Geneva Anderson digs into art

“Nutcracker:” the holiday classic runs through December 27, 2011, at San Francisco Ballet—ARThound talks with two participating Sonoma County musicians

Val Caniparoli is the toymaker, Drosselmeyer, in Helgi Tomasson's “Nutcracker,” at San Francisco Ballet December 9- 27, 2011. © Erik Tomasson

Nutcracker season is here and San Francisco’s Ballet’s production, which opened last Friday, is one of the best in the country.  Its sumptuous blend of Tchaikovsky’s music, exquisite dance, and Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s ingenious bow to San Francisco─setting the ballet in San Francisco on Christmas Eve during the 1915 Pan Pacific International Exhibition─make it a unique treat.  And there’s nothing like the festive experience of dressing up and celebrating the season at the stunning grand War Memorial Opera House.  For the musicians in the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, the experience is also one of endurance.  This year, the orchestra, under the direction of SF Ballet Music Director Martin West, will perform the beloved production 30 times throughout December, often twice daily, and it’s estimated that close to 100,000 people will attend.  For listeners in the audience, it’s impossible to imagine that Tchaikovsky’s score ever palls.  Parts of it are so familiar─the Sugar Plum Pas de Deux or the Danse des Mirlitons or the March of the Toy Soliders─that they are steeped in our subconscious and always enchanting.  Aside from its difficulty─it’s Tchaikovsky─one of the challenges Nutcracker presents for musicians is simply keeping it fresh performance after performance. The orchestra finished up with Carmen at San Francisco Opera and began rehearsing Nutcracker the first week of December and had a rehearsal with the actual dancers just prior to last Friday’s opening performance.  I spoke with two Sonoma County musicians in the orchestra who have each played countless Nutcrackers─bassoonist Rufus Olivier, of Sebastopol, and cellist Ruth Lane, of Petaluma and our conversations are below.   If you’re attending the ballet, especially with children, a wonderful opportunity exists before each performance to walk right up to the pit and meet and greet and observe the musicians in the orchestra who play such an integral part in the magic of the ballet.   

San Francisco Ballet Orchestra Principal Bassoonist Rufus Olivier, of Sebastopol. Olivier has played the “Nutcracker” for over thirty years at the San Francisco Ballet and will perform it thirty times this season. Olivier has recorded many movie, video, CD and TV soundtracks including Disney’s “Never Cry Wolf” and he won a Grammy for the soundtrack “Elmo in Grouchland.” Photo: Geneva Anderson

Rufus Olivier, Principal bassoonist, SF Ballet and Opera Orchestras, is a Sebastopol resident and is one of two bassoonists with the ballet orchestra.  Even before arriving in the Bay Area, Olivier had quite a reputation.  In 1975, Zubin Mehta, the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, gave the 18 year old Olivier a chance to play a concerto with the orchestra and he did such a good job that, afterwards, Mehta immediately offered him a co-principal position.  Olivier went on to play with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under Neville Marriner, and the Goldofsky Opera Tours.  He moved to the Bay Area in 1977 and by 1980, he was the youngest principal to ever play in the SF Opera Orchestra and started playing Nutcracker in San Francisco some 30 years ago with Christensen’s production which predates both Martin West and Helgi Tomasson.  Olivier studied under David Breidenthal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and currently teaches at Stanford one day each week.  Olivier has been guest soloist with numerous orchestras all over the world.   He has recorded many movie, video, CD and TV soundtracks including Disney’s Never Cry Wolf and San Francisco Opera’s Grammy-nominated CD Orphée et Eurydice, and he won a Grammy for the soundtrack Elmo in Grouchland.  Olivier’s son, Rufus David Olivier, is also an accomplished bassoonist.

With over 30 seasons of Nutcrackers under your belt, how do you keep it fresh?  

Rufus Olivier: First of all, it’s Tchaikovsky and very, very good music.  Second, Tchaikovsky keeps you on your toes─it’s very hard─ and that’s takes care of keeping it fresh.  That’s pretty much it.

What is the most challenging part for you as a bassoonist?

