi, or poem cards, in which the visual form of Koetsu's writing chimes wonderfully with the loops and eddies of Sotatsu's water, the spikes of his plant stems and the slow blur of his distant mountains. And Koetsu's calligraphies on sheets of paper pasted together, paper made in the subtlest imaginable tints and textures, a salmon pink abutting the most delicate smoky blue, display a sensibility that seems an etherealized version of Georges Braque's.

Koetsu made ceramics too. In fact, he is seen in Japan as one of the two greatest potters of the 17th century, the other being Nomomura Nisei. But Nisei was a professional, and he specialized in such tea utensils as caddies and incense jars. The amateur Koetsu sometimes worked with potters and sometimes commissioned pieces from them; his approval became a signature of authorship. His passion was tea bowls-the "active," intimately handled objects of a ceremony that, imported from China, had been turned by its first Japanese grandmaster, Sen No Rikyu, into a cultural rite linked to Zen Buddhism. The "way of tea" had become an essential part of the samurai-influenced code of upper Japanese behavior. It connoted roughness, naturalness and-at its origins, at least-lack of pretension. In it, aesthetics and morality were conjoined, under the sign of severe restraint.

Koetsu was the first Japanese to sign one of his own tea bowls-the famous "Fuji" bowl, now designated a national treasure by the Japanese and hence unable to be shown in the U.S.-but he never ran his own kiln. Like Rikyu before him, Koetsu worked with a family of potters whose name came to stand for a whole class of rough, low-fired pottery: raku ware. Unlike Rikyu, though, Koetsu got his hands dirty, shaping the clay, carving it with knife and spatula.

It is still a surprise, for people used to the immaculate technical refinement of Sèvres or Wedgwood, to see the lack of finish of Koetsu tea bowls. Slumped, pitted, cratered, they seem to preserve the primal character of the earth from which they're made. They're so uneven that you'd think they'd wobble if set on a table. Instead of pattern or fine painting, their surfaces are all drips and cracks that, contemplated in the dim natural light of the teahouse, may suggest large natural events. One of the most beautiful bowls in this show, black glaze on a gritty brown ground, has an almost thunderous gravity that suits the name bestowed on it by earlier owners, Amagumo, or "Rain Clouds."

To the uninitiated, such objects may look like cowpats, but their roughness has always made them precious to the Japanese connoisseur. Koetsu once sold his house to raise the money-30 gold coins-for a particularly famous old tea caddy he yearned to buy. Later he came to see the ownership of such exalted things as "a nuisance" and the antiquarian enthusiasms they aroused as irrelevant: better to make them for oneself.

Koetsu's name is also associated with lacquer, another of the chief Japanese arts. "Associated" because it is highly unlikely that he actually made the lacquer boxes himself; the technique was too demanding and took too long to acquire. Clearly he knew a lot about lacquer and was immersed in its possibilities-not a surprise, because he was well known as an expert on the classification of swords, whose scabbards and other fittings were always adorned with lacquer. Clearly too he liked innovations in technique that may seem small to us but, in the tradition-bound and slow-moving context of Japanese art and design, were quite significant. One was the near alchemical contrast of dull lead inlay and bright gold detail on black lacquer in works like the beautiful writing box named Ashibune, or "Reed Boat."

But in the end Koetsu is one of those artists who elude classifications, even those of his own time and place. He remains the consummate amateur, drawing his authority from the peculiar independence of his work. It's not surprising that there is no one else quite like him in the West, because there was no one else in Japan either.