52. Tessai, The Temple, And Three Bishops

52. Tessai, the Temple, and Three Bishops

Within a few months after arriving for my Fulbright year in Kyoto in the late summer of 1954, I had "discovered" (for myself) the great Nanga master Tomioka Tessai (1836-1924) through seeing his works, or imitations of them, in painting shops and books on him in bookstores. Someone introduced me to his grandson Tomioka Masutarô, who still lived in Tessai's old residence, and I visited him and talked with him about the artist—he gave me, an unknown student, a small and minor but genuine work by Tessai, a sketch of a rock, unmounted. And as I moved around among Kyoto collectors, dealers, and art scholars, the name of Tessai came up more and more, until I felt that his spirit somehow still hung over the city. Some time during the autumn, a major Tessai exhibition was opened in Tokyo at the Museum of Modern Art, then located near Kyobashi—and near Mayuyama's, my main contact there. Through introductions I met the curators responsible for the exhibition, also Odakane Tarô, leading scholar of Tessai, and the scholar-artist Mushanokoji Saneatsu, both of whom had written about him. I presented to these people my idea of sending a major Tessai exhibition to the U.S. to introduce this great and exciting master to foreign art-lovers. But when some more realistic advisor—was it Junkichi Mayuyama?—described to me what taking on such a project would entail-- getting permission from all the individual owners, raising a lot of money for expenses, etc.-- my enthusiasm for that plan cooled.


Someone told me, however, about the Kiyoshi Kôjin Temple in Takarazuka and its Bishop, Sakamoto Kôjô, who had known Tessai during his last years and had collected his works for the Temple. The proper name of the Temple, which is set in a mountain valley above Takarazuka and belongs to a sect of Shingon Buddhism, is the Seichôji; the Kiyoshi Kôjin, its popular name, refers to the local Shintô deity also enshrined there. Because the Kiyoshi Kôjin protects seafarers, shipping companies in the Kansai region contribute heavily to the Temple, and thousands of worshippers come there and leave offerings; it is very rich, as it would have to be to collect Tessai paintings. Through some one—was it Mr. Tomioka in Kyoto, one of the Temple's chief advisors?—I obtained an introduction and made my own pilgrimage there. Bishop Sakamoto was then 84 years old, and looked like an Arhat, a Buddhist holy man, bald with bushy eyebrows, always smiling beatifically. As we talked (he spoke a thick Osaka dialect, but we managed to communicate) I learned that he had been dreaming of a Tessai exhibition abroad, but had no idea how to carry one out. Now comes this young man with credentials from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where I had spent the previous year as a fellowship student, see R&R #24 above) talking of a Tessai show that would open there and travel to other U.S. cities—I knew I could arrange that through the Smithsonian's Traveling Exhibition Service, then headed by Annemarie Pope, wife of John Pope, Vice-Director of the Freer and good friend. It would have to be a show from only the Temple's collection; they never lent to exhibitions that included works owned by others. On this and subsequent trips to the Temple I was shown a dazzling series of major Tessai paintings, while also enjoying the lavish treatment that the Temple afforded its guests—great banquets, both Japanese (kaiseki) and Western (from the Takarazuka Hotel, featuring Kobe beefsteaks); lots of sake, constant attendance by the priests, often being put up overnight. Always present at the banquets as an interpreter was Masanari Moritoh, whose elder brother Kôsen was one of the monks, and whose education in English was supported by the Temple so he could fulfill this function. (Moritoh is now a professor of English literature at Kansei University.)


Bishop Sakamoto, I came to understand, had determined to devote as much as needed of the considerable resources of his Temple to propagating the doctrine of Tessai—it was truly a religious doctrine, for him—as a force for world peace. If the people of the world could gaze at Tessai paintings and absorb their spiritual content, their minds would be turned away from destructive impulses and toward peaceful ones. The

Temple's Tessai collecting (and the planned Tessai Museum) would complete for that region what he thought of as the three main areas of human culture: religion (the Temple itself), art (the Tessai collection) and entertainment (the Takarazuka Gekijô, the famous all-girl theater there, of which he was a devoted fan.)


Correspondence and negotiations with the Metropolitan Museum, through Alan Priest, and with the Traveling Exhibition Service, through Annemarie Pope, were carried out successfully while I was still in Japan and after my return to the U.S. (For that long and heavily interrupted journey, see nos. 25 and 26 above.) Annemarie booked the exhibition for eleven other U.S. museums. I took part in the selection of Tessai paintings, and did some of the translating for the English-language catalog. The opening at the Met took place in 1957. Bishop Sakamoto was determined to come to New York to be there for the opening and to give lectures on "Tessai and Myself." At that time, because of government limitations on currency exchange, he was not permitted to bring anyone to accompany him, and so he flew alone, a very unworldly person of 85 who had scarcely ventured off his mountain before, first to San Francisco (where he was met and put up overnight by a local Japanese art dealer) and then to New York. I was permitted by the Freer Gallery, where I had become a curator, to come to New York for that period. Someone at Asia Society had found an interpreter who spoke Osaka dialect, but the Bishop would have no one for his constant companion and interpreter but myself—I was the only person he knew and felt comfortable with in this foreign land. He had brought with him cards with useful phrases in Japanese on one side and English on the other, which he could show as needed: one of them, for instance, said (to a barber) "Don't cut the hair in my ears: it is a sign of old age."


