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Rio de Janeiro by Tom Johnson

Sofu Teshigahara

herman de vries
The Plant
The Man Who Turned Flowers Into Contemporary Art

Lorena Muñoz-Alonso

Sogetsu Ikebana School

Ana Cuba

Story from Issue 12
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Ikebana may be comparable to painting, music or sculpture. Characteristics of ikebana can be defined in terms of lines and mass, colour, composition, space, volume, strength and delicacy. These elements of art can also be found in painting, music and sculpture.
Through ikebana, one can experience a monochrome painting, rhythm, or even a sound. As three-dimensional art, the characteristics of ikebana are also common to sculpture.

Sofu Teshigahara, Principle#31,
The Fifty Principles of Sogetsu (c. 1932)

Caption prueba

You may think – and you’d be right – that there is nothing that remarkable about calling ikebana an ‘art’, as the grandmaster Sofu Teshigahara does in this principle formulated many decades ago. After all, ikebana, the Japanese tradition of flower arrangement is one of the main disciplines that form the national arts and crafts, along-side calligraphy, origami, bonsai and tea ceremonies.

What’s really groundbreaking here is Sofu’s conflation of ikebana with both the intellectual challenges and aesthetic pleasures afforded by modern art – like a monochrome painting – and his view of flower arranging as a three-dimensional experience, much like sculpture.This very contemporary understanding of the millenary tradition is what would set this twentieth-century master apart. Sofu’s philosophy altered the course of ikebana for-ever, pushing its conceptual remit to uncharted territories and elevating its formal aspects to new heights.

Let’s first briefly recap of what ikebana is – an artform with origins closely tied to religion. Ikebana was born nearly 1,500 years ago, as a development of theBuddhist ritual of offering flowers to the spirits of the dead.By the mid-fifteenth century, it became a stand-alone artform detached from its original religious purpose, yet still kept its symbolic and philosophical connotations.

Since then, this floral art has truly flourished. Different schools were founded, from the very first one, called Ikenobo, to the more modern Ohara. Along with these schools, different styles also boomed, from the ancient austerity of rikka and kakukato the more elaborate and westernised arrangements of moribana. Currently, there are over 200 schools operating all over the world.

Ikebana, however, no matter what school or style, doesn’t strive to attain beauty and harmony by merely copying or replicating nature. The raison d’être of each arrangement is to idealise and stylise nature and its changing seasons, while reflecting the mind of the ikebanist that created it.


Theories of art are always developed after the artwork itself. You can create theory from an artwork but not an artwork from theory.

Theories can easily be overturned by one clever person, but art always retains its mysteries. This is especially the case with ikebana, which uses natural materials to provide endless encounters with unfathomable mysteries.

Sofu Teshigahara, The Book of Flowers (p. 51)

Echoing a similar shift in the fields of music or visual arts at the beginning of the twentieth-century, ikebana experienced a transition towards more free-form arrangements. A pull towards modern and avant-garde approaches meant a break from the strict, traditional rules of the discipline that were written down and followed for centuries. This evolution, accredited to transformations of the discipline’s understanding in the East and its wider dissemination in the West, climaxed with Sofu’s establishment of the Sogetsu School.

Sofu learnt the classic art of ikebana from his father, the master Wafu Teshigahara. The young apprentices howed a keen interest in painting from an early age, but the strict education implemented by his father focused solely on traditional ikebana. This visual art drive stayed with the young Sofu and eventually found its way into his arrangements.

Focusing on the similarities between ikebana, painting and sculpture, and understanding flower arranging as a tool for artistic and emotional expression, Sofu’s practice began breaking away from traditions his father represented – a rupture that lead to the creation of anew modern style, which would become hugely influential in Japan and abroad.

In 1927, when he was twenty-seven years old, Sofu founded the Sogetsu School in Tokyo. The new school advocated looser styles and the use of a wider array of materials and props, hurling the discipline in a more sculptural direction. Also, placement of ikebana arrangements was extended to other locations in the home, not just the traditionalt okonoma (an alcove in the main room). Even shop windows became potential locations for ikebana displays.

‘Sofu’s approach to ikebana was extremely artistic and avant-garde,’ Shoko Koizumi-Hanson, director of theLondon branch of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana, told me over coffee in central London. ‘The time when he launched the school was a period of wars and economic crises in Japan, but his concept was that ikebanists could use any material, absolutely any besides expensive flowers to make arrangements.

’This was revolutionary, Koizumi-Hanson said, ‘because it not only meant that practitioners could look for materials beyond flowers and foliage, but it also opened up the artistic possibilities of ikebana.

’By upending traditions that constrained the art of ikebana for centuries, Sofu made the discipline much more accessible and approachable. Suddenly, practitioners didn’t have to feel intimidated by the dearth of top quality flower material, or the lack of experience or skills in the field. For Sofu, sensibility, observation and an artistic disposition were as important, if not more, than technique. ‘Technique is only a tool for the expression of what resides in the heart,’ he said. It was a democratic, liberating approach, which prioritised artistic expression over virtuosity.

