Poetic Imagination in Japanese Art

Exhibition Website

Oct 13 2018 - Jan 13 2019

Poetry lies at the heart of Japanese culture. Since ancient times, artists in Japan have expressed the most profound emotions and the most nuanced responses to the human condition in verse. The ability to turn a phrase has been a mark of social status, a way to woo a lover, and a means to express shared heritage and values. 

The more than one hundred works in this exhibition illuminate how poetry—in both Japanese and Chinese—has taken visual form in Japan. Drawn from one of the finest private collections in North America, the paintings and calligraphy in Poetic Imagination span from the eighth through the twentieth century and represent courtly, Buddhist, and literati spheres of artistic activity. Most of them are unveiled to the public for the first time here.

Among the highlights of the exhibition are:

An extremely rare fragment of a Buddhist sutra written in silver on indigo paper, created at Tōdaiji Temple (mid-8th century)

A delicate ink drawing of an imagined encounter between two ancient poets, made during the Kamakura period (1185–1333)

A dramatic portrayal of Chinese Daoist immortal Fei Zhangfang summoning his dragon, by Sesson (1504–1589?)

A pair of hauntingly evocative landscapes of the Eight Views of Xiao and Xiang by Iwasa Matabei (1578–1650)

A poem-painting collaboration by Shōkadō Shōjō (1584–1639) and Tawaraya Sōtatsu (died 1643), two geniuses of the early 17th century

Thatched Retreat on Cold Mountain, a painted tribute to the joys of reclusion, by Yosa Buson (1716–1783)

A whimsical exploration of tea, wine, books, ghost stories, and other obsessions of the artist Tomioka Tessai (1836–1924)

Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website
Image: Shōkadō Shōjō (Japanese, 1584–1639), calligraphy; Tawaraya Sōtatsu (Japanese, died 1643), painting, Waka Poem by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, One of the Thirty-Six Poetic Immortals, early 17th century, shikishi mounted as a hanging scroll, ink on gold- and silver-decorated paper. Courtesy of Mary and Cheney Cowles, L2017.67.4

Whether or not you go, Poetic Imagination in Japanese Art: Selections from the Collection of Mary and Cheney Cowles (publication date 12/11/18) focuses on the key threads of a collection that has been growing for four decades. The Cowles's tastes are broad and eclectic, embracing a dazzling diversity of styles and techniques. This volume focuses on what the authors found to be a compelling, recurring thread: a predilection for visual poetry. Like the resonant verses in classical Chinese or Japanese, rich with nuanced layers of signification, the pictorial images invite the viewer's full attention and participation to complete their meaning.

Select Poetic Imagination in Japanese Art: Selections from the Collection of Mary and Cheney Cowles to learn more, or to place this book in your Amazon shopping cart.  Your Amazon purchase through this link supports ArtGeek with a small commission. 

  • Painting
  • Asian
  • Japanese
  • Shōkadō Shōjō
  • Yosa Buson
  • Sesson Shukei
  • Iwasa Matabei
  • Tawaraya Sōtatsu
  • Tomioka Tessai
  • and others

Exhibition Venues & Dates