New to the Ackland: A Japanese Calligraphic Poem

Posted on

A poem written in Japanese calligraphy on a long paper scroll decorated with bands of indigo

Ōtagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875), the artist of this “tanzaku” poetry slip, was one of the most fascinating creative figures in nineteenth-century Japan. Probably the illegitimate child of a samurai nobleman and a courtesan, she was adopted by the Ōtagaki family and trained in the polite arts of poetry and calligraphy. However, her life took a tragic turn and by the age of 30, she had lost two husbands and all her children to disease. Taking one of the few avenues available to a woman in her position at the time, she became a Buddhist nun, adopting the name Rengetsu (Lotus Moon). Over the subsequent decades she achieved great renown as a very prolific poet, calligrapher, and ceramic artist. She was especially famous for her waka poetry, a traditional form that uses five-line verses with 5-7-5-7-7 syllables per line, which she often wrote on small slips of paper that were sometimes decorated with color or gold flecks. In this example, the poem may be translated:

Beneath a tree

taking the deep snow of flowers

for a pillow

I gaze up this spring night

at the cold moon…

These lines are written in Rengetsu’s characteristically clear, confident, and rhythmical brushwork onto a slip of paper decorated with abstract fields of indigo dye and bands of ink.

This fine tanzaku is one piece from a large gift of works by Rengetsu (including some ceramics and scrolls) and other Japanese calligraphers being made by the distinguished artist and alum Ray Kass ’67 (’69 MFA) with his wife Jerrie Pike. Despite some flaking at the bottom edge, it is a wonderful example of her captivating and fluent art and a very welcome addition to our growing collection of Japanese art of the modern era.

Image Credit: Ōtagaki Rengetsu, Japanese, 1791-1875, Waka Poem: “Beneath a Tree…”, 1860, ink and color on paper, 14 1/4 × 2 3/8 in. (36.2 × 6 cm). Gift of Ray Kass ’67 (’69 MFA) and Jerrie Pike in honor of Reynolds Price, 2022.18.8