Rufus Olivier:   There’s two—in the very beginning, in the first minute or two, there’s the woodwind interlude where there are these wild triplets, very high, and technically hard.  And then there’s the Arabian Dance (Act II) which is musically hard and, by that, I mean it’s hard to put across the expression that I would like to convey, which is actually harder than being technically proficient.  You can work through technical issues but it’s very hard to get to the point musically where I can make someone feel something that I want to convey and I want the dancers to feel something so that they dance better.  If I play it more expressively, maybe sweetly, then anything can happen with the dancers and with the audience and they won’t know why but they will feel it.  At a certain point in one’s career, the competition is with oneself.  You’re not competing with anyone except yourself and you are challenging yourself all the time.  All of my colleagues are trying, all the time, to sound as good as they can sound.

With Helgi Tomasson’s production, are there any cuts to the original score? 

Rufus Olivier: Yes. The original score would come in at over three hours and Helgi’s production comes in at about 2 hours, but all the important and well-known parts are there and, actually, he’s added some things that weren’t in the previous production.

How aware are you of what the dancers are doing? 

Rufus Olivier: I can’t see the dancers at all and completely reply on Martin who is watching the stage and I am watching him.  Unlike the opera, I can’t hear anything.

What is the most challenging thing about playing the bassoon in an orchestra? 

Rufus Olivier: Coming in when you’re supposed to (laughing).  There are so many things you have to do and you are operating at a very high level of consciousness.  By the time you reach the level of the opera, symphony or ballet, it’s almost automatic but your ears are everywhere.  You are hyperaware even though your heart rate may be at rest.  Everything can be hard but trying to play in tune with other instruments can be challenging and so can solos and dealing with conductors who can be crazy at times. And, when you’re not playing, whether it’s 3 bars or 20 bars, you can’t leave, you’ve got to sit there and be engaged and stay awake and count so you know when to come in. 

What are the great bassoon solos in orchestral music?

Rufus Olivier:  Two of the most famous symphonic solos for the bassoon include the theme for grandfather in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and the opening solo in Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring.

What performances are you looking forward to musically in the coming season? 

Rufus Olivier: We are playing RakU, which is one of the pieces written by our bass player Shinji Enshima. (RakU is part of the SF Ballet’s Program 6, and plays March 23-April 3, 2012. Click here to read more.)  The piece just premiered last year and one day it may well be one of the premiere bassoon solos. 

San Francisco Ballet Orchestra Cellist Ruth Lane, of Petaluma, in the pit before Thursday’s performance of “Nutcracker,” which runs through December 27, 2011. Lane’s cello, which is painted with images of the Sistine Chapel, was custom made for her by her husband, Anthony Lane of Lane Violins in Petaluma. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Ruth Lane, cellist, is a Petaluma resident and has been playing with the San Francisco Opera and Ballet Orchestras since 1990.  This is her 6th year of playing Nutcracker for an entire season’s run and she is one of six cellists in the ballet orchestra.  Prior to that, she played several performances annually as a substitute musician.  Lane has performed Nutcracker under Music Directors Dennis de Coteau and Martin West and under various guest conductors.  Lane came from a family that was passionate about classical music and started studying cello at age 10 and received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from USC.  In addition to the Bay Area, Lane has been heard in recital in the Los Angeles, and London.  She is a member of the Bay Area’s Temescal String Quartet and she performed this September in Petaluma in “The V Concert” (click here to read ARThound’s coverage.)  Strad magazine calls her “a cellist of scrupulous intentions and dexterous manual coordination . . . unimpeachable intonation and admirable poise.” (as quoted on the Temescal String Quartet page.)

What are the most important and challenging parts of Nutcracker for cello? 

Ruth Lane:  We don’t have any solos and I am one of six cellos and we are all playing the same music.  Woodwinds have the solos and the strings, which are a quieter instrument, tend to be like a chorus—it’s all the instruments together that create this blanker of sound that you recognize as the orchestra.  The cellos play throughout but, in Act 1, we play what used to be a bear dance but is now a solider dance.  We also play a lot in the battle scene and also in the Russian Sailor’s Dance.

All Tchaikovsky is challenging because he writes for the breadth of the cello and its very passionate music, so it really takes your all to play it well.  You’ve really got to draw on that emotional level of interpretation beyond the technical.  Performing a piece like Nutcracker so many times and trying to really keep it vital is very demanding emotionally.

With so many Nutcrackers under your belt and so many coming up, how do you keep it fresh night after night?  

