Sekka (雪佳神坂) – Ten Years Since Kyoto・L.A.・Bhm


Time flies like an arrow . . .

Late August 2003  —  Our day started in Birmingham, Alabama.  A flight to Detroit. Then Northwest (back when there was a Northwest) Flight 69 to Kansai International Airport, out in Osaka Bay. Then the Haruka Line:  fifty-five minutes by train from the airport, through Osaka and inland to Kyoto.  That ended our day’s trip.  It was her fourth or fifth visit to Japan, my eighth or ninth (though my first to trips were to live in Japan, years before). We were there on an antiquities buying trip for our business.  We were also there to be on hand at the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art‘s August 29 opening of the Kamisaka Sekka exhibition.  A retrospective of the artist’s work that would almost mirror the journey we had just made.  In other words, it would begin in Kyoto and wind up in Birmingham.  I was to make a speech at the opening, just some remarks, actually.  On behalf of the Birmingham Museum of Art‘s Asian Art Society, which my then-wife and I served as co-presidents.  I would make my remarks in Japanese.

Sekka Exhibition Poster. Train near Kyoto. 2003.

Sekka Exhibition Poster. Train near Kyoto. 2003.

.               .               .

After several months in Kyoto the Sekka Exhibition traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and, then it came to Birmingham, where its Asian Art Curator had originated the idea for a comprehensive Sekka Retrospective.

Ticket. Birmingham Museum of Art Sekka Exhibition. 2004.

Ticket. Birmingham Museum of Art Sekka Exhibition. 2004.


Kamisaka Sekka (1866-1942).  Sekka was a native of Kyoto.  His life spanned four Japanese Eras:  the last couple years of the Edo Period (1603-1867), the Meiji Period (1868-1911), the Taisho Period (1912-1925), and the couple decades of the Showa Period (1926-1989).  The Edo Period was marked by the multi-generational reign of the Tokugawa Shoguns, with a succession of Emperors “ruling” as virtual captives of the Tokugawa Generalissimos.  Japan was almost entirely closed off, isolated from the rest of the exploring and developing world during this 250-plus year period.  But art and artists and artisans thrived.  When the Emperor was “restored” to the throne in 1868 and a new era of Constitutional Monarchy began in Japan, the country exploded with foreign ideas and influences — from political, to technological and industrial, to military, to fashion and design, to social, to artistic.  This was the era, the Meiji Period, Kamisaka Sekka came of age in.  However, he was an artist steeped in 1,000 years of quite Japanese expressive traditions; traditions of form, style, technique, iconography.  Sekka’s was the Kyoto-based Rimpa School (tradition, or style), which flourished during the latter two-thirds of the preceding Edo Period.  Many Rimpa School works define to both Japanese and foreigners alike a great part of the “look” Japanese art.  The Rimpa School often borrowed from both ancient Japanese (Heian Era — 794-1185)  and Chinese styles, then modernized and updated (to the 17th through 19th Centuries) the classic techniques and subjects.  Much of what is considered “classic” Rimpa style is bold, sweeping, dramatic and often near-abstract, though the subject of the painting (whether on screens, sliding doors, fans, or boxes) is never in doubt.

Here’s Korin’s “Irises,” a classic Rimpa work:

Irises. Korin Ogata (1658-1716).

.               .               .

Working within the general Rimpa style, Sekka took that Rimpa “look” and made it his own, updated it again, often gave it a touch or whimsy, irony or humor that was rarely employed by earlier Rimpa Masters (but, in fact, harkened back to an artistic mindset not uncommon back in the 12th and 13th Centuries — see, for example, the “Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga”).  Whether in painting, woodblock carving, screens, textiles, ceramics, furniture or other media, Sekka took a style that was of  17th and 18th Century Japan and made it accessible to and of the 20th Century.  And that’s what made Sekka so important as a master, perhaps the Master, or at least, as the exhibition called him, “Pioneer,” of modern design in and for Japan.

Sekka’s Puppies and Snail (1920):

Puppies and Snail. 1920. Kamisaka Sekka.

A few more Sekka images .   .   .










.               .               .

Kyoto Opening, August 29, 2003 —  The exhibition’s first stop was the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art (京都国立近代美術館). Along with the Birmingham Museum of Art’s Curator, I and my then-wife represented the BMA and City of Birmingham at the opening.  According to my contemporaneous notes, the opening crowd numbered 534 Sekka enthusiasts.  According to this article in, the exhibition “opened to record crowds” that night in Kyoto.  I had been asked to offer a few remarks to the crowd during the short opening ceremony, which I did in Japanese, although I’m ashamed to say that it was one of my less-stellar performances.  Still, the crowd was polite and they came for the art, not to test my Japanese speech-making skills.  What was sort of funny was that about nine months later, when the exhibition opened at the Birmingham Museum of Art, my wife and I were just two people in the crowd; our “VIP” status long gone.  Immediately below is a photo featuring several of the six people (myself included) whom the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art treated to an exceptional dinner follow the August 2003 opening.

Sekka_PostSekkaOpeningParty.29Aug2003 - Copy

Post- Exhibition Opening Party, Kyoto. August 29, 2003. faces purposefully cropped-out.

.                  .                  .

Kamisaka Sekka Exhibition Poster. Yanagi Antiques, Kyoto. 2003.

Kamisaka Sekka Exhibition Poster. Yanagi Antiques, Kyoto. 2003.

  1. My experience with and knowledge of Japanese art is impossibly limited, so of course I didn’t recognize Sekka’s name. What surprised me is how much I enjoyed his images and how easily I responded to them. There’s not a single one you’ve shown here I don’t like.

    Now, I know. If I see “Sekka” and any museum within striking distance combined in a sentence, I’ll go have a look.

      • letsjapan
      • February 9th, 2013

      Thanks much and, you know, I’m not surprised in the least (regarding Sekka’s works pleasing you). Indeed, that’s why I used the word “accessible” regarding his style and mindset, a bridge from the ancient to the contemporary (that’s why he was a “modern” pioneer).

      Those morning glories all entwined with the bamboo, that could be on a funky handbag or wall paper design here and now. That sort of “D’oh!” look on the brown puppy’s face, that’s as (more?) funny and ironic-looking now as it was in 1920. And so on . . .

      So glad you enjoyed it.


    • Lois
    • April 18th, 2013

    Interesting that the brown pup, in Puppies and Snail, has that whimsical face I associate now with ‘kawaii.’

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