Posts Tagged ‘ Kyoto Art ’

Kyoto’s Shinmonzendori・新門前道り (Art & Antiques Street)

I’d been down quiet, narrow Shinmonzen-dori (“dori” ・道り means “street”) many times many years ago.  I had to have been.  As a college exchange student in Hirakata, just a half-hour or so down the Keihan rail line from Kyoto, I spent more than a few Saturday’s wandering Kyoto’s narrower streets. But, frankly, I don’t have a specific recollection of Shinmonzen-dori (or its parallel street, Furumonzen- dori), not until 2001 and 2002…

My friend’s, Hayashi-san’s shop, on Shinmonzen-dori. 2007

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Shinmonzen-dori’s situated in a quiet part of Kyoto’s famed geisha and tea house district, Gion, provides the most high-end concentration of medium- and high-end art and antiquities in Japan’s ancient capital. Its shops and galleries offer centuries-old porcelain ware, scrolls, cabinetry and chests (tansu), and byoubu (screens).  Some shops specialize in only one area of art or antiquities, and others offer brick-a-brak from netsuke to oni-gawara to lamps to 19th and 20th Century snuff bottles (See image below.  Note the JFK snuff bottle that’s sat in the same shop window for years, at least since 2002.  It will be the perfect “find” for someone, someday).

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Snuff Bottles. Shinmonzen-dori shop window. 2003.

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   The shop owners, and their various personalities, are something to behold, too.  My friend Hayashi-san, a 4th Generation Kyoto art and antiquities dealer is soft-spoken and self-effacing.  He has an incredibly dry wit.  I know of at least one of his pieces, a small Imari plate dating back to the late 16oo’s, on display at the Birmingham Museum of Art.*  There’s Komai-san, the pearl dealer (<-links to photo of shop front)  who has a kind, impish way about him.  Be careful:  he rarely lets on that he speaks English until he’s already heard what you’re looking for and what your budget is!  But he’s very helpful and honest.  Kaji-san, a purveyor of (mostly) Meiji Era porcelain plates and bowls, and byobu, is effervescent and outgoing.  Yagi’s Antiques is incredibly cluttered and somewhat dusty.  Not many “high end” finds in here but one feels like one’s stumbled into a Japanese attic, circa 1925.  There’s one woman I and my former spouse dubbed “The Dragon Lady.”  I won’t name her.  I will say, though, that shop/gallery does, indeed, offer many, many museum quality pieces for the eye.  Most all of which she considers, “Charming.”  Her very favorite word in English and pretty much the only one she seems to know.  Well, that and “very.”  As in when you look at this bowl set, or that bronze incense burner, or the other small sea-chest, she’ll often sidle up to you and say, “Charrrruummming.”  Bless her heart.

  I mentioned the former spouse.  We had a business for a few years.  Antiquities from Japan and, in the very last stage of our partnership (in all senses of the word) some contemporary Korean art.  We bought some retail, but learned not to buy a lot and mostly made our purchases for U.S. resale at either flea markets like at To-ji Temple, or at auctions (that “not just anyone” could get into).  It was mostly very fun while it lasted.

  Shinmonzen- and Furumonzen-dori (which run east-west) lie between Higashioji-dori and Hanamikoji-dori.  And any shopkeeper in Gion (the heart of which is bisected by San-jo Street) can direct the first-time visitor how to navigate the few blocks north, through the picturesque and recently-restored Shinmachi area, to Shinmonzen-dori (we’re talking a 5 minute walk, tops).

The Shirakawa River (stream) passing under Shirakawa-dori. 2004.

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Shinmonzen-dori Shop Window. Imari Triple “nesting bowls” featuring Dutch traders. Mid-Edo Period.

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Still Life. Shinmonzen-dori. 2002.

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Heron wading in the Shirakawa. Shinmonzen-dori. 2002

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Still Life 2. Shinmonzen-dori. 2002.

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Mirror-Mirror. Along Shinmonzen-dori. 2003.

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 *Two plates I purchased are on display there, too.  Though, unique, they don’t have the age or pedigree of Hayashi-san’s Shoki-Imari plate.  I brokered (gratis, thankyouverymuch) the purchase of a scroll that’s part of the collection, too.

Josetsu’s “Catching a Catfish with a Gourd”

An Iconic Painting. . .

It’s called Catching a Catfish with a Gourd (in Japanese it’s called the Hyonenzu / 瓢鮎図). It was painted c. 1413 (during the Muromachi Period, 1336-1573 – depending on who’s counting) by Zen Priest Josetsu (如拙) of Kyoto’s Taizo-in Temple.  Its current home is the Kyoto National Museum of Art although it’s still considered temple property.

I was introduced to Catching a Catfish with a Gourd in September 1984, in a Japanese Art History class at Kansai Gaidai in Hirakata, Japan.  I’m just one of 100s and 100s of thousands (probably millions) who over the past 600 years have fallen for this painting, and its sublime and profound lessons.  Catching a Catfish with a Gourd offers what we today call a “teaching moment.”

It’s not only a beautiful painting, it’s humorous, mischievous, inspirational and offers-up a wince-making pun and perhaps even mildly scolds us when we tell ourselves something just can’t be done.  It’s sort of a pictorial koan.  Here’s a link to just the painting so you can study it and the question of how can one catch a catfish with a gourd.

. . . from an Emperor’s Riddle

The story behind Catching a Catfish with a Gourd begins with Emperor Ashikaga Yoshimochi’s enjoyment of koans and patronage of Kyoto’s monastic arts.  It was the Emperor who commissioned Josetsu to paint the somewhat nonsensical riddle, “How does one catch a catfish with a gourd?”  The result of that commission is Josetsu’s iconic work of art and spiritual punnery.

What’s more, Emperor Yoshimochi directed Josetsu’s fellow priests to weigh-in on the question, to bend their brains and imaginations to answer the question.  And the result of that directive was  31 poems from 31 Zen Buddhist priests from Kyoto’s most acclaimed Zen temples, each poem taking a stab at answering the riddle.  There’s no perfect answer.  I have my favorite one, though.  A hintperspective can make the difference in virtually everything.  Originally the painting, when presented to the Emperor, was mounted onto a small, Chinese-style standing screen, with the poems affixed to the screen’s reverse side.  Soon thereafter the painting and complementary poems were remounted onto a single hanging scroll.  

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The Hyonenzu in scroll form  — 43 7/8 x 29 7/8 in (111.5 x 75.8 cm) —  with the 31 “answer poems” mounted above.  Note the red seal of each priest at the bottom of his poem:

Detail in black and white:

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Post Script: another hint to my favorite answer to the riddle is found in a Grateful Dead song, “Scarlet Begonias” . . .

“Once in a while you can get shown the light

In the strangest of places, if you look at it right.”

True, that.