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Hon'ami Kōetsu

Japanese, 1558 - 1637

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Hon'ami Kōetsu (1558 - 1637) was a central figure in the renaissance of classical culture in Kyoto, Japan at the turn of the seventeenth century. During this period, the country was unified after a century of civil strife, and as Kyoto turned to mercantile and cultural endeavors, a group of unusually talented men gathered together to stimulate each other's creativity.

This brought Kōetsu into contact with contemporaries of equal genius, including Nō theatre actors, painters, papermakers, tea masters, potters, and enterprising merchants. He in turn had a potent influence not only on them but also on artists of succeeding generations, including the present one. While most famous for his calligraphy, Kōetsu has been likened to Leonardo da Vinci as a "versatile genius in whom all the arts and refinements of his day seemed to find their confluence."

Early Years: Poem Cards and Classical Poetry

Born into the Hon'ami family of sword polishers and connoisseurs, Kōetsu's letters attest to his training in the family sword business as well as in the worlds of tea and Nō performance. In addition to these and other activities, he collaborated with the painter Tawaraya Sōtatsu in the production of poem cards.

The two artists created square poem cards called shikishi and narrow, vertical poem cards called tanzaku that could be mounted in albums or on screens. For inspiration, they looked back to the classical culture of the Heian period (794-1185), which they considered Japan's golden age. Heian poetry, prose, and narrative picture scrolls provided Kōetsu and his colleagues with ideas and imagery that they reinterpreted in their own works. In embellishing the cards with calligraphy, Kōetsu used the poetry of traditional anthologies.

Classical Literature and Nō Libretti

During the late sixteenth century, the introduction of movable type brought from Europe and Korea stimulated an upsurge of printing projects in Japan. One of Kōetsu's associates during the first decade of the seventeenth century, the wealthy merchant Suminokura Soan (1571-1632), initiated a collaborative effort at his family's private press at their estate in Saga. The press printed high-quality editions of works of classical literature and Nō libretti known as the Saga-bon (Saga press editions). Using Kōetsu's calligraphy as a model, movable type was carved in wood. The book pages were decorated with woodblock-stamped motifs in silver and gold before being printed with the type-set calligraphy. Kōetsu's role in publishing the Saga-bon editions of classical literature relates to his other collaborative projects that combined poetry, calligraphy, and decorative imagery.

Kōetsu was also actively involved with the Nō theater, a traditional form of Japanese drama that contains little dialogue but is full of visual metaphors and chanting (utai). He attended performances, read libretti, and participated in utai gatherings, and eventually became involved in the artistic creation of Nō libretti that combined calligraphy superimposed on elegant painted or mica-printed designs.

The Handscrolls

Japanese handscrolls required the coordination of several craftsmen and artists. Those scrolls with printed designs, for example, called for an additional designer, woodblock carver, and printer; and those with painted designs also required the work of a painter. Kōetsu primarily collaborated on handscrolls with his friend Tawaraya Sōtatsu and the papermaker Kamishi Sōji. Kōetsu's calligraphy was executed last and traditionally has been the most esteemed artistic component.

The scrolls featured poetry from a number of classical poetry anthologies well known in Japan. As Kōetsu transcribed the poems, he paid more attention to the visual effect of the verse than to its meter. As a result, his columns often did not echo the usual division of thirty-one syllable poems (waka) into lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. Instead, he placed his calligraphy in a way that would engage the viewer/reader while providing an aesthetic counterpoint to the decorative motifs already painted or printed on the scrolls.

Kōetsu is known to have collaborated on many varieties of scrolls, three types of which have survived: those with mica-printed designs, those featuring single-motif designs printed in gold and silver, and those decorated by painting with gold and silver. Although the interrelationships and dating of the handscrolls remain speculative, the painted scrolls are thought to be the result of special commissions, and perhaps were even inspired by earlier printed versions.

Lacquer Designs

In Japan, lacquerwares have traditionally been considered objects of the highest luxury. Although it now seems that Kōetsu did not make any lacquer pieces himself, his letters indicate that he was active as an advisor on designs; introducing new motifs and materials to other artisans. Patrons and craftsmen highly esteemed his design sense and he was closely acquainted with the distinguished Igarashi family of maki-e lacquer artists.

