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The singularity of occasion Sōami and sixteenth-century Japanese display protocols


Beauty or the life of things, is always deeper as hidden within than as outwardly expressed, even as life of the universe beats always underneath incidental appearances. Not to display, but to suggest, is the secret of infinity.

Okakura Kakazō, The Book of Tea

 

An aura of mystery and exoticism has long surrounded the display of Asian art – in particular the art of China and Japan – in contemporary museum and gallery spaces, even though essential curatorial information such as creator, origin and period has always been provided. To some degree, gallery presentations stimulate aesthetic appreciation through the use of colour, light and space in the hope of engaging the public and enhancing an object’s beauty, but, for the greater part, furthering the understanding of decorative items through the principles of historical display has not been routinely applied. Notable exceptions would include the use of historical sites by the Tokogawa Museum, Nagoya, for the temporary displayof significant cultural artefacts from their collection and a recent exhibition at the British Museum, entitled Kazari: Decorations and Display in Japan 15th–19th century, 2003, where the arrangement of decorative arts reflect traditional Japanese protocols of display. In this article I have attempted to visually recreate a sympathetic setting for thirteenth- to sixteenth-century Chinese and Japanese objects from the Asian Art collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. The intention of this exercise was to illustrate the display protocols of the late Muromachi period in Japan, more specifically the Sengoku (1467–1568), as recorded by the connoisseur Sōami in his book of ornamentation, the Okazari-ki, 1523.

The arbiters of Muromachi aesthetics

Japan is renowned for its long lineage of warrior rulers, the Tokugawa and their predecessors, the Ashikaga. The art collections of these shoguns were extensive and of such value that they were documented and placed in the care of cultural specialists (dōbōshū). These companions to the great lords were also responsible for the ritualised use and presentation of precious objects. One of these medieval curators was Sōami (c.1455–1525), a renowned painter, landscape architect and an official keeper of Chinese works of art (karamono).

Sōami would have gained much of his knowledge of karamono from his father Geiami (1431–1485) and more notably from his grandfather Nōami (1397–1471), both of whom were advisers to the Ashikaga shoguns. Nōami was dōbōshū to both the third and the eighth Ashikaga shoguns, Yoshimitsu (1358–1408) and Yoshimasa (1436–1490) respectively. The three generations of ‘Amis’ were reclusive priests associated with the Jishū sect of Pure Land Buddhism and as such enjoyed a certain freedom, unrestricted by conventional class hierarchies. Sōami’s prestigious position of Karamono bugyō, or Commissioner of Chinese Objects,1 Art Treasures from Shokoku-ji, Rokuon-ji and Jisho-ji temples (exh. cat.), Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art, 1998, p.166. enabled him to make a comprehensive record of Yoshimasa’s art collection and the decorative program of the late shogun’s mountain retreat, the Higashiyama Palace.

During the Muromachi period imported Chinese objects of great beauty created an impressive backdrop for the shogun’s court and were particularly important in establishing and maintaining the shogunate’s political and cultural hegemony. Karamono were signifiers of the shogun’s control over international trade and recognition of his position as the head of state, over and above that of the emperor. The display and ritualised use of Chinese objects by the warrior class established their patronage of cultural pursuits, which enhanced their status as intellectuals while also setting them apart from the traditional aesthetic tastes of the aristocracy.

Sōami records in the Okazari-ki the many and diverse objects collected by the Ashikaga. These objects were predominantly from the Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1279–1368) dynasties. The

most highly prized paintings listed in the collection were by thirteenth-century Chinese artists such as Ma Yuan, Muqi and Yūjian. The various items of tea ware listed included a variety of ceramic, metalwork, lacquer and bamboo vessels and utensils. There are detailed descriptions of vases, trays, dishes and incense burners, with particular reference given to the techniques of shell inlay, cloisonné and carved lacquer. The illustrations of the Okazari-ki also include elaborate flower arrangements, and miniature plant and stone landscapes. These ephemeral recreations of nature (which fall outside the collecting criteria for contemporary galleries), were, in medieval Japan, integral elements in decorative displays. Many works by Japanese artists and craftsman are also mentioned, reflecting the collection of both imported antiquities and domestic contemporary art.

