Kamisaka Sekka. Dawn of Modern Japanese Design

Sekka-left-part-p146In 2012, the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney held an exhibition dedicated to the work of Kamisaka Sekka (1866-1942), largely based on the extensive collection from the Hosomi Museum in Kyoto. The exhibition was accompanied by a beautifully produced book. Not too big, with relief printing in the front cover and many nicely designed pages printed on a silver color background and with over 320 images, richly illustrated too.

The artist, designer and teacher Kamisaka Sekka was an instrumental figure in Japan’s art world of the late 19th/early 20th century, in particular within the context of Rinpa art and Kyoto art circles. Khahn Trinh, main author of the publication, credits Sekka with having revitalized the creative tradition of Rinpa art in the modern period. Rinpa (literally “Rin school”, named after the artist Ogata Kōrin) is a style within Japanese art which is often described as a decorative style depicting natural motives and references to themes from Japanese literature and poetry.
Sekka achieved his greatest fame for his activities as designer and this publication includes many examples of his designs for works of lacquer, ceramics and textiles alongside a selection of beautiful paintings from his hand. To Japanese print lovers Sekka is perhaps best known for his pattern book the World of Things (Momoyogusa, 1909-10), which according to Trinh “conveys a ‘modern’ international sensibility in its portrayal of traditional Japanese motifs and still fascinates audiences today” (p. 82).

The title of the publication, Kamisaka Sekka. Dawn of Modern Japanese Design is perhaps too narrow and not fully reflects the level of information presented in the book. This book deals with much more than Kamisaka Sekka alone, which the title implies. It must be said though that the back cover text does reveal that the scope of the publication is wider than just Sekka.
Korin-red+white-plum-blossoRichard Wilson gives a proper overview of the Rinpa style since around 1600 up to the days of Kamisaka Sekka, accompanied by many catalogue entries illustrating works of Rinpa artists as Honami Kōetsu, Tawaraya Sotatsu, Ogata Kōrin and his brother Ogata Kenzan as well as representatives of the so-called Edo Rinpa school such as Sakai Hōitsu and Suzuki Kiitsu. This text is followed by a discussion of Kamisaka Sekka by Khahn Thrinh, who presents Sekka’s biography and sketches his multifaceted career. We see an active figure starting of as a Shijō school painter at the age of fifteen, who becomes a teacher at the Kyoto Municipal School of Art, an exhibition judge and journal editor, who travels to Europe as many Japanese artists in those days and also co-founds various artist societies.

The third section of the book concentrates on contemporary Rinpa. John Szostak elaborates on the the phenomenon of Neo-Rinpa through the art of Ai Yamaguchi and Tarō Yamamoto. He discusses amongst others the canonical painting Red and White Plum Blossoms by Ogata Kōrin in relation to Yamamoto’s interpretations Soft river, soft pattern and it is interesting to see how the visual language of 18th centure Rinpa art is re-interpreted with contemporary elements such as a can of Coca Cola. Khanh Trinh concludes this section with essays on the presence of Rinpa related designs in fashion and Rinpa in relation to the lacquer artist Kitamura Tatsuo Unryūan.

Taro Yamamoto, Soft drink, soft pattern, 2007.

Taro Yamamoto, Soft drink, soft pattern, 2007.

In short, Kamisaka Sekka provides a very nice introduction to the life and work of Sekka and to Rinpa art too. Recommended.

Khanh Trinh (ed.), Kamisaka Sekka. Dawn of Modern Design. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2012. 192 pages, over 320 color illustrations. ISBN 9781741740776.