500 years ago, a Japanese master revolutionizes the past

This ancient Japanese handscroll is decorated with cranes - symbols of longevity and good fortune. These elegantly pictured, long-necked birds, painted in silver and gold, lift and soar, dip and settle, form into groups or separate, as if they are choreographed. Or even as if they are the changing moods and patterns of music. Nature and art are here brought into a remarkable parallelism.

A scroll was designed to be seen in short episodes, the viewer not only looking at it but handling it, moving through states of past, present, and future. (A short episode is reproduced here; the entire scroll is 44 feet long.)

Over the cranes are written ancient classical Japanese poems, presented in a calligraphy that - even to those of us who can't translate it - is swift, brilliant, expressive, and subtly aware of the flight of the cranes behind it. This calligraphy is the work of the Japanese master Hon'Ami Koetsu (1558-1637).

Koetsu was not only a highly individual artist in his own right, he was also a collaborator of great sensitivity. This handscroll has a square seal at the end, which is Koetsu's. But, writes museum curator Felice Fischer, "the attribution of the cranes to [Tawaraya] Sotatsu's hand is not in dispute."

Dr. Fischer has curated the first-ever exhibition outside Japan of Koetsu's many-sided artistic accomplishments. Works are on loan from around the world (the handscroll is from the Kyoto National Museum). "The Art of Hon'ami Koetsu, Japanese Renaissance Master" is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Oct. 29. Unusually, some of the works were replaced by others in September, to preserve these extremely fragile art works. Exhibition as episodic handscroll, perhaps.

Fischer calls Koetsu an outstanding figure during a renaissance in Japanese art. Artists looked back to earlier periods of Japanese and Chinese art and calligraphy. Yet, she writes, Koetsu transformed his models "and created a style unmistakably his own."

She points out that the poetry Koetsu and his contemporaries admired was "conservative." (See selected poems at left.) Nevertheless, Koetsu "revolutionized" traditional techniques and mediums. "The phenomenon might be likened to the musical equivalent of using a synthesizer to play Bach or Vivaldi," she observes.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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