Today there are still several original sets of scrolls, along with later copies, of the Muromachi period display protocols similar to the Okazari-ki. In addition, there are sets of handscrolls which beautifully illustrate the interior displays of the early Muromachi period, such as the Boki ekotoba, 1351, written by Jishun, the son of the Buddhist priest Kakunyo (1270–1351). The Boki ekotoba scrolls were known to be in Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s possession at one time and reaffirm the display protocols set down by Sōami.2 Jishun, ‘Boki ekotoba’, in Zoku nihon no emaki, vol. 9. Tokyo, 1990. Similar to the Okazari-ki and written nearly two hundred years later, the Nanpō roku, 1705, or records of the priest Nanpō Jōmyō (1235–1308) are another important source of decorative protocols. Nanpō acknowledges the importance of Sōami’s inventory in his introduction, confirming that the earlier displays, at least within some circles and for certain occasions, were still favoured into the early Edo period.3 S. Nanpō, ‘Nanbō roku’ in Kansei geidoron, vol. 16, Tokyo. 1972, p. 53.

The politics of display

The Higashiyama Palace was built by Ashikaga Yoshimasa around 1482 as a sanctuary from the political turmoil of his time, reflecting his desire to retreat to a sagely appreciation of nature and the ritualised poverty of an eremitic lifestyle. Importantly, the palace also provided a community for the notable artists and creative thinkers who gathered under Yoshimasa’s patronage in a cultural period known as the Higashiyama bunka.4 H. Mittwer, The Art of Chabana Flowers for the Tea Ceremony, Vermont, 1974, p.29. The palace was made up of a collection of large pavilions and several intimate buildings, surrounded by formal gardens featuring a series of lakes and streams. The artifice of these gardens intentionally imitated the mountainous landscape of greater Japan and took into consideration the common belief of the geomantic forces of nature.

The palace’s pavilions, built in the emerging architectural style of shoin-zukuri, were conglomerations of adjacent rooms separated by sliding doors. The principal rooms, kaisho, served many purposes but were primarily used for entertaining guests and incorporated three architectural features: the shoin, which gave the architectural style its name, was a scholar’s desk set within an alcove; the chigaidana, or series of staggered display shelves; and the oshi ita, a wooden shelf placed onto the floor, a precursor to an alcove called the tokonoma. The proportions of the rooms within the pavilions were modulated and based on the standard dimensions of the tatami (reed mats), which covered the wooden floors. The most prestigious rooms of each pavilion were designed so that the external doors opened onto verandas that took advantage of the garden views. Importantly, the proportions and architectural features of the kaisho defined the spatial framework for the appreciation of the decorative displays arranged by the dōbōshū.

Many of the palace kaisho are documented in the Okazari-ki, each one unique in its size, the location of its architectural features and specific decorative program, including the number and location of the paintings and the accompanying objects arranged on the oshi ita (wooden shelf) and chigaidana (staggered display shelves). Several of these rooms are named after the subject matter of the paintings which decorated the walls and sliding doors, such as theIshiyama Room, decorated with landscape paintings of the regions around Ishiyama, Seta and Otsu.5 N. Fiévé, ‘Le Livre des ornamentations en usage à la Retraite des Collines de l’Est’, Artibus Asiae, vol. 54, nos 3 & 4, 1994, no. 79, p. 316. Other rooms were noted as having depictions of the famous Eight Views of the Chinese Xiao and Xiang rivers where the dynamic contours of the landscape are conflated with the changing seasons and times of day. The popularity of landscape paintings as a genre intimated the contemporary understanding of humankind’s relationship with the Shinto deities that resided in nature, the Daoist belief in geomantic forces and a prevailing Buddhist sensibility to the allusiveness and transience of beauty.

