Lotus Moon: The Art of Otagaki Rengetsu
Otagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875) was a Buddhist nun, a woman of great beauty and one of Japan’s most celebrated artists. Admired primarily for her exquisite calligraphy, Rengetsu was also a poet and ceramic artist, often inscribing her poems in her own calligraphy onto ceramic vessels, a unique blending of art forms for any artist in Japanese history. Her work was so popular during her lifetime that every household in Kyoto was said to own her pottery, and today scrolls and ceramics bearing her calligraphy are highly sought after.
Rengetsu’s art work radiates vitality, grace and humility – though her life was full of tragedy. Born Nobu, probably the illegitimate child of a courtesan and a noble, the young girl was adopted by the samurai Otagaki Teruhisa and his wife. As a child, she was sent to Kameoka Castle to serve as a lady-in-waiting; there, she was trained in traditional arts. Nobu married twice and bore five children, all of whom died. At the age of 33, she vowed to never marry again and joined her father at the Chion’in temple in Kyoto, where she took the name Rengetsu, meaning “Lotus Moon.”
After her father’s death, Rengetsu left the temple and supported herself by making pottery decorated with her poetry. Her ceramics were greatly admired, and orders from tea masters and other customers kept her very busy; her poetry was published in two collections during her lifetime.
Ame no yo no
Sono tsurezure no
Asking for sake
This is the pleasure
Of leisure hours
On a rainy night
With playful verse inscribed on a small ceramic sake bottle, Rengetsu brings together three of Japan’s most widely acclaimed art forms: waka poetry, kana calligraphy, and pottery, in particular the wabi-style humble ceramic wares that found favor within the context of the tea ceremony.
This bottle not only illustrates Rengetsu’s
artistic talents but offers a glimpse into
the heart of the woman who made it. It is
exactly this blend of artistry and humanity
that made Rengetsu’s work so admired and
sought after during her lifetime. The bottle is uneven and imperfect, crafted less from technical expertise and more from a loving sensibility, and the
fingerprints left on the clay surface create a sense of spiritual connection between the artist and the viewer. The poem is also intriguing. A tanuki (a badger or raccoondog) is a trickster character in Japanese folklore, and the image of this creature knocking on doors at night in search of a drink of sake, usually dressed as a Buddhist priest, is very comical. However, Rengetsu was not only being playful using this poem, but may also have been alluding to herself – an elderly nun drinking sake alone on a rainy night.