This autumn-
why am I growing old?
bird disappearing among clouds.

(Basho Matsuo)

The autumn season in Japan paints a heavenly canvas of passionate reds, oranges, golds and greens in polychromatic flavors, which had deeply inspired traditional poets, writers, and artists throughout the years. In the ancient Rinpa School of art in Japan, the painters set valuable importance on the expression of the seasons as the principal theme of their works. This major historical art school was founded in 17th century Kyoto by painters Kōetsu Hon'ami (1558-1637) and Sōtatsu Tawaraya (1570-1640). The identifiable style emphasized simple natural subjects, such as birds, plants and flowers, and sceneries usually rendered against a background filled in with gold leaf. The illustrious brother painters Kōrin Ogata (1658–1716) and Kenzan Ogata (1663–1743) later enhanced the Rinpa style with abstract perceptions of nature, dabbed in numerous colors and hue gradations to achieve eccentric effects.

In the 19th century Edo period, Rinpa was revived by leading painter Hōitsu Sakai (1761–1828), a Kanō school artist who added new tastes and refinement to the art style, creating a new name he called “Edo Rinpa.” Kiitsu Suzuki was regarded as Sakai’s most prominent pupil, and he remained very active in the late Edo period. Suzuki was also a notable master with many other students, and was self-trained, and his style was sometimes labeled as the Kiitsu School of Edo Rinpa. Suzuki’s artistic style was characterized by vivid colors, striking compositions, and opulent designs. His impeccable versatility came into full force with a variety of subjects, such as birds, flowers, landscapes, narrative paintings, Buddhist paintings, and other seasonal festival paintings. He also worked on hanging scrolls, fans, kites, and wooden tablets. He is largely known for his byōbu folding screens, some of which can be viewed at Nezu Museum’s ongoing exhibition, Suzuki Kiitsu’s Mountain Streams in Summer and Autumn until December 19th this year.

Mountain Streams in Summer and Autumn (Edo period, 19th century) is considered to be Suzuki’s most significant masterpiece. The elegant pair of six-paneled folding screens, measuring 165.8 cm x 363.2 cm each was drawn in ink and color on gold-foiled paper. The scenery illustrates a Japanese cypress grove, with streams rushing through the rocky mountains. At close view, the streams are outlined in fine but powerful lines of gold flowing over an arresting blue. One seems to feel and hear the gentle cascade of the waters and the rhythmical sounds they echo. The green-covered mounds of soil and the golden surface of the bare ground seem to dissolve into the scenery. The silhouette of the green moss growing on the trees trunks and the black shadows of the rocks evoke a somewhat haunting sensation. Yet, this emotion is simplified by the bamboo grass, delicate lilies, and the cicada perched on the tree trunk. This outstanding work is acclaimed for its dual interpretation of two seasons, summer and autumn. The right-hand screen depicts the summer scene with blooming mountain lilies. The left-hand screen emanates autumn with red cherry tree leaves. The work has been designated an Important Cultural Property in 2020.

Another beautiful work of Suzuki on a hanging scroll is Butterfly and Peony (Edo period, 19th century). Suzuki employs his acute sense of spatial design as seen by the asymmetrical balance of the peony plant’s height and the dainty butterfly against a plain background. The bright crimson petals of the soft and fluffy peony flowers are eye-catching and complement elegantly with the swallowtail butterfly perched on them. A slight dab of similar red color peeks at the bottom of the butterfly’s feathers.

This exhibition also presents notable works by other distinguished artists who had been tremendously influential in Suzuki’s creative style—Ōkyo Maruyama, Bunchō Tani, Soken Yamamoto, and of course, Hōitsu Sakai. Examining the breath of their brush strokes and color clarity unfolds the wonder behind Suzuki’s Mountain Streams in Summer and Autumn.

The serenity and charm felt in the masterpieces extend to Nezu Museum’s garden, which is an exquisite painting in itself. Autumn is the perfect moment to capture the omnipresent flow of colors that travel among the stone pathways, teahouses, peaceful pond, and thick grove of verdant trees, shrubs and plants. In spring, summer and wintertime, the museum garden also radiates breathtaking views.