Curator's Corner

Happy New Year: Kamisaka Sekka

By Karl Cole, posted on Jan 2, 2024

What better way to wish "Happy New Year" to all than with a beautiful painting of the sacred Mount Fuji!

Painting by Kamisaka Sekka titled Mount Fuji Above Clouds (early 1900s). Vertical view of an abstract mountain in cream and gray with brown and gold above and below.
Kamisaka Sekka (1866–1942, Japan), Mount Fuji Above Clouds, early 1900s. Color on silk mounted as hanging scroll, image: 44 ½" x 7 ¼" (113 x 18.4 cm), overall: 74 ¼" x 12 13/16" (188.6 x 32.5 cm). © 2024 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5588)


Kamisaka Sekka created this atmospheric interpretation of Mount Fuji using the tarashikomi technique. This wet-on-wet painting method involves pooling pigments or sumi ink in layers, applying a new layer before the first is dry. Spontaneous effects of shading and form are used to create a simplified, abstract view in Mount Fuji Above the Clouds. This work was originally intended for display in a tearoom alcove, called tokonoma. The focal point of a room, the tokonoma is a space to display beautiful objects such as scrolls, floral arrangements, and decorative items.

After Japan was opened to Western trade in the 1850s, Japanese art underwent a profound change. Two schools of thought developed among Japanese artists, the Nihon-ga, or “Japanese style pictures,” and the Yō-ga, or “Western style pictures.” While those of the Yō-ga movement experimented with Western media, subject matter, and styles, Nihon-ga artists looked back to traditional Japanese painting and print schools.

One of the influences for some Nihon-ga artists was the Rinpa "school”—"Rin" after it's 1600s founder Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716) and "pa" for school. The Rinpa artists revived the tradition of ink and brush painting that was ultimately based on Chinese painting of the Song Dynasty (960–1127). They were also known for using the tarashikomi painting method.

Born to a samurai family in Kyoto, Sekka was trained in the Shijō school style of naturalism—based on direct observation—from age 16 to 26. By his late 20s, Sekka turned to the Rinpa tradition. He is considered one of the fathers of Japanese modern design. A trip to Paris in 1901 was instrumental in his studying Western industrial design. Sekka combined his traditional Japanese aesthetic of Rinpa with his own Western-influenced designs. Aside from painting and printmaking, he was very influential in ceramics, textiles, lacquer, and screen designs.