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.
This small tea cup was made for the sencha tea ceremony and is wonderful example for Rengetsu excellent skills in rendering synesthetic impressions. The tea cup is inscribed with one of her poems:
across the moon
until I hear their cries –
a sky full of wild geese.
Here, Rengetsu describes a scene of a darkening sky that first seems to be threatening and unpleasant, just until the moment one hears the voices of clamoring wild geese. On the surface of the tea cup she combines her poem with the image of three wild geese in her abbreviated brush strokes.
Black Robe, White Mist: Art of the Japanese Buddhist Nun Rengetsu, National Gallery of Australia, 2007.
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