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Nō theatre

Tarō Yamamoto Sumida River, Sakura River 2010, pair of two-fold screens: ink and colour on paper with oxidised silver leaf, 169 × 167 cm each, private collection, Japan © Taro Yamamoto, image courtesy of imura art gallery, Japan

Rinpa artists often took subjects from classical literature or nō plays. Nō theatre was formed during the Muromachi period (1336-1573). Its elegant and refined style was popular among the warrior class up until the 19th century. Towards the end of the 19th century, nō plays were revived and popularised for the urban middle class.

Focus works

The image of a Chinese boy seated outdoors amongst chrysanthemum flowers is frequently seen in painting, lacquer and textile designs, including in this hanging scroll by Kamisaka Sekka (displayed 22 June – 22 July). The subject is Chrysanthemum boy, who in Chinese legend finds the elixir of immortality by drinking water from a stream that carries chrysanthemum petals inscribed with magic verses. The story of this boy was made into a nō play in 14th-century Japan.

The screens by Tarō Yamamoto portray actors from two different nō plays about mothers who have lost their young sons. The artist has updated the scenes with contemporary props: the mother who scooped up cherry blossom petals with a net is given a vacuum cleaner and the mother who meets her son’s ghost is given a kewpie doll.

Rather than a direct reference to a play, Sekka’s Backstage scene (displayed 22 June – 22 July) promotes his talents in design with a variety of kimono draped over rack, rope and screen.

K-6: activities

  • Look closely at Sekka’s Backstage scene. Notice the decorative kimonos and costumes draped throughout the scene and how the colour red is used to draw your eyes back and forth. Describe the actors’ activities. Imagine you are one of the actors. How would you be feeling as you prepare to go on stage? Write a short dramatic piece about your antics backstage.
  • Find out more about the tradition of nō theatre. What do the actors wear? What types of stories are told? Choose a character from one story. Design a costume for them and create a collage of your design using Japanese patterned paper to display in class.

7-12 Visual Arts: issues for consideration

  • Looking at examples in the exhibition, compare the approaches of Rinpa and contemporary artists to nō theatre. How are their approaches similar or different in conveying narrative to the audience?
  • Research nō theatre and the story of the Chrysanthemum boy. Develop a performance or time-based work based your findings. Compare your interpretation to Sekka’s approach.

Kamisaka Sekka Backstage scene 1905-15, hanging scroll: ink and colour on silk, 35 × 50.9 cm, Hosomi Museum, Kyoto

Kamisaka Sekka Chrysanthemum boy 1920-25, hanging scroll: ink and colour on silk, 121.8 × 42.2cm, Hosomi Museum, Kyoto