To encourage the beneficial forces of nature, the north–eastern area of a room was generally reserved for the host and the wall and floor behind him for the principal display. This area, of one or two reed mats, would be decorated according to contemporary protocols with a series of scrolls hung behind an oshi ita set with decorative arts. Suspended from the lintel above, there would often be a small bell, sensitive to the breeze. And to the side of the oshi ita or on an adjacent wall, a chigaidana would display objects associated with the ritualised serving of tea and prized decorative artefacts. In an alcove nearby would be another chigaidana and the shoin (scholar’s desk) set with the paraphernalia for the appreciation of incense, the tea ceremony and scholarly pursuits.

Another common feature of the palace were the rooms set aside for the preparation of tea, both Chinese-style sencha and the Japanese practices of ochanoyu. The assorted tea bowls, tea caddies, whisks and water jars were also considered prized possessions and when not taking up a prominent position on the chigaidana in the kaisho, were displayed en masse on the designated set of shelves known as mizuya. Unfortunately, the complexity of tea practices, the connoisseurship of tea ware and its display cannot be considered here.

The paintings of Yoshimasa’s collection were ranked according to artists, genre and artistic merit with religious subject matter being the most prestigious; honourable people and landscapes ranking second; and bird-and-flower compositions being considered appropriate only for informal or intimate gatherings. For a formal occasion a series of three scrolls of high rank would hang behind an oshi ita on which would be arranged the Three Ornaments (candlestick, censer and vase) accompanied by an incense container, and incense utensils, with two additional vases placed on low tables either side of the main setting. Buddhist temple ornamentation was traditionally based on the Three Ornaments with each of the objects having purpose, meaning and a defined placement on the altar in front of the deity being worshipped. The light that radiated from the burning candle symbolised the enlightenment experienced by the devotee through the Buddha’s teachings. The fragrant smoke that emanated and permeated the surroundings from the centrally placed censer was analogous to the purity of the Buddha’s teachings. The formal arrangement of the flowers in the vase brought into focus the transient nature of existence with specific styles reflecting Buddhist, Shinto and Daoist beliefs in cosmic order.

When visualising this particular interior display, the paintings could include a religious depiction of a bodhisattva, such as the NGV’s White Guanyin (fig. 2) flanked by two landscape paintings such as the work of Dai Jin (1388–1462) (fig. 3), which follows the style of the Southern Song artists Ma Yuan and Xai Gui. The NGV collection has several beautiful ceramic pieces from China which would suit an arrangement of the Three Ornaments. The Southern Song, Longquan-ware Incense burner (fig. 4) could be accompanied by either a Mallet vase with ornate handles (fig. 5) or a tenth-century Yue-ware Vase (fig. 6). Alternatively, a dark-glazed incense burner could be accompanied by a gu-shaped Vase (fig. 7). The censer could be made of lacquer enclosed with a lid of metal mesh, or like the accompanying candlestick, be fashioned from bronze. The lidded incense boxes placed centrally in the arrangement were often shaped, highly decorated, and more often made from porcelain, such as the sixth-century blue-and-white ware Box (fig. 8). A display suitable only for a guest of the highest rank, and one that would ‘undoubtedly induce rapturous praise’,6 ibid., no. 36, repr. p.310. would extend the arrangement outlined above to include two vases and two candlesticks along with the censer, incense container and utensils. The vases would be filled with formal, asymmetric arrangements of flowers with the left arrangement mirroring that on the right, in keeping with traditional displays for Buddhist altars.

The social standing of both the guest and host, the purpose of the gathering and time of year would have dictated the selection of objects and degree of formality of their arrangement. It was indicative of a skilled dōbōshū that the objects displayed reflected both the wealth and refined taste of the host while remaining sensitive to the connoisseurship of the guest and not appearing to be ostentatious. For example, on the occasion that Emperor Go-Hanazono (1419–1471; r.1428–64) visited the palace of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshinori (1394–1441) in 1437, an impressive twenty-four-mat kaisho was hung with several series of the Eight Views. One of these series by Xia Gui (1180(?)–1230) was chosen for the north wall of the kaisho, and beneath was an arrangement of three flower vases on an oshi ita.7 P. Richard Stanley-Baker, Mid-Muromachi paintings of the Eight Views of Hsiao and Hsiang, 1979, PhD thesis, Princeton University, p. 46.

