Sunday, 7 July 2013

Kobori Enshu

Portrait of Enshu wearing black cap of officialdom status
小堀 遠州


Kobori Enshu a brilliant star in the tradition of the Japanese garden. 

Born in 1579 in Omi (now Nagahama, Shiga Prefecture, close to the NE banks of Lake Biwa) to a samurai family of solid connections. His work was primarily associated with castle building and architecture, but he is also remembered as an exceptional garden creator. He is also remembered as an influential figure in the world of Cha no Yu (tea ceremony), and could count on meeting Sen no Rikyū, as well as studying under Furita Oribe too. Records show Enshu held about 400 tea ceremony sessions in the course of his life, the guest lists reveal him to be comfortable in the company of shoguns, nobles, priests, ranking feudal lords, scholars, merchants and artisans. Enshu was embedded in the society of his day.
View from tea room, Koho-an, Kyoto
Enshu's aesthetic style is characterised as ' graceful simplicity', in Japanese kirei sabi. Enshu moved away from Rikyū's stark, pared down, sensibility, and in doing so brought a sophisticated openness and brightness. Above all Enshu found a new language for straight lines and graceful curves. In that sense Enshu can be seen today as a Modernist in taste certainly. He re-established an objectivity in the tea ceremony, after the strict subjectivity of Rikyū and Oribe, and above all, he saw tea as a means of communication, of bringing people together in pursuit of harmony.

Sento Gosho Palace, Kyoto
Sento Gosho Palace, Kyoto

Kirei sabi is characterised by its play with light and the quality of lightness. Rikyū's tea house interiors were deliberately dark and subdued places,, whereas Enshu opened the space up, introduced windows, and employed a strong awareness of seasonality through the use of poetry. Each of the utensils used in a ceremony were designated poems with a seasonal reference to the moment. With Enshu form never overcomes function, they are both equally recognised and appreciated, hence Enshu's mastery in the use of paths. Form and function are never held in a equal balance, rather it is the tensions between the two that are fully resolved in Enshu's hands.
Raikyu-ji, Okayama Prefecture
Raikyu-ji, Okayama Prefecture


As a garden creator Enshu was capable of rising to what ever situation presented itself. He built gardens for the highest in the land. He developed a surety of touch, a boldness without bombast or showiness. He knew how to manage impact and spectacle. The garden spaces are an extension of the architectural forms he was principally concerned with. From architecture Enshu seems to have absorbed a sense of order and logic, that may at first seem surprising, yet soon settles in the mind as being the 'right answer ' to the space. It was not simply a matter of connections in high places, in the end it was his talent and vision that came to the fore and was recognised. His star rose quickly, at the age of 26 following the death of his father he inherited the family fortune and the position of manager of Bitchu Takamatsuyama castle. Very little remains of the castle today, but the Raikyu-ji garden is attested to be the work of Enshu.

Nanzen-ji Hojo, Kyoto
Enshu was multi talented, that is clear, he was a renown tea master, accepted as someone who brought new thinking to Tea, he was also a noted calligrapher and a poet. He mixed with people who were curious about many subjects, artistic, practical and philosophical. He lived through a period of political settlement which allowed an emphasis to be placed on the arts, after a long period of instability, peace was returning. Unusually for the time Enshu had a broad perspective which incorporated an interest in the West, in his collection of tea ware were Chinese, Korean, South East Asian pieces, but also Delftware pottery which orginaly must have been traded with  the Dutch merchants in Asia.


Turtle island, Konchi-in, Kyoto

As with an art form as delicate and subject to change as gardens, it is never going to be easy to picture exactly what the gardens of Enshu's time looked like. We have the skeleton, but did Raikyu-ji really have those great calligraphic swathes of trimmed azaleas in his day? Or is it a feature of the garden that has developed over the years? It is impossible to say with certainty, but the existing hedges seem to work. Perhaps this is a testament to the underlying strength of the design vision, that something of its spirit has been able to transcend time. The rock placements will likely be original and Enshu's bold ishigumi still holds power and grace today.


Katsura Rikyu, Kyoto

Katsura Rikyu, Kyoto
Enshu had a painter's eye, he seemed to love open spaces in his gardens, the negative space, that holds a composition together. Perhaps this is a landscape memory that was embedded in him as a child? Living where he did, he must have been impressed upon by catching sight the 'sea-like' expanses of Lake Biwa so near to his home. Like so many East Asian artists, Enshu's art utilised the landscape as a medium, as a language in itself. Drawing on memory and experience, as much as cultural learning, the artists looked deeply into the relationship between man and landscape, and created forms of gardens that have been classical in the sense they are able to transcend both time and space. They have become embedded in part of our memory too.
Manshu-in, Kyoto

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