Ruth Lane: What I always draw on is the audience.  Every night, at least 30 children with their parents will come up to the orchestra pit before the performance and they are pointing and waving and they are so excited.  It’s so different from the opera performances where some of the front row is falling asleep.  This just doesn’t happen in the Nutcracker.  We’re always joking about how the age goes down by about 20 to 30 years across the board, from the performers to the audience, when you go form opera to ballet and the Nutcracker is just full of children. It’s that and the music itself which requires a lot from you.

How aware are you of what the dancers are doing? 

Ruth Lane: From where I sit, I can usually see the dancers from the chest up, so I see them moving up and down.  I follow the conductor and it’s his job to keep the orchestra and the dancers all together.  I really like Martin West in conversation with Tchaikovsky─it’s passionate but he doesn’t tend to go overboard.   He keeps the tempos up.  Martin is very very good at coordinating the action he is seeing on stage with the sounds that come out of the pit.  I haven’t worked with anybody who is as good as doing that as he is. 

What’s your favorite ballet in terms of music?

 Ruth Lane:   Well, Nutcracker has some of the greatest music but my very favorite ballet is Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev which we are also performing later this season. The cellos do the love scene on the balcony, which is incredibly emotional and passionate, which keeps coming back again and again. 

The scene on the back of Ruth Lane’s exquisite custom-made cello was inspired by a dream her husband Anthony Lane had. Lane, a highly respected violin maker, drew the basic design and artist Margrit Haeberlin did the actual painting and the cello was Lane’s gift to his wife. Photo: courtesy Anthony Lane Violins of Petaluma.

I know that some string instruments are extremely valuable and are meticulously handcrafted.  Is there anything special about your cello? 

Ruth Lane:  Yes, my husband, Anthony Lane of Lane Violins, custom built my cello for me about 10 years ago and it’s got a wonderful sound and is beautifully decorated with painted images from the Sistine Chapel and the life of a violin maker. I’ve really enjoyed this special gift.

What’s the biggest challenge during the Nutcracker? 

Ruth Lane:  It’s stamina.  The Nutcracker and Tchaikovsky in general require a lot of muscle when playing the cello.  For example, the Pas de Deux (Act II), at the end, is so rigorous that I have to know when to lay back and when to really pull out all the stops.

Do you have a favorite part? 

Ruth Lane:  I’ve always like the Trepak or Russian Sailor’s Dance (Act II) and the Pas de Deux (Act II) at the end.

Two Great SF Ballet Orchestra Nutcracker Recordings: 

 Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (1991) with Denis de Coteau.  This recording is groundbreaking.  The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra collected money from each individual musician and recorded this on their own at Skywalker Ranch in 1988.  They were the first group to record and self-produce Nutcracker and received all royalties. 

Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker- San Francisco Ballet (2008) with Martin West, available as a DVD of the ballet performance or as a CD of the music.  

Details:  San Francisco Ballet performs at the historic 1932 War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco. Nutcracker runs December 9 through December 27, 2011.

Tickets: $22 to $275 available (415) 865-2000 or

Parking:  Civic Center Garage (on McAllister Street between Larkin and Polk); Performing Arts Garage (on Grove between Franklin and Gough streets); Opera Plaza Garage (valet only, 601 Van Ness, enter on Turk).

Arrival Time:  Plan to arrive early to enjoy the sumptuous atmosphere and to ensure that you are seated.  The theater enforces a no late seating policy and guests will not be seated after the lights have dimmed. Latecomers will be asked to stand until there is a break in the program, and will be seated at management’s discretion. 

Run-time: Two hours with a 20-minute intermission.

December 18, 2011 Posted by | Classical Music, Dance | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review–“Lords of the Samurai” dog-chasing, tea totling, elite warrior poets, Asian Art Museum, June 12- September 20, 2009

Portrait of Hosokawa Sumimoto (1489–1520), by Kanō Motonobu (1476–1559); inscription by Keijo Shūrin (1440–1518), Japan. Muromachi period (1392–1573), 1507. Hanging scroll; ink and colors on silk. EiseiBunko Museum, 466. © Eisei Bunko, Japan.

Portrait of Hosokawa Sumimoto (1489–1520), by Kanō Motonobu (1476–1559); inscription by Keijo Shūrin (1440–1518), Japan. Muromachi period (1392–1573), 1507. Hanging scroll; ink and colors on silk. Eisei Bunko Museum, 466. © Eisei Bunko, Japan.