He was put up at the elegant and expensive Stanhope Hotel, almost across the street from the Met. Every day at a certain hour he would emerge from the hotel in his resplendant Buddhist robes and enter a taxi, which would then make what amounted to a U-turn and pull up in front of the museum (he couldn't face crossing New York streets.) He would get out and make his stately way to the place in the gallery where he was to lecture. With his entourage (myself, a Japanese woman assigned to accompany him by a New York dealer, sometimes Alan Priest and others) and his own arresting appearance he attracted crowds, even of people who knew and cared nothing about Tessai, and they would follow him to the exhibition gallery. There Alan Priest had set up a shrine-like place for him to speak, an alcove hung with brocade and a large photo of Tessai in the center, and a Chinese table, chairs, and rug in front. His talks on "Tessai and Myself" were similar from day to day (which made my interpreting easier) but the audiences were different, although some came back. After speaking he would demonstrate calligraphy, writing large, bold characters on pieces of good paper for presentation to members of the audience—they could make requests, such as the character for "medicine" for a doctor. Along with each, we had to write out a pass allowing the receiver to take it from the Museum. As the days went by the story of this unusual performance spread, and the crowds grew larger. Sometimes Francis Henry Taylor, Director of the Met, would appear on the outskirts of the crowd, looking disapproving. Priest was doing this in part to annoy him; the two were at odds, and Priest, holder of a contract unwisely given him by an earlier Met official, was secure in his job until he decided voluntarily to retire—Taylor couldn't fire him.


Alan Priest's own lofty position and charm had won him entrée to the homes and salons of rich New York ladies, and he took the Bishop to meet several of them. The Bishop seemed tireless, delighting his hostesses with his smiling and bowing responses to their welcomes. As his interpreter, I sometimes had to improvise answers that differed from what he really said. His branch of esoteric (tantric) Buddhism held that spiritual attainment was bound closely to sexual energies and fulfillment, and he could understand a person's sexual health from looking at his or her face. (From a photograph of President Eisenhower and his wife Mamie he could see that she was the stronger party, and wanted us to write a letter warning him that she was sapping his strength.) A well-intended judgment of a hostess's marital life, then, might be rendered in English as "He says you are a lovely lady and have a beautiful house." The Bishop worried about his own spiritual health during his foreign stay, deprived as he was of a consort. His expectation of enjoying during his New York stay a "kimpatsu no bijin," beautiful blonde, for a nighttime companion was a joke at the Temple, but a serious desire was behind it. Aschwin Lippe, who knew a call-girl madam, tried to help him out, but was told that when the girls learned their john was to be an 85-year-old Buddhist priest who spoke no English, they declined to come. The woman sent by the Japanese dealer stayed with him through some of the nights, but may not have been willing or suited to that function.


The exhibition, and the Bishop's visit, were a grand success, "the best show in town" as one enthusiast called it; I could write a great deal more about them. On every visit to Japan after that—and I was there at least once every year—after spending some time in Tokyo I would make my way to the Temple and stay there for a day or several days, and then be driven to Kyoto to stay at the Fujita Hotel (my favorite) at the Temple's expense, for as long as I wanted. On one week-long stay at the Temple I was shown their entire Tessai collection, with a team of monks bringing in and unrolling the boxed scrolls, while the Bishop's adopted son Kôsô knelt beside me and recorded my opinions on their authenticity. This was pure kindness, he knew far better than I, and whenever I started to deliver a wrong judgment he would clear his throat and say, "Do you mean perhaps . . . " and I would quickly reverse. When for some reason the Temple couldn't put me up in their guest wing, they would take me to a ryokan , such as (finest of them all) the Harihan, set in a valley in the hills above Ashiya. I worked with them over the years on arranging more Tessai exhibitions in foreign lands—in Canada, in Russia, in Europe—serving as their agent abroad. I watched with immense admiration the building of the Tessai Museum within the Temple grounds. And I happened to be in Japan when Bishop Sakamoto died, at the age of 89. I knelt by his bedside and held his hand on one of his last days, and returned to the Temple for his funeral, which took place in their great main hall, kneeling with rows of others in the formal Japanese position longer than ever before or since, watching spellbound (if uncomfortable) as a spectacular procession of abbots from other temples, like a gathering of strikingly individualized arhats from a painting, made their stately way into the hall and carried out their ceremony, then joining others in dropping offerings (little gifts for the afterlife such as a flashlight and an electric razor, along with farewell cards) into his open casket, joining the procession that bore it down the pilgrimage way to the Temple's burial ground where a grave had been prepared, seeing his coffin lowered into it, a huge stone lowered on top of the coffin, and the grave filled in with a mound.


That is a suitable place to end this narrative, which could go on a lot longer. Bishop Kôjô Sakamoto was succeeded by Kôsô, and he by his son Kôken, whom I had known from his childhood—Mitsunori (his secular name) and my son Nicholas were of an age, and exchanged rock records when they met, or sent them to each other through me. In 1987 I was instrumental in negotiating, through the Chinese Artists Association in Beijing and the Asahi Press in Tokyo, a great Tessai exhibition from the Temple in China, which had been a dream of the old Bishop but unrealizable in his time. Kôsô, who was afraid of flying and had never been far from Takarazuka, flew to China to be at the openings (the Meishuguan in Beijing, the same in Shanghai). The famous Chinese painter Li Keran contributed an essay to the catalog, writing about how Chinese artists had known Tessai from his lifetime on, and about how much they respected him. I am convinced that they also learned a lot from him, especially Fu Baoshi and others who use the heavy-ink manner, but that is another subject.

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