You might have already heard of the Japanese art term “Rinpa”.
The Japanese characters 琳派 are often written in English alternatively as Rimpa.
Whichever way you want to say it, Rinpa is a Japanese art movement that covers much of the Edo Period. It’s not an Art movement in the traditional sense though.

A Favourite – Morning Glories by Suzuki Kiitsu. Part of a pair of 6panel folding screens.

The term Rin-pa 琳派 reads as “The Rin Group” but it’s actually a contraction of what was once known as the Sōtatsu Kōrin Group (Tawaraya Sōtatsu and Ogata Kōrin are two very famous painters) The rin refers to the surname of painter Ogata Kōrin (1658-1716).

Over time, definitions of who is included in the Rinpa group have been fluid and it wasn’t even until the 20th century that the shortened name Rinpa stuck. It’s not an art movement based on a Master and his Apprentices system but more of a group of artists from different eras who identified with the Rinpa style and held Ogata Kōrin/Tawaraya Sōtatsu/Sakai Hōitsu in high esteem as kind of honorary teachers. See a more eloquent and detailed explanation here… Interesting huh?

What I love about Rinpa works are the sense of energy and movement they convey with minimal subject matter. Often there is a sweeping form that leads your eye across the composition or a repetition of motifs that creates a nice rhythm. It’s unlike a “western” (I don’t really like that word…”non-Japanese”?) take on perspective that leads your eye inwards or backwards, these compositions move your eye around and across. There’s no concern to depict the background – it is suggested by its absence.

My personal favourites amongst Rinpa artists are

Sakai Hōitsu 酒井抱一
and his student/assistant
Suzuki Kiitsu 鈴木其一

Here’s a pair of folding screens by Sakai Hōitsu, 「夏秋草図屏風」“Summer and Autumn Flowering Plants”. These are designated “Important Cultural Property” by the Japanese government. They were painted with Japanese pigments and you can see the background is silver leaf – which darkens over time.
The right hand side alludes to summer – a river, blooming lilies, twining bindweed and long green grasses. The left side is an autumn image of windswept grass, kuzu vine, and other symbolic autumn flowers.

Pair of Folding Screens by Sakai Houitsu “Summer and Autumn Flowering Plants” Edo Period
detail of summer flowers screen – Japanese Bindweed
From the Autumn screen – Kuzu vines, Sususki grasses and other lovely bits and pieces

As an aside, did you know that time in these kinds of paintings is often depicted from right to left? Summer on the right turning to autumn on the left. In other famous works, the birds or motifs are often travelling from right to left too.

Here’s a painting by Suzuki Kiitsu – alluding to the cold start to Spring with plum blossoms and camellias. – Honolulu Museum of Art

When I was living in Kyoto, I would look at Rinpa artworks like these of plants and flowers and think, hmm that’s pretty but I didn’t necessarily have any connection to the imagery within.

Now I’m in Nakajo, out in the countryside west of Nagano central, I’m seeing these very plants and flowers everywhere! You can kind of glaze over with the Japanese tendency to depict things seasonally – it’s so ubiquitous. Morning glories on summer yukata. Susuki grasses to depict cool autumn breezes. Twining Kuzu vines to show the greenery of late summer. Dragonflies, cherry blossoms, bells, fans, you could go on and on. I guess it is what people outside of Japan might think of as most “Japanese-looking”.

But then you get out somewhere like here in Nakajo, and you realise these patterns and motifs are not cheesy imagery, they are truly what is growing at your feet, on the paths and next to houses.

Heron wading through the river…

SO herein lies one dilemma. (there’s plenty more, I can assure you but let’s start with just this one!)

Usually, I am working in Australia, depicting my local surroundings – birds and plants and colours – in a Japanese dyeing technique. There is *I hope* some balance between Australian-ness and Japanese-ness.

Now I’m here, I want to depict all the wonderful things I’m seeing around me. But, as it turns out, all of the things I’m seeing are kind of cliche things like morning glories on posts and twining greenery and drooping heads of grass. If I make these works in Katazome, on washi like I intend to, will anyone even blink? They might just come out looking like Japanese artworks. Which is nice. But I’m not really into just nice.

How to see it all through my own Australian eyes instead?
Not sure yet.

There was a revival of interest in Rinpa artworks in the last few years as various exhibitions and events celebrated the 400 year anniversary of the movement. (I was even involved in one in 2015) Among those initiatives were exhibitions to re-define Rinpa, to see the modern world through Rinpa eyes or to bring Rinpa into the 21st century.

Rinpa 400year anniversary exhibtion I was involved in at the Museum of Kyoto in early 2015

How about not just pulling Rinpa sentiments into the 21st century but also stepping sideways to incorporate an international perspective. After all, Rinpa is a movement open to any artists who hold those early artists in high esteem.