Sōtatsu: Making Waves

Kōetsu Sanjūrokkasen (Thirty-six immortal poets)

Kōetsu Sanjūrokkasen (Thirty-six immortal poets)Poet and scholar Fujiwara Kintō (996–1075) came up with the concept of thirty-six canonical poets. The earliest extant combinations of poet portraits and representative verse (kasen-e), however, emerged in the thirteenth century, produced on horizontal scrolls representing the poets in competition (uta-awase). In the early seventeenth century, woodblock-printing technologies of various degrees of sophistication and luxury aided the dissemination of classical literature and imagery.

The most sophisticated Kōetsu-Sōtatsu collaborations on this theme avoided literal depictions and used indirect motifs, often relating to the poem’s content. But this book represents a more pragmatic, didactic approach. Early editions (circa 1610) are monochrome and have a sequential arrangement of eighteen right-facing and eighteen left-facing poets to simulate a competition. The version seen here has been hand colored, and the sequence is irregular. Word and image were carved on a single woodblock for printing. In other, more delicate printed works, such as the nō librettos by Kōetsu to the right, single characters or single lines of characters were carved as a type block; the smaller scale permitted greater detail. In all cases, the typefaces captured Kōetsu’s distinctive calligraphy style.

Kōetsu Sanjūrokkasen (Thirty-six immortal poets)
Tawaraya Sōtatsu (act. ca. 1600–40)
Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637), calligrapher
Japan, Edo period, 1610 (Keichō 15)
Book, woodblock printed
Ink on paper with hand coloring; paper covers with mica and gold leaves
Purchase—The Gerhard Pulverer Collection, Museum funds, Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Harold P. Stern Memorial fund in appreciation of Jeffrey P. Cunard and his exemplary service to the Galleries as chair of the Board of Trustees (2003-2007)
Freer Gallery of Art, FSC-GR-780.97

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