Made from ceramic, bronze, copper, or even jade, water droppers are small vessels used in calligraphy and brush painting. Designed with two small holes, one for adding water and one for dispensing water, only a few drops fall out at a time—a crucial feature when preparing liquid ink, which involves grinding a stick of ink against an inkstone with water.
Though an unassuming instrument, water droppers have a long
history. The earliest known examples of Chinese water droppers can be dated to
the 5th and 6th centuries, while Japanese water droppers date to the 8th
century. Centuries later, during the Edo period (1603-1868) and into the Meiji
period (1868-1912), Japan saw the emergence of more complicated water droppers
in various shapes and sizes, ranging from plants and deities to animals and fruits.
Such decorative droppers became popular accessories for the nobility and literati, and were often inscribed or made in auspicious forms. The zodiac animals are a set of calendar symbols that came to Japan from ancient China, and their representation served to invoke good luck and prosperity. This 19th-century dropper in SAM’s collection, modeled in the shape of an undeniably expressive and charming rat (the first animal in the zodiac), was likely intended to symbolize success, creativity, and intelligence.
– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate
Image: Water dropper modeled as a rat, 19th century, Japanese, bronze, 1 5/8 x 3 1/2 x 1 7/8 in., Gift of Frank D. Stout, 92.47.119
Thanks to funding from Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project, a pair of important 17th-century Japanese screens, Scenes in and around the Capital, are currently being restored by specialists at Studio Sogendo, a private studio in California. The screens, likely created by a machi-eshi, or “town painter,” present a panoramic view of Kyoto during the Edo period. They show both Kyoto’s center and its periphery, and give insight into the daily lives of different social classes, in addition to representing seasonal festivals.
When the screens first arrived at SAM in 1975, they were already in fragile condition and by the time this conservation work began in 2017, extensive repairs were desperately needed. Painted using ink, color, and gold, and mounted on wooden frames, the screens are being restored using traditional Japanese methods and materials. I was able to visit Studio Sogendo while one of the panels had been stripped of its backings and laid on a light table, allowing a rare perspective of the materials and quality of the painting. The conservation treatment has been invaluable, not just in terms of preserving the paintings, but also in offering opportunities for examination and study. The internal frames must be replaced and expert craftsmen in Japan made new custom frames for the work. The incredibly precise joinery of the new frames can be seen in these images. The conservation phase of the project is nearing completion and the reassembly of the structure, replacement of the mount fabrics, and retouching of the areas of loss is underway.
This crucial project would not be possible without Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project, one of few programs dedicated to preserving historically or culturally significant artworks. We look forward to the return of Scenes in and around the Capital, which will be on view among SAM’s extensive Asian art collection when the Seattle Asian Art Museum reopens in late 2019!
Visual art holds a kind of transcendent significance in the way that it unites time and culture. Right now at the Seattle Art Museum, we’re displaying objects that were made five millennia ago in modern-day Iraq, and one floor below, you can find a painting made in 2015 in Los Angeles. There are few better places to celebrate the range of human cultural production than with SAM’s eclectic collection.
Yet it’s not always the diversity that is most striking. Sometimes visual art makes noticeable the similarities across time and peoples.
I hope you’ll visit Common Pleasures: Art of Urban Life in Edo Japan, a newly unveiled installation of Japanese art at Seattle Art Museum, for some beautifully crafted illustrations of the revelry that marked the Edo period. Centrally displayed in the gallery, SAM’s pair of six-panel screens titled Picnicking under Cherry Blossoms and Boating on the River give us a lively image of Edo citizens relaxing, hard. Think you like to party on a boat? These folks did it up right back when they were moving those things manually. Party boats cruising the Sumida River hovered close to the city’s pleasure quarter, and no doubt became floating pleasure quarters themselves.
In Seattle, the cherry blossoms blooming around us—an annual uplifting indicator of the onset of spring—are a welcome sight, and, I’d say, a just reward for enduring a long, wet winter. Nothing sounds better than a leisurely picnic under the blossoms like the one we see figures enjoying in SAM’s screen. Now all we need are a few sunny days . . .
–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator
Images: Picnicking under Cherry Blossoms and Boating on the River, mid-18th c., Anonymous, in Miyagawa school style, Japanese, Edo period (1603-1868), pair of six-panel screens; ink, color, and gold on paper, Seattle Art Museum, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 62.133.1-.2
SAM’s six-panel screen picturing Scenes of Life in and around the Capital serves to celebrate the ancient imperial capital of Kyoto, giving a flattering impression of the city as one that is full of jovial activity. Gold leaf, in the form of clouds, covers a large area of the screen and lends to Kyoto an air of royalty and prosperity. As a compositional element, the clouds divide this very large panel into bite-sized vignettes. When your eye scans across the panel, and up and down, it encounters figures sitting, running, parading, and celebrating in scenes alternately private and public. Both rural and urban citizens have a place here, as life in the city blends seamlessly with the surrounding countryside, and the city’s attractions are enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. What your eye won’t find in its flyover of Japan’s ancient capital is any element that disagrees with the established order and the abiding image of prosperity. The humdrum of day-to-day life, the majority of which involves work, doesn’t fit into the picture. Neither does illness, disease, or death much affect this heavenly realm.
The screen has interesting things to say about how we see, and how we aim to be seen. As I look at the screen, I’m reminded of spinning around and above Seattle during a special brunch in the Space Needle’s SkyCity restaurant (an experience I hope everyone has a chance to enjoy). To look over a city with great energy, lots happening, and an incredible geographic diversity brought, for me, feelings of joy and pride. Surely Kyoto’s citizens in the Edo period appreciated everything their city offered—its rich culture and vibrant lifestyle—in a similar way. It’s also worth noting how, from the top of the Space Needle, or standing in front of this screen, we take up the perspective of a passive observer. We watch others go about their lives without being seen ourselves and, with no fear of being caught watching, we’re encouraged to watch even more closely.
It’s this aspect of looking that contemporary artist Tabaimo has pointed to in her exhibition at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi. In the show, Scenes of Life in and around the Capital relates meaningfully to Tabaimo’s video work Haunted House, seen nearby. Haunted House mimics the movement of an eye scanning a long row of houses, while our view is limited to a small circle, as if we are viewing these scenes through a telescope. In Haunted House and in SAM’s screen, stories present themselves one at a time, providing the viewer a steady stream of entertainment.
Tabaimo’s installation of the screen encourages us to take pause and ask: How do we see each other? From what perspective? With what agendas? From there, we might also ask how and why we present ourselves to the world, and whether that image carries pretension much like the screen’s gilded view of ancient imperial Kyoto.
Fireman’s coat with waterwheel design, 19th century, Japanese (Late Edo period, 1603-1868), cotton cloth with indigo dye (sashiko and tsutsugaki), 38 1/2 x 48 in., Gift of the Christensen Fund, 2001.418. Not currently on view.