For more than 800 years the Samurai helped lay the foundation of Japanese culture and that legacy is explored in “Lords of the Samurai,” the Asian Art Museum’s stunning summer exhibition of over 160 rare objects from the collection of the Hosokawa family, one of Japan’s most elite warrior clans.  The exhibition, in its final three weeks (ends September 20) includes priceless armor, several breathtaking swords and other weaponry, paintings, lacquer ware, ceramics, costumes and other rare objects from Tokyo’s renowned Eisei-Bunko Museum and in the Hosokawa family’s former home, Kumamoto Castle on Kyushu island, Japan.  The objects reveal that the samurai and their daimyo (hereditary feudal) lords of pre-modern Japan were much more than just skillful military strategists and fighters; they were also artists and patrons of art and culture in its highest form.  The show is organized by the Asian Art Museum and the Eisei-Bunko Hosokawa collection, Tokyo.  This is the first time the Hosokawa’s precious collection of weaponry and artifacts have been shown in the United States and the Asian Art Museum is the sole venue for this exceptional show.  Due to the light sensitive nature of roughly 50 of the initial artworks on display, the show is now on its second rotation and new artworks have replaced those that were rotated out.   

Samurai—from loyal followers to fierce and principled elite warriors

The term “samurai” comes from the Japanese word saburau, meaning “to serve,” and was first used in A.D. 702 to describe mid-to-low-ranking court administrators and, later, armed imperial guards. Their title, mostly metaphorical, referred to their loyalty to the emperor.  By the 10th century, when provincial governors began offering heavy rewards for military service, the samurai as we know them came into being.  By the end of the 12th century, samurai became synonymous with the term “bushi” and were closely associated with the middle and upper echelons of the warrior class.  The term “Samurai” held strong aristocratic overtones and brought great prestige to the samurai’s lineage—so much so that warriors would recite their ancestry on the battlefield.  The distinguished lineage of the Hosokawa clan, which can be traced back seven centuries, trumps that of the imperial family whose history extends back only a few hundred years.

Hosokawa Clan, weilding power for centuries

The Hosokawa clan descended from Emperor Seiwa (850-88) and a branch of the Minamoto clan, via the Ashikaga clan.  It wielded significant power over the course of the Muromachi (1336-1467), Sengoku (1467-1600), and Edo periods, and over the centuries moved from Shikoku, to Kinai, and then to Kyūshū.  The first generation of lord of the Hosokawa clan, Hosokawa Yūsai (1534-1610), came of age in the “envisioned age” of Seven Samurai and fought valiantly in eight major battles.  The samurai’s role in life was to follow a code of conduct called the Bushidō or “Way of the Warrior” and to follow the Way of Poetry.  Poetry was studied and used among the samurai as vehicle of exchange and cohesion.  Yūsai was the third person in history to have been taught the entire 15th century Kokin denju tradition, an orally transmitted commentary on the first Imperial anthology of Japanese waka poetry (kokin wakashū).  As the sole possessor of this vital key to waka tradition, Yūsai was entwined with Japanese culture.   Yūsai is renowned because the emperor intervened in one of Yūsai’s long battles to save him proving that Kokin denju was more important than military victory.   The literary ethos of this great warrior-gentleman, who also mastered cultural, artistic and spiritual pursuits, has carried on through the ages.

The samurai maintained their elite status into the mid-1800s when Western influences started to take hold.  The question of how and when Japan’s modernization occurred is still debated but after Japan opened its port to foreigners in 1854, it went on to modernize its military forces and did away with many of the samurai’s special rights.  Following the abolition of the feudal class in 1871, the Hosokawa clan and its branches were made part of the Kazoku, the Meiji era’s new nobility.  They were given the hereditary title of Marquis (kōshaku); the title became obsolete in 1947.  The present head of the main family line, Morihiro Hosokawa, former Prime Minister of Japan, is a descendant of the Hosokawa of Kumamoto.

Ōyoroitype armor (replica), white cord lacing with diagonal corner accents (tsumadori), replica of a suit worn by Hosokawa Yoriari (1332–1391), Japan. Edo period, 1829 (after 14th century original). Iron, gilt bronze, metal, tooled leather, lacquer, braided silk, fur. Eisei Bunko Museum, 4082. © Eisei Bunko, Japan.

Ōyoroitype armor (replica), white cord lacing with diagonal corner accents (tsumadori), replica of a suit worn by Hosokawa Yoriari (1332–1391), Japan. Edo period, 1829 (after 14th century original). Iron, gilt bronze, metal, tooled leather, lacquer, braided silk, fur. Eisei Bunko Museum, 4082. © Eisei Bunko, Japan.