According to the Okazari-ki this arrangement of the oshi ita was in keeping with the principles governing the displays of the Higashiyama Palace:

The three ornaments do not suit a series of four paintings … two vases should be displayed symmetrically with the third of identical size, or a little larger, at the centre. [In lieu of the third vase] a large incense burner is not unacceptable… Proportion [or] harmony dictates that the vase or incense burner not be exactly central.8Fiévé, no. 67, p. 313.

Yoshimasa’s collection of vases have been extensively illustrated in the Okazari-ki with each variation in form, decoration, glaze and size. The fifteenth-century Scroll of the festival seasons (fig. 1) establishes a protocol for the display of such a collection in an illustration of a six-mat room decorated for a special occasion.9 Kitayama Higashiyama no Bijustu, vol. 5, Tokyo, n.d., pl. 116, p.124. The customary arrangement of Three Ornaments with additional vases can be seen on an oshi ita under three hanging scrolls. Another oshi ita has been placed along the adjacent wall and displays a collection of decorative vases, each very different to the next. The arrangement may have included a simple Ming Vase (fig. 9) that mimicked the shape of a bronze gu from China in the eleventh century BC; a blue-on-white, pear-shaped Vase popular in the Yuan period (fig. 10); a faceted Vall vase with a white slip (fig. 11); and a brown-on-white Cizhou-ware Vase (fig. 12). The illustration clearly shows the common practice of presenting the most prized vases on trays, which were either locally crafted or made from Chinese, carved red lacquer.

Scholarly pursuits

A significant feature of large kaisho was an alcove for the scholar’s desk (shoin) and its adjacent chigaidana. The desk would have been set by the dōbōshū in a very prescriptive manner with the first of the seven principal objects, the ink-screen, positioned slightly to the right and to the rear of the alcove. The ink stone is positioned to the front of the screen and further to the right are the brush holder, a water dropper, and finally, a water pot. To the left is a lacquer seal-case, a scroll holder or decorative paperweight and, on occasion, a simple vase of flowers. The Okazariki states that one after the other, vertically or horizontally, each of these objects is given a place on the long shelf.10 Fiévé no. 67, nos 34 & 35, p. 310. A more restrained setting is illustrated in the Boki ekotoba where a shoin is set with some paper, a suzuribako, or writing box, containing brushes and ink stone, and a pair of low dishes filled with plantings of water grass or sweet rush to counter the oily smoke given off by candles.11 Jishun, p. 42.

The arrangements of the chigaidana recorded in the various documents are diverse; however, the objects usually reflect the use of the kaisho. Most commonly they are objects and utensils used in the serving of food, then, perhaps on a more scholarly occasion, the shelves will display a lectern and a collection of books, along with musical and writing implements. Incense utensils, vases with or without flower arrangements, bonsai and stone landscapes are frequently included. It is noted that a chigaidana in the Higashiyama Palace was made from precious red sandalwood while another featured a fine damask cloth hung from the lintel.12 Fiévé, no. 79, p. 316. For a typical arrangement of a chigaidana, one might position on the upper shelf a blue-on-white, Stem cup from the fifteenth century (fig. 13) accompanied by a wine Ewer from the NorthernSong period (fig. 14), set to the right on a slightly lower shelf. Under this last shelf, a pair of suspended cupboards may hold additional ceramics used for serving refreshments. Then, in keeping with many of the Okazari-ki illustrations, the lowest shelf of the chigaidana might be set with a three-tiered Box food container decorated with enamel, such as the one illustrated (fig.15), or a similar one inlaid with mother of pearl.

