Ōtagaki Rengetsu is possibly the most famous female poet of 19th Century and also known for her excellent skills in calligraphy and pottery. She was born as illegitimate daughter of a samurai from the Tōdō family. Soon after her birth, she was adopted by Ōtagaki Mitsuhasa who worked at Chion’in, an important Jōdo (Pure Land) school temple in Kyōto. In 1798, having lost her mother and brother, she was sent to serve as a lady-in-waiting at Kameoka castle in Tanba where she was taught classical poetry, calligraphy and martial arts.
With only 33 years, she already went through some fateful years of her life with the loss of two husbands and all of her five children. After that, she decided to shave her hair and take vows, adopting the name Rengetsu (Lotus Moon). She lived together with her stepfather near Chion’in temple. After his death in 1832 Rengetsu began to make her extraordinary pottery, which she usually inscribed with her own waka (31-syllable classical poetry) and sold to support herself. With her unique combination of pottery, calligraphy and poetry, Rengetsu already gained large recognition during her lifetime far beyond the borders of Kyōto.
The work presented here is a lidded fresh water jar for the Japanese tea ceremony. Despite her tragic life, the work exemplifies the subtle beauty and humor Rengetsu was able to maintain for herself. In the incised poem - also known as aubergine poem - she links the image of a ripe aubergine with the Buddhist conception of a fulfilled and happy life: “To rise in the world and achieve what one desires, therefore, aubergines are indeed a fortunate example” (Yo no naka ni/ mi no nari idete/ omou koto/ nasu ha medetaki/ tameshi narikeri ).
The jar comes with an old, fitted wooden box. This work is almost identical to a water jar from the Unger Family Collection, Switzerland, that has been published in the exhibition catalog Black Robe, White Mist: Art of the Japanese Buddhist Nun Rengetsu, National Gallery of Australia (2007), p. 94.
Black Robe, White Mist: Art of the Japanese Buddhist Nun Rengetsu, National Gallery of Australia, 2007.
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