Armor—object and symbol

Lawrence Ellison, Oracle founder/mogul, who in the 1980’s liked to call himself “the Silicon Samurai”–has been a passionate collector of Samurai antiquities, including an extensive armor collection.  He frequently remarked that he treasured Samurai armor for its beauty and strength and because “it encapsulates the fundamentals of Japanese character.  As comprehensively as any people on earth, the Japanese know that while we are predators, we are also constantly trying to capture our humanity through a code of ethics and a sense of honor. (Forbes 156, n.7 (September 25, 1995). 

The show opens with a 19th century reproduction of the Ōyoroi armor worn by Hosokawa Yoriari, founder of the Hosokawa clan, in the battle of Kyoto in 1358.  This reproduction is basically a synthesis, containing parts that are historically accurate as well as parts that have been reinvented.   The exhibition also includes five other full sets of armor of different styles that span several eras, up until the end of the shogunate in the mid-1800’s.  Painstakingly handcrafted by leading artisans of the day, it is hard to imagine these ever being bloodied in combat.  In fact, most of the suits on display in the exhibition have not seen actual battle, nor have most of the battle trappings, but some objects, even ornately lacquered stirrups, do show moderate signs of wear.

Ōyoroi armor (big armor) is the most formal armor and was used from the late Heian period (794-1185) to the Kamakura period (1185-1333) in one-on-one mounted combat.  The suit weighed about 60 pounds and consisted of a helmet (kabuto), cuirass (), tassets (kusuzuri which are overlaced with lames) to protect the hips and shoulder guards (sode).  It had great aesthetic value and is called “shikisei no yoroi,” the right ceremonial armor.  Because a warrior’s armor became his funeral attire if he was defeated, a great deal of attention was paid to decorative details and ornamentation and it was very costly and time-consuming to produce.  An early 10th century legal compendium discussed in Karl Friday’s Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan indicates that the production of Ōyoroi required between 192 and 265 days, depending on the season and length of day.  Modern-day craftsmen normally require ten months to two years of full-time labor to construct Ōyoroi replicas.  It has been documented that this reproduction, begun in 1824, took five years to complete.  This stunning suit of armor, with its combination of white cord lacing with diagonal accents of multicolored lacing in the shoulder guards and tassets, was popular in Yoriari’s time for its exquisite refinement.

Swords—deadly and stunning

Ceremonial long sword (tachi) blade, signed “Moriie zō” (Made By Moriie), Japan. Kamakura period (1185–1333), 13th century. Forged and tempered steel. Eisei Bunko Museum, 1784. © Eisei Bunko, Japan.

Ceremonial long sword (tachi) blade, signed “Moriie zō” (Made By Moriie), Japan. Kamakura period (1185–1333), 13th century. Forged and tempered steel. Eisei Bunko Museum, 1784. © Eisei Bunko, Japan.

It has been said that the samurai’s sword was his soul.  The legendary katana, or curved sword, invented a millennium ago, remains a marvel of aesthetic beauty and skillful engineering.  The katana embodies the perfect melding of form and function.  While most bladed weapons were designed to either pierce or slash, the katana’s two different types of steel gave it optimum qualities for both, making it a highly versatile weapon in battle.  Human bone-cutting qualities were tested and refined during actual executions.  Delivered with the proper single blow by a trained warrior, the very finest swords were able to slice but through as many as five human bodies at once. (“Secrets of the Samurai Sword,”  NOVA, an exceptional tv program airing in Sept., goes into the history of samurai swordmaking and visits contemporary Japanese metalworkers as they craft a sword from scratch using ancient techniques. )   The exhibition includes several highest quality examples of ceremonial long blade, long blade and short blade swords that were either used directly or collected by the Hosokawa clan as evidence of their family status.   

A supreme 13th century ceremonial long blade, crafted by Moriie, has been designated an Important Cultural Property.  Moriie (active from 1249 to 1256) was from Hatada, which was near Osafune, the greatest sword-making center in the Bizen region.  This area is currently known as the southeast Okayama prefecture.  In addition to the superb workmanship on its surface steel and edge, this tachi sword (designed for cavalry combat) exhibits Moriie’s hallmark temper lines– irregular clove-shape (chōji midare) lines alternating with tadpole (kawazugo) lines.  The sword would have been sheathed with the blade edge pointing downward and slung from a waist belt.