The singularity of occasion

In The Book of Tea, Okakura Kakazō (1862–1913) draws upon the great tea masters of the past centuries, recounting their careful selection of paintings and ornaments to create subtle associations known as tori-awase. These associations also referenced the singularity of the occasion and imparted symbolic meaning to the viewer. Significant arrangements created by eminent dōbōshū and shoguns have been documented and handed down over the generations. Some notable examples include an arrangement created by Katagiri Sekishu (1605–1673), a successor of the great tea master Sen no Rikyū (1522–1591) who juxtaposed a painting by Sōami of wild ducks with a low, flat bowl filled with water plants that suggested the vegetation of lakes and marshes.13 K. Okakura, The Book of Tea, Tokyo, 1989, pp. 122–3. On one occasion Yoshimasa filled a bronze, boat-shaped vase with chrysanthemums – like a ship laden with cargo coming into port – that suggested sincerity. Another of Yoshimasa’s arrangements, which alluded to personal aspiration, was of an old wooden vase containing twisted vine tendrils.14 M. Averill, The Flower Art of Japan, New York, 1915, p. 200. Okakura mentions another tea master, Shoha, who combined a scroll, inscribed with a poem on the beauty of solitude by the sea, with a bronze incense burner in the form of a fisherman’s hut and some wildflowers found growing near the beach. The setting was so perfectly harmonious that it was said to have the effect of ‘the breath of waning autumn.’15 Okakura, p.123.

In the same way the presentations documented in Sōami’s Okazari-ki were devised to engage the viewer on many levels: as socio-political indicators of status and intellectual refinement, and through devices which stimulated the senses. The obvious visual beauty was enhanced by the burning of rare and fragrant woods in the censer, while the delicate chime of the bell drew attention to the breeze which momentarily caressed the skin as the guest appreciated the delicate flavours of tea and refreshments. The use of artifice and aesthetics to create ambience within the kaisho of the Higashiyama Palace was meant to communicate to the guest the incomparable beauty of the moment.

The subtleties of harmony and contrast, the notions of formality and singularity of occasion underlying Sōami’s protocols challenge the current curatorial practices – specifically those for exhibiting Japanese and Chinese decorative arts from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries. The Okazari-ki and similar medieval Japanese documents encapsulate the fundamental protocols for the display of karamono within the modulated architectural features common to late Muromachi palaces. More importantly, Sōami has presented today’s curators with an alternative model to the austerity of the light and space of the contemporary gallery.

Allison Holland, freelance curator and Project Officer, Exhibitions, State Library of Victoria (in 2004).

Notes

Research for this article was undertaken as part of a Masters in Art Curatorship, University of Melbourne, 2001.

 

1      Art Treasures from Shokoku-ji, Rokuon-ji and Jisho-ji temples (exh. cat.), Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art, 1998, p.166. 

2      Jishun, ‘Boki ekotoba’, in Zoku nihon no emaki, vol. 9. Tokyo, 1990.

3      S. Nanpō, ‘Nanbō roku’ in Kansei geidoron, vol. 16, Tokyo. 1972, p. 53.

4      H. Mittwer, The Art of Chabana Flowers for the Tea Ceremony, Vermont, 1974, p.29.

5      N. Fiévé, ‘Le Livre des ornamentations en usage à la Retraite des Collines de l’Est’, Artibus Asiae, vol. 54, nos 3 & 4, 1994, no. 79, p. 316.

6     ibid., no. 36, repr. p.310.

7      P. Richard Stanley-Baker, Mid-Muromachi paintings of the Eight Views of Hsiao and Hsiang, 1979, PhD thesis, Princeton University, p. 46.

8      Fiévé, no. 67, p. 313.

9     Kitayama Higashiyama no Bijustu, vol. 5, Tokyo, n.d., pl. 116, p.124.

10      Fiévé no. 67, nos 34 & 35, p. 310.

11      Jishun, p. 42.

12     Fiévé, no. 79, p. 316.

13      K. Okakura, The Book of Tea, Tokyo, 1989, pp. 122–3.

14      M. Averill, The Flower Art of Japan, New York, 1915, p. 200.

15      Okakura, p.123.