Our current exhibition, Poetry In Clay: The Art of Otagaki Rengetsu, is a glimpse into the life and work of one of Japan’s most famous female artists, but why was Rengetsu such a sensation? What made her work so popular and sought after? Read on to find out a little more about this prolific artist, and be sure to join us at our upcoming symposium – with guest speakers Prof. Yukio Lippit and Prof. Sayumi Takahashi Harb – to learn more.
Otagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875) was born in the spring of 1791, and was likely the secret daughter of a geisha and Todou Yoshikiyo, chief retainer of the Iga-Ueno fief. She was soon adopted into the samurai-class family of Otagaki Tsune’emon and his wife Nawa, and was given the name Nobu. She spent her early childhood on the grounds of Chion-in, head temple of the Jodo sect of Buddhism, where she began training in literature, poetry and martial arts. At age eight, she was sent to serve as a lady-in-waiting at Kameoka castle outside of Kyoto. There she spent nearly a decade studying calligraphy, dancing, flower arranging and tea ceremony – all the appropriate cultural adornments of the refined, yet narrow, world of the upper class elite.
Around the age of 33, heartbroken and in a seemingly endless cycle of personal tragedy and changing fortunes (as a result of the loss of her stepparents, two husbands and the death of all five of her children) Nobu renounced her worldly existence and took formal vows to become a Buddhist nun at Chion-in temple. Symbolizing her transition and devotion to the path of the Buddha, she took the name Rengetsu, or Lotus Moon.
At the age of 42, alone and without resources, Rengetsu moved to the Okazaki district of Kyoto and took up pottery making to support herself. Appreciation for her work grew, despite the fact that she was self-taught, because of her insightful, often witty, poetry that she inscribed on her pieces. Rengetsu’s distinctive, rough-surfaced, lop-sided, hand-molded vases, tea bowls, and sake bottles, incised with her spare verse in exquisite kana script, imbued each piece with a truly unique spirit. In fact, Rengetsu’s work became so popular that many imitated, and even copied, her work leading to the rise of Rengetsu-yaki, or Rengetsu-ware, that continued to be produced even years after her death.
Her rich artistic legacy emerges not only from her eclectic and prolific body of work, but also from a life spent in deep meditation on the illusory nature of existence. Rengetsu’s artistic productivity reached its peak when she was in her late 70s, after which she became increasingly fragile battling several illnesses. She spent her last days meditating, chanting and reciting mantras, and refused any medications. She died in seclusion on December 10, 1875. Upon her request, Rengetsu’s friend and long-time collaborator, Tomioka Tessai, had prepared her funeral shroud by painting an image of a lotus and the moon on it. In the last years of her life, Rengetsu composed a beautiful and haunting farewell poem, or jisei, the final version of which was buried with her:
Nochi no hachisu no
Hana o ue ni
Kumoranu tsuki o
Miru yoshi mo kana
How I hope to pass away
While sitting on
The lotus flower
Gazing up at the moon
In a cloudless sky