Ryushi Memorial Museum: little museum with big art

Tucked in a quiet corner of Tokyo’s Ota Ward is a little treasure of Nihonga art. The Ryushi Memorial Museum is dedicated to the life and work of Nihonga artist Kawabata Ryushi (1885-1966).

Ryushi (Japanese artists are usually known by their given names) began working the Nihonga style after encountering it at a Boston art museum while studying art in the United States in his late 20s. He went on to have a long and prolific career and is today regarded as one of the three greatest Nihonga artists.

Nihonga is a distinctly Japanese form of modern art developed at the end of the 19th century. Nihonga paintings are somewhat Western in style, using perspective and shading that are not a part of traditional Japanese art. But rather than paint, the medium is an animal-based glue in which pigments in the form of finely ground minerals, gems, shells, or other natural materials are suspended. Gold leaf is sometimes added to catch the light.

The Ryushi Museum contains displays of a number of the pigments used by Ryushi in his work.

There is also a small display of the tools Ryushi used in his work.

But it is Ryushi’s work that is the real star of this museum.

The museum holds about 120 of Ryushi’s works and changes the exhibition three or four times a year. The most recent exhibition, which just finished on April 10, 2022, featured Ryushi’s most popular works, as voted on by museum visitors in 2021. I’ll share some details below to whet your appetite for the next exhibition, which opens on April 23, 2022.

Among the things Ryushi was especially known for were his large-sized works, many more than 2 meters tall and 7 meters wide. Unsurprisingly, this “viewer’s choice” exhibition contains a number of them, in diverse styles and with diverse subject matter. Ryushi was also known for pushing the envelope, trying out new ideas and genres. This, too is reflected in the works selected by his fans.

Just inside the museum’s entrance is a massive depiction of Son Goku (better known the English speakers as the Monkey King), a character from the sixteenth century Chinese classic A Journey to the West. Anime fans may recognize the Monkey King as a principal character in the Dragon Ball anime series, a sign that Ryushi not only pushed the envelope with his art, he also anticipated trends.

In Ryushi’s vibrant tableau, the Monkey King is surrounded by an entourage of busy smaller monkeys, his disciples, as he looks down from over the clouds. Although the tale is Chinese, Ryushi was inspired to depict it while on a 1961 trip to India and Nepal and claimed to have decided on the cloud motif while looking out the window on his flight back to Japan. Ryushi used the tail-less Japanese macaque because he found with so many monkeys to depict, the long tails of the Indian monkeys that were his original inspiration crowded the composition. Artistic license in action!

Among Ryushi’s other outsized works in this exhibition is one called “The Tiger Room”, a kind of picture within a picture, as it shows several people inspecting a beautiful screen of a mighty-looking tiger that seems to eye viewers, even as it laps a drink of water. Nearby is a black and gold dragon in a completely different style. Different yet again are two other huge pieces showing mighty rivers, both inspired during Ryushi’s travels in Shikoku. Ryushi uses small pieces of gold leaf to create highlights of leaping waterdrops, emphasizing the power of the water. One can almost hear it roaring. And yet, somehow, a little black butterfly floats above, defying both gravity and the power of the water.

One of Ryushi’s favorite subjects in the postwar period were kappa, a mythical Japanese creature often referred to in English as “water sprites”. The “traditional” portrayal of kappa, inhabitants of rivers and ponds, is relatively negative, that they are mischievous and sometimes even malevolent. However, Ryushi chose to focus his work on depicting their whimsical, almost human side, even depicting one kappa as having been crowned a beauty queen. Little wonder, then, that they are among the “viewer’s choice” works.

A number of Ryushi’s sketchbooks are also part of any exhibition at the museum. Like many great artists, Ryushi sketched while traveling and used his sketches later to produce greater works. Ryushi’s son was killed during World War II and after his wife also died he decided to complete a henro pilgrimage of the 88 temples founded by Kobo Daishi on the island of Shikoku. It took him six years, from 1950 to 1956, traveling from time to time, and he sketched extensively along the way. His 1961 trip to India and Nepal, also a great source of inspiration, lasted only three weeks.

Ryushi’s house and garden are across the street from the museum. They are only open during 30 minute guided tours three times on the museum’s open days, at 10:00 am, 11:00 am and 2:00 pm (best to inquire at the museum at least 15 minutes before the start time).

The original house was destroyed by an American bomb in August 1945 and later rebuilt. Ryushi’s expansive studio, popular referred to as his atelier, which is adjacent to the house, survived the bombing. The atelier, designed by Ryushi himself and built in 1938, has four meter ceilings and a hardwood floor space of nearly 100 square meters (60 tatami mats). No doubt he needed that much space when working on his mural-like creations.

As mentioned above, the museum is currently closed while the next exhibition is being set up. It will open on April 23, 2022 and will then be open Tuesday-Sunday; 9:00-16:30. Admission: JPY200.

The museum is a 15 minute walk from the south exit of Nishi Magome station on the Toei Asakusa subway line. Alternatively, catch the Tokyu #4 bus (bound for Ebaramachi Station Entrance) from the West Exit of JR Ōmori Station and get off at Usuda Sakashita; walk 2 minutes.

© 2022 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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