Equally valuable were the sword’s guards and mountings which were often embellished lavishly, elevating them to works of art.  The sword guard balanced the blade and hilt and protected one’s hands from slipping onto the blade while using it.  The imperial sword guard mounting pictured here was made in late Edo period. 

Mounting for a ceremonial long sword (tachi) with nine planet family crests and gold fittings, Japan. Edo period (1615–1868), 19th century. Lacquered wood with sprinkled gold (makie) decoration, gilt bronze, gold, ray skin, leather. Eisei Bunko Museum, 29241. © Eisei Bunko, Japan.

Mounting for a ceremonial long sword (tachi) with nine planet family crests and gold fittings, Japan. Edo period (1615–1868), 19th century. Lacquered wood with sprinkled gold (makie) decoration, gilt bronze, gold, ray skin, leather. Eisei Bunko Museum, 29241. © Eisei Bunko, Japan.

Its scabbard is decorated in the makie lacquer technique, with nine-planet Hosokawa family crests in gold on a sprinkled pear skin (nashiji) background; variants of the family’s cherry blossom crest adorn the hilt.  Other works include exquisite fans, costumes, helmets, saddles and stirrups.

The Osher Gallery contains the workmanship of Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) the greatest Samurai swordsman of his day, perhaps of all time and a renowned painter.  Musashi was sword instructor to the Hosokawa family and founded the Niten Ichi-ryū School of swordsmanship “the school of the strategy of two heavens as one” that uses the long and short swords together.  In 1645, he wrote his great book Gorin no shô (A Book of Five Rings), a martial arts strategy manual, that is in the exhibition as a set of five scrolls.  The original of the book was lost but his trusted disciple made a copy and it has remained with the Hosokawa family.   During the 1980’s, Musashi’s popularity stateside soared as American businessmen, eager to penetrate the Japanese mind, consumed his Book of Five Rings.   Can adroitness with a sword carry over to brushwork?  Not to be missed are Musashi’s stunning folding set of two six-paneled folding screens “Wild Geese and Reeds” designated “Important Cultural Property.”  In the left screen, gracefully-rendered light-featured geese rest beneath a tree and in the right screen, dark-featured geese rest and feed.  Throughout the work, he achieves economy in brushwork while conveying energy and movement.  

Dog-Chasing: a sport for mounted Samurai 

Of the many antiquities in the Hosokawa family collection, dog lovers, archers and equestrians will be fascinated by a late 17th century Edo period six-panel folding screen depicting inuoumono (dog-chasing)– a samurai archery drill that originated in the Kamakura period during the reign of Emperor Gohorikawa (r. 1222-32) and evolved into a very popular spectator sport.  The dogs were not harmed: the goal was to shoot the running dogs with heavily padded arrows, a task that challenged the samurais’ skill as horsemen and archers.  The event typically took place in the center of an open riding ground where two concentric rings were formed with ropes. The warriors were divided into teams, and the teams waited outside the larger circle until the dogs were released from the smaller circle by a dog-handler.  Each archer the same number of padded arrows; skill and accuracy were judged according to the length of the chase and the location of a hit.  Closely codified rules governed the size of the field and the number of dogs and archers participating. 

Left 6 panels “Inuoumono” (Dog Chasing Event), Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, colors, and gold foil on paper, H 139.9 cm x W 351.8 cm (each), Japan; Edo period (1615-1868), Eisei-Bunko Museum, 4005.

Left 6 panels “Inuoumono” (Dog Chasing Event), Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, colors, and gold foil on paper, H 139.9 cm x W 351.8 cm (each), Japan; Edo period (1615-1868), Eisei-Bunko Museum, 4005.

Only when a dog passed over a rope was it a target and then, the only shots that counted were torso shots; shots to the head or limbs drew penalty points.  This screen is typical of early 17th century folding screen compositions of the sport which emphasized mounted archers around the concentric ropes, watching or chasing a dog.  The brilliant colors and detailed action figures are set against a gold leaf background.   Today, only about a dozen of these folding-screen compositions are known to exist and most date to the 17th century.  Interestingly, as genre painting took hold, artists’ compositions of inuoumono changed somewhat, with increased emphasis on the spectators in attendance–their clothing, gestures, so forth.

