Quotes of the Day

Monday, Oct. 04, 2004

Open quoteKyoji Takubo gazes at the spectacular screen paintings surrounding him—201 floral studies on a field of luminous gold—and declares that this was the place where he decided to become an artist. Growing up in Kotohira, a backwater town on Shikoku island in southern Japan, he rarely gave any thought to art. But one of his best friends was the son of the head priest of Kotohira-gu, commonly called Konpira, an important Shinto shrine that is the town's great pride and that is said to date back more than 2,000 years. So Takubo spent a lot of time on the shrine's grounds, climbing up and down the complex's infamously forbidding 785 steps, and watching the pilgrims who would come by in their hundreds every day, from all over Japan, to pray to the gods believed to inhabit the holy hilltop.

One day, however, when Takubo was about 15, his friend took him inside the okushoin, an area of one of the main buildings that had been the head priest's residence for centuries but was now virtually abandoned. Inside the dark building, every room was filled with seemingly forgotten artistic treasures, including the flowers by legendary 18th century painter Jakuchu Ito, which cover every wall of the room that was once the priest's private study. It was unlike anything Takubo had ever laid eyes upon. Unlike much of Japanese art, in which seasonal coherence and the balanced composition of complete landscapes are recurring priorities, these intensely detailed close-ups of blooms from different geographies and seasons, crammed together in a way that no actual garden could contain, produced an effect that Takubo found almost hypnotic. He was similarly captivated by the fact that many of the flowers had some petals that were browning at the edge, or had leaves that had been ravaged by insects, while other petals or leaves on the same plant were pristine in their perfection—another phenomenon, he reasoned, that would rarely occur in nature. It was this combination of the hyperreal and the unreal, he says, that "taught me art is about possibility, about creating something from nothing, even things that don't really exist." Inspired, Takubo went on to build an eclectic career as a well-regarded artist who paints in both Japanese and European styles, shoots still-life and landscape photographs, and consults on an array of conservation, architecture and film projects. "Coming here," he says, "was a liberation."

And now, more than 40 years after his revelation, Takubo is back at Kotohira-gu, curating an exhibition of the treasures of the okushoin—the first time many of the pieces have been seen by the public in 125 years. Takubo says it is fate that he should return to liberate the works he loves more than all others by offering them to everybody. It all came about when his childhood friend, Yasutsugu Kotooka, who is the shrine's 22nd head priest, asked him a few years ago what special events could be held in 2004 to coincide with Senza-Sai, a festival the shrine holds only once every 33 years. "For a long time, he has wanted to make the art available," Takubo says, "but it was hard to find the curatorial skills, so he asked me to do it." The result is an extraordinary exhibition that opened on Sept. 17 and runs until Dec. 12 of dozens of screen paintings, silk scrolls and works of calligraphy. Produced over three centuries, they include some of the most significant yet little-known works by several of Japan's most famous artists. "This is a rare opportunity," says Shinsuke Utada, a professor emeritus at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. "To have major artists from many different eras is not something you see in every temple or shrine. The priests of Konpira had an eye for good art for a very long time."

Perhaps the most influential priest in the shrine's history was Yuzon, an avid painter and powerful art patron who lived there in the late 1700s and whose portrait is among the shown works. He commissioned not just Jakuchu's flowers but also the fine mid-Edo-style door screens in the building's more public areas, where the priest would receive guests. Painted in the late 18th century by Okyo Maruyama, each screen has a different theme, such as cranes, tigers, wise men and waterfalls. Okyo was an important transitional figure in Japanese art, as painting moved toward a more lifelike presentation. His simple brushwork and relatively muted color palate harken back to previous eras, but these screens, especially the one depicting the wise men, reveal a newfound confidence in the manipulation of space, distance and three-dimensionality. By contrast, Okyo's tiger paintings demonstrate a lingering Primitivism. Because there were no tigers in Japan at the time, scholars believe Okyo used tiger drawings, tiger skins and house cats as models, which would explain why his tigers' facial expressions are surprisingly docile and cute.

The influence of Okyo's work can be seen in a series of rooms commissioned 80 years later and painted by late-Edo master Gantai in the 1840s. His screens, like Okyo's, each have its own theme; they are filled with dazzling gold reeds, rushes, trees and butterflies. But by this time, figurative depiction had become so sophisticated that the butterflies look real, as if they are ready to fly off the screen.

The greatest joy of the exhibition—and what sets it apart from more standard museum displays of Japanese masterpieces—is the chance to view the art in the environment for which it was created. This setting gives an added richness to many of the pieces. In one Okyo painting of a waterfall, the water flows from the top right of one wall to the bottom left. But the viewer can't help noticing that the bottom left margin of the painting, where the water finally runs still, aligns perfectly with the waterline of a pond just across the walkway outside, suggesting the painting and the man-made pond form an unbroken continuum. Says Takubo: "By preserving things in the places they were created, you can feel how the whole building is a work of art."

Likewise, two rooms from the early 20th century by a master revivalist named Tanryo Murata demonstrate the frame-breaking creativity possible when an artist is allowed to use entire sets of rooms as his canvas. In one room, Murata painted scenes from a deer hunt—a common Kamakura-period pastime that frequently took place at the foot of Mount Fuji—in the finely detailed and colorful Yamato-e style, which emphasizes the horses' musculature and bowmen's straining faces. But look through a doorway created by parting two screens in the hunting room and the viewer sees that the next room is connected thematically. There, dominating the back wall is another Murata masterpiece, a gigantic painting of Mount Fuji, this time in the more gauzy, monochromatic suiboku style favored by Zen monks, which superbly suggests the mighty mountain on a hazy morning.

Right now, the art attractions at Kotohira-gu are not limited to the treasures of the okushoin. Current exhibitions there also include four other galleries of paintings, sculptures, scrolls and screens from various periods. One fascinating show is a retrospective of the work of Yuichi Takahashi, one of the first Japanese artists to adopt Western oil-painting techniques. His still lifes and landscapes, from the second half of the 19th century, are a fascinating glimpse of an artist struggling to master a new and foreign style while remaining traditionally Japanese in his subject matter.

For good measure, there's also the sheer beauty of the architecture at Kotohira-gu. Alongside the dozens of historic wooden shrines, one new addition is a stunning mountaintop building that houses offices as well as a reception area for religious ceremonies—an ultramodern edifice of rusted iron and glass built into the hillside in a way that complements the main shrine building surprisingly well. Takubo helped design the new building with architect Ryoji Suzuki. Its innovative use of light and space—many of the rooms are actually freestanding boxes in the middle of a glassed-in atrium—has made it a favorite of design and architecture mavens since it opened in June.

The shrine has neither the money nor the staff to keep the okushoin open permanently and the building is not architecturally suited to being a full-time museum. So Takubo says he has no idea when the treasures will be on public display again—or if he will be around when it happens. "It could be 33 more years," he says, looking back at the inner sanctum filled with flowers. "It could be 125. I hope not, but it could be." Close quote

  • Jim Frederick | Kotohira
  • For the first time in 125 years, a Japanese shrine displays its hidden treasures in all their splendor
| Source: For the first time in 125 years, a Japanese shrine displays its hidden treasures in all their splendor