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Flower Basket titled Reiho, Soul Mountain, by Iizuka Rokansai


Iizuka Rokansai


Flower Basket 'Soul Mountain'

c. 1939
34 x 33.4 x 20.8 cm
Original signed box
Original lacquered water container

The title of this basket is "Reiho", which could be translated as “Holy/Spirit Mountain” but is perhaps better as “Soul Mountain”, referring to the mythic mountains of Chinese Daoist philosophy in which they are both home of the gods and metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. This image is closely linked to the archetype of the wandering mountain ascetic, whose spiritual goal was always to find the soul mountain. Some of Rokansai’s most poetic baskets alluded to such ancient stories, which were central to the philosophical and aesthetic life of the 16-17th century Chinese literati, as well as to Japanese Buddhism and Zen practice.

Contemplating this basket, the title bringing these ideas to mind, it's quite thrilling to notice that the nodes on the major faces, which seem like so many raindrops when viewed directly, also appear quite convincingly as a mountainous landscape when viewed from the side. In this composition, each face of the basket presents a deep mountain corridor whose peaks recede into the distance. The dramatic form of the whole basket then appears as the great distant mountain, the final one, the mountain of mountains, always beyond reach.

The landscape effect is a deliberate result of Rokansai's use of thick lengths of smoked and dyed madake bamboo. Using material of such thickness and with such pronounced nodes clearly introduced special difficulty into the construction of such an angular form, as thick vertically-split lengths are clearly more difficult to bend than thinner ones, and more likely to crack or fail over time. The thin outer skins of these lengths show no stress at the corners, however, and the structure, realized without any rattan binding at all, is essential. The lengths of the handle rise from the body and converge as if according to natural order, joined on a horizontal pattern by thin strips of hobichiku. Achieving such beauty, balance, and structural integrity in parallel lengths is one of the most difficult technical challenges in bamboo. And it is completely characteristic of Rokansai that his designs are realized through the character and quality of specific bamboo, rather than the other way around.

This basket was made c. 1939, as indicated by the stamp used on the original box, and also through comparison to three baskets of that period, material, and style appearing in the catalog Iizuka Rokansai: Master of Modern Bamboo Crafts (Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts, 1989). Rokansai was then 49 years old, in his prime years physically (for bamboo artists require also great physical discipline), and in the midst of an especially energetic and creative period. His works in these years leading up to the war have a distinctive beauty and clarity. They are perfectly realized in each dimension, one after the other.

Rokansai had dedicated himself in the previous decades to establishing the place of bamboo art in the formal art categories earlier imported into Japan from the West. By 1939, his efforts had proved successful, and he had gained clear recognition as the leading bamboo artist in Japan. He was in that year the first bamboo artist appointed to the selection jury of the Shin Bunten national exhibition, a significant honor. War then intervened, Rokansai was forced to abandon Tokyo, and lost his eldest son to illness and at least one brother to the war. When he returned to Tokyo, older and increasingly ill of health, his baskets changed again. As he aged he made many fewer baskets, and these were brilliant and challenging works which tended to the esoteric. The basket “Reiho” is emblematic of his practice in the preceding period. It is a sublime basket, profound and joyful in form and allusion. These feelings are present also in the calligraphy on the box (calligraphy was esteemed by the Chinese literati as first among all arts), as Rokansai’s script is expressive, full-bodied, clear, and confident.

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