 An Adopted Son becomes a Samurai

Other scrolls in the show range from albums of flower paintings to portraits of Hosokawa daimyos.  An exquisite hanging silk scroll portrait of Hosokawa Sumimoto (1489-1520) by Kano Motonobo has been designated “Important Cultural Property.”  Hosokawa Sumimoto, distant ancestor of the Hosokawa lineage was a warrior who experienced continual conflict and was engaged in war most of his life.   He was adopted into the line of Hosokawa shogunal deputies and into a family that already had an adopted son from the powerful Kujō family.  The Warring States period (late 15th and 16th centuries) was an extremely brutal time when warriors were consumed by ambition, suspicion and jealously and many members of distinguished warrior families turned against their own family members in a grab for power.  The two adoptees quarreled over succession to the Hosekawa line and Sumimoto’s brother was killed by one of Sumimoto’s supporters.  An attempt was made on Sumimoto’s life but he fled Kyoto to the Ōmi province and remained there until his position as head of one branch of the Hosokawa clan was secured.  His victory was short and he was unseated in 1508 and failed in subsequent attempts to regain his power.  He died disappointed and alone.   The portrait depicts him at age 19 mounted on his grand horse, wearing haramaki armor, a helmet with a horn like crest, his sword mounting is slung at his left side.  He carries his halberd blade up, a whip in his right hand and his reins in his left hand.  A short sword is tucked in his belt.  An inscription in fine calligraphy by Keijo Shūrin of the Nanzenji temple in Kyoto dates the portrait to 1507.  A portion of the inscription reads—“Hosokawa Sumimoto, a great archer and horseman, is far above other humans.  He is also versed in waka and appreciates the moon and the wind….Outside the citadel he takes bows and arrows; in meditation and reading of sacred books he protects Buddhism…”

Teabowl entitled “Otogaze,” black Raku ware, Raku Chōjirō (d. 1589), Momoyama period (1573-1615), 16th century, glazed earthenware, H. 8.2 cm x Diam. 10.8 cm (mouth), Diam. 5.0 cm (foot), Eisei-Bunko Museum, 1297.

Teabowl entitled “Otogaze,” black Raku ware, Raku Chōjirō (d. 1589), Momoyama period (1573-1615), 16th century, glazed earthenware, H. 8.2 cm x Diam. 10.8 cm (mouth), Diam. 5.0 cm (foot), Eisei-Bunko Museum, 1297.

Samurai Tea Practitioners—Ritual with Awesome Cups

It might be easy to dismiss this humble raku tea bowl, but this 16th century object, called “Otogaze,” bears the designation “Important Cultural Object” and is attributed to Japan’s most famous potter, Raku Chōjirō, and as such bears rock-star status.  The bowl takes its poetic name from the jovial female deity Otafuku, also called Otogaze, and it’s thought that the bowl’s volumptuous shape inspired the name. In early raku wares like this, the raw clay was coated with a lead glaze and then fired in a small-scale kiln.

The Hosokawa family’s meticulous  records of art objects and tea utensils mention this bowl by name and indicate that it was beloved by Hosokawa Sansai (1563-1646).   Sansai was one of the family’s most important tea practitioners and one of seven disciples of Sen Rikyu (1522-1591), the tea master who perfected the Way of  Tea (chanoyu).  Rikyu composed a poem which is still quoted “Though many people drink tea, if you do not know the Way of Tea, tea will drink you up.”  Without any spiritual training, you think you are drinking tea but actually tea drinks you up.  The age-old tradition of chanoyu has been maintained throughout many generations of the Hosokawa family and is observed today.  Former prime minister Hosokawa Morihiro (born 1938), the eighteenth generation head of the Hosokawa family, is a celebrated tea practitioner and an acclaimed ceramist and calligrapher.  A number of his tea bowls and implements for the Japanese tea ceremony, no doubt inspired by ancient ones are included in the show. 

The show concludes with a series of works relating to Zen Buddhism whose emphasis on obtaining inner autonomy and self-awareness by learning to control the body through the mind and the mind through the body appealed to the highly-disciplined samurai warriors.

Ticket prices for the exhibition show include a $5 surcharge over regular museum admission.  A fully illustrated catalog of the exhibition published by the Asian Art Museum is available at the museum store, $30 softcover, $45 hardcover.

August 30, 2009 Posted by | Art, Asian Art Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment