The Isé Monogatari was a collection of poems composed in the Fujiwara period (ca. 951) by Ariwara-no-Narihara. Primarily love poems, it expressed a purely Japanese feeling in a country all too frequently dominated by a Chinese aesthetic and served as a continuing source of inspiration for the generations of Japanese artists who illustrated it.One such artist was Nonomura Sotatsu who, in the first quarter of the 17th century, produced an album of some one hundred and twenty-five leaves devoted to the Tales of Isé. Four of these leaves, then the property of Baron Ino Dan, were shown in the United States in 1936 at the impressive and highly selective Art Treasures from Japan exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. One of these leaves has now been acquired by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and rates as one of the treasures of the Oriental collection.Nonomura Sotatsu is one of the least documented of Japan's great artists. He was born about 1576 and died, in all probability, in 1643. He changed his name from Nonomura to Tawaraya for reasons that are not entirely clear and is known as the outstanding master of the decorative style that flourished in Japan in the early Edo period (1616-1867). He was active in Kyoto and Sakai from 1615 to 1635 and created, with Koetsu, the other great decorative master of the first half of the century, some of the most brilliant and beautiful of all Japanese art. Trained in the Kano School which was strongly influenced by Chinese art, he left the so-called Tosa tradition to reinstate a purely Japanese style; his leaf illustrating chapter 87 of the Isé Monogatari (fig. 1) is typical of this approach.The scene is of three nobles and an attendant dressed in the court costume of the Fujiwara period looking at a waterfall. The setting is known: it is the Nunobiki waterfall near Osaka in Hyogo prefecture and was a popular sight known to the audience for whom Sotatsu painted. The boldness of the composition, with its startling asymmetry which balances the weighty nobles against the shimmering shaft of white water, is as typical of Sotatsu's invention as are the brilliant colors he employed. The lavish use of gold, which dominates the background, is one of the signatures of the artist.The calligraphy in the upper half of the composition is almost certainly by another hand, perhaps that of Koetsu who is known to have added such inscriptions to other works of his close friends. It has a life and beauty all its own, yet curiously does not in any way detract from the rest of the image. The total effect is one of fluidity and grace, of decorativeness without vapidity. It is a work typical of a master of the Japanese arts of simplicity and understatement.Referenced Work of Art
- Tawaraya Sotatsu
An Album Leaf illustrating “The Isé Monogatari”
Color on paper, 9 7/8 inches x 8 1/8 inches
The John R. Van Derlip Fund, 66.40.