Most of the lacquers associated with Kōetsu date between 1600 and 1615. One defining characteristic of these works is the motifs used in the decoration, which allude to classical Japanese literature, primarily that of the Heian period (794-1185). Some of the pieces feature poetry--in the form of elegant calligraphy-as an integral part of the composition. Other distinctive elements of "Kōetsu lacquers" include their shape and the range of materials used to make the designs. The corners of the boxes are rounded and the lids of the boxes and chests are gently domed, distinguishing them from the more angular forms produced by other artists of the time. To create the designs, Kōetsu added base metals-such as lead-to the mother-of-pearl, gold and silver powders, flakes, and foils traditionally used in Japanese lacquerwares.


Kōetsu was highly regarded and well-treated by courtiers and shogunal rulers alike. In 1615, for example, the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) gave Kōetsu a parcel of land located to the northwest of Kyoto, situated at the foot of a hill called Takagamine (Hawk Hill). Over the course of several years, Kōetsu established a community on this property consisting of his immediate family members, in-laws, close friends, and artisans, all of whom were adherents of the Hokke (or Lotus) sect of Buddhism. Kōetsu's family had belonged to the Hokke sect, which stressed that happiness and universal salvation may be achieved in this world, for at least two generations. Fifty-five houses were built along both sides of the main roads, forming a T-shaped community, and by the end of Kōetsu's life there were also four temples at the site.

After his move to Takagamine, Kōetsu continued his activities of utai, making ceramics, and the tea ceremony. His calligraphic work from that time shows a clear change, however, manifested both in the style of decoration and brushwork as well as in the contents. Some of the works that can be dated to the years 1615 to 1623 show Kōetsu as a man of deep religious beliefs who copied Buddhist sacred texts as an act of piety. Other works of calligraphy produced at Takagamine by Kōetsu and his collaborators suggest the community's additional function as a kind of artists' colony.

Tea Man and Potter

Kōetsu was actively involved in the world of tea all his life. It was not until his move to Takagamine in 1615, however, that he polished his skills in the production of ceramic teawares. His letters bear witness to his participation in and hosting of tea gatherings, and in making his own teabowls in collaboration with the Raku family of potters. Kōetsu's most representative ceramic works are teabowls, but his interests also extended to tea-related arts, such as incense, for which he made incense containers.

While Kōetsu appreciated traditional Chinese and Japanese teawares, still popular in his day, he found the inspiration for his own ceramic works in the new styles of Japanese wares being produced. His hand-carved teabowls reflect a free aesthetic sense, and he devised original forms and glazes renowned for their texture and appearance. He used techniques common to Raku ware (ceramics fired at a low temperature) such as hand-pinching, shaving, and carving with a spatula. Kōetsu made use of the Raku family's clay, glaze, and kiln to produce his own wares, although it appears that he also fired his works at another kiln in Tamba or Zeze on the outskirts of Kyoto.

Kōetsu teawares have been cherished for generations. Many of his teabowls were given individual names (such as "Amagumo," which means rain clouds) that today appear in inscriptions written by tea masters, connoisseurs, or the owners on the lids of custom-made wooden storage boxes.

Hon'ami Kōetsu could be described as an "art director" par excellence. A multi-talented, irrepressible genius, he collaborated with other outstanding artists of his day to breathe new life into traditional formats, both inspiring his contemporaries and exerting profound influence on generations to come. He is the only artist to have works in more than one medium designated by the Japanese government as National Treasures--a lacquer writing box and ceramic teabowl. Japan has the world's most comprehensive laws for protecting, preserving, and classifying its cultural heritage, and National Treasure is the highest category, followed by Important Cultural Property and Important Art Object. While the two National Treasures may not leave Japan, twelve Kōetsu works designated as Important Cultural Properties and two in the category of Important Art Object have been shown at this Museum.

The Arts of Hon'ami Kōetsu, Japanese Renaissance Master, 2000

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