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Art Through Time: A Global View

Writing Art: Poems with Floral Decoration

» Kojima Soshin (Japanese, 1580–ca. 1656)

Poems with Floral Decoration

Poems with Floral Decoration
Artist / Origin: Kojima Soshin (Japanese, 1580–ca. 1656)
Region: East Asia
Date: Edo period, 1652
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Handscroll; ink and color on gold-decorated paper
Medium: Calligraphy, Illumination, and Illustrated Books
Dimensions: H: 12 ½ in. (31.7 cm.), W: 25 ft. (765.6 cm.)
Location: Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Credit: Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

In the early seventeenth century, Japan closed its doors to the outside world, initiating a period of isolationism that would last over two hundred and fifty years.

During the Tokugawa or Edo period, as it is known, many artists showed a renewed interest in traditional art forms and styles. One of the most influential artists of this period was Hon’ami Koetsu in Kyoto, who helped to develop a style of scroll calligraphy and decoration known as Rinpa. The inspiration for Rinpa was found in the aristocratic arts of the Heian period (794–1185), when reduced contact with China led to specifically Japanese developments in art and culture. Both the influence of Heian calligraphy and nature motifs can be found in Koetsu’s work.

The scroll seen here, created by Hon’ami Koetsu’s student Kojima Soshin, is an excellent example of Rinpa style. The band of gold across the top of the scroll evokes a kind of atmospheric horizon, while the more complex, lower gold band serves almost as a landscape, providing a ground to set off several clusters of small, decorative flowers. Kojima has carefully woven a series of poems through the floral areas, creating a sophisticated rhythm in the overall design of the composition. Elongated brushstrokes emphasize the vertical lines of the poems in counterpoint to the horizontal scroll and gold fields. The shifting between thick and thin lines in Kojima’s calligraphy is a technique he would have learned from his master Koetsu.


Expert Perspective:
Yoshiaki Shimizu, Professor of Art and Archeology, Princeton University

“The Japanese attitude toward calligraphy is very interesting. There are two experiences of the Japanese as a nation that consumes culture. One is the attitude toward Chinese calligraphy. It is the canon—in other words, they know, even though they may not speak Chinese, but they know that these great calligraphic giants in China of the eighth and ninth centuries are the models. They will simply accept that. But at the same time, while they are accepting and they want to emulate their style—and there’s a whole lot of school of calligraphic learning that starts with this canonical example—they also accept the category called ‘Japanese mode.’ Japanese mode is largely squiggly, trembling style; it’s an aesthetic of disarray. Sometime it’s all interconnected writing. You don’t know where the one character ends, unless you yourself were the calligrapher.

These writings are reserved especially for writing memo and writing clandestine letters, especially to your loved ones, and usually it’s identified with women’s writing habit. So they are called ‘women’s hand.’ And all the Japanese artistic canon could be very sexist because as a man you’re not supposed to practice these things—these are reserved for women. And, in fact, by and large, these subtle, very refined calligraphy, using a very thin tip of brush, which consists of the mouse whisker, by the way, and you write very, very subtly. And every three inches or so, you have to dip your tip in the ink. And that is a very feminine style. On the other hand, they say that the model of these women’s style was written by men. If you read the tenth-, eleventh-century novel, there’s lots of reference to women writing and exchanging memoirs. And sometime a more enlightened man will look at this and say, ‘This is an extraordinarily beautiful writing.’ But historical samples, canonical examples that the students of calligraphy learn today, the examples all bear male names.”

Additional Resources

Addiss, Stephen. 77 Dances: Japanese Calligraphy by Poets, Monks, and Scholars, 1568–1868. Boston: Weatherhill, 2006.

Department of Asian Art. “Rinpa Painting Style.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. (October 2003).

Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.

Poems with Floral Decoration, F1976.8.” In Collections. Freer and Sackler Galleries Web site.

Stanley-Baker, Joan. Japanese Art, rev. and expanded ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

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