In 1954, Sofu created a work called Gendaijin (Modern Man), made of pieces of iron. Not a single sliver of fresh material was included. He called this new type of arrangement an ‘object ikebana.’ In fact, during the post-war period, he created a vast amount of works using iron scraps, which were commonly available. Workers in his atelier at the time recalled how each morning, before going to the studio, Sofu would pass by the scrap shop in the area of Ichigaya and source metallic bits and bobs, which he putto use in his creations.

Was the ikebana community outraged by Sofu’s daring innovations? ‘No. I don’t think there were any complaints or out-rage in the community,’ Koizumi-Hanson recounted.‘I think people appreciated it, and the possibilities it brought. But it’s true that perhaps at first he was more ad-mired in foreign countries like France.’


The recent sculpture of the master Teshigahara Sofu has served as a major step in establishing a new aesthetic [...]. Until a new order is born, ‘adjacency’ is the most abstract concept we have.

The term ‘composition,’ which now enjoys currency in aesthetics and art criticism, is too classical, and I am even of the opinion that it should be replaced with ‘arrangement’ [...].

Michel Tapié, A Mental Reckoning of My First Trip to Japan (1957)

By the time Sofu started working on his ‘object ikebanas,’ Sogetsu School was firmly established as a new school. Moreover, the school played an unusually significant role in Japan’s contemporary art scene. No doubt, this was due to Sofu’s deep-seated interest in the visual arts, which compelled him to create sculpture, painting and avant-garde calligraphy works, which drew from and explored similar principles to his flower arrangements.

Sofu’s first exhibition as a sculptor took place at Tokyo’s Bridgestone Museum in 1957. This year is particularly significant because it coincided with French art critic and curator Michel Tapié’s visit to the city. Tapié was invited by the Japanese painter Toshimitsu Imai to give lectures on abstract painting and the Art Informel movement –a European response to Abstract Expressionism which gathered artists like Karel Appel, Alberto Burri, Willem de Kooning, Jean Dubuffet and Pierre Soulages, among many others.

Tapié’s visit proved extremely fruitful. To art connoisseurs today, the French critic is probably best known for bringing work of the Japanese avant-garde group Gutaito France and the US. And, indeed, it was during this trip that Tapié first encountered the Gutai art collective, established in 1954, whose radical approach to painting, installation and performance both predated and influenced key artistic practices in the West during the 1960s and 1970s (from happenings to conceptual art).

In Tokyo, Tapié also encountered the work of Sofu, both his ikebanas and his painting and sculpture, and was utterly fascinated. He then organised Sofu’s first European solo exhibition at Galerie Stadler in Paris in 1959, after which the Japanese master exploded onto the French scene. In 1960, Sofu was awarded the Order of Arts andLetters by the French government, and the Legion of Honour followed shortly after, in 1961.


Set things you can not see. There are many things in your heart that are invisible. Flowers are concrete, but ikebana is abstract.

Sofu Teshigahara, The Book of Flowers (p. 8)

While the Sogetsu School cemented its reputation in Japan and abroad, another initiative within the school went onto carve a name for itself in the annals of art history. The Sogetsu Art Center (SAC) – which operated between 1958and 1971 under the helm of Sofu’s son, Hiroshi Teshigahara – became a meeting point for the experimental art scene in Japan; a place where artists, musicians, designers, filmmakers, critics and writers met to perform, discuss and collaborate.

The centre was hosted in the newly built Sogetsu School in the A kasaka area of Tokyo, which was designed by the architect Kenzō Tange (winner of the 1987 Pritzker Prize). The institution had a concert hall, an exhibition space and a recording studio, which proved useful forSAC’s avant-garde programming spanning performance, screenings, exhibitions and experimental concerts.

So important was the SAC in the development of the avant-garde scene in Japan that it even holds the honour of having programmed the first documented happening in the country, Ichiyanagi Toshi’s IBM: Happening and Musique Concrète, (30 November 1961). The programming of musique concrète in a broader institution dedicated to ikebana might sound like an odd pairing at first but on closer inspection, the avant-garde endeavours of musique concrète and Sogetsu shared a common strategy – extracting and collating natural phenomena like field recordings and vegetal life, and then composing fastidious arrangement by pushing natural qualities of these elements to hyper-artificial intensity (i.e. their raw materials are rooted in the natural world, but the ultimate effect of those compositional pieces is almost otherworldly).

SAC’s influence and reach, however, extended well beyond the Japanese border. The following year, Ichiyanagi– a renowned experimental composer who was married to Yoko Ono from 1956 to 1963 – invited John Cage, David Tudor and Merce Cunningham to visit Japan for the first time on behalf of the SAC, which created a veritable East/West axis of artistic exchange.

Like his father, Hiroshi, who graduated from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1950, had always had a strong artistic vocation, which he combined with his dedication to ikebana, the family tradition. Despite his enduring dedication to sculpture and ikebana, Hiroshi, however, might be best known to international audiences for his work as a film director.

His first feature Pitfall was released in 1962. The surreal social drama based on the lives of workers from the local mining industry was made in collaboration with the writer and playwright Kobo Abe and the composer Toru Takemitsu: two important cultural luminaries he continued collaborating with throughout the 1960s. His 1964 film Woman in the Dunes, another collaboration with Abe and Takemitsu, was nominated Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars that year. The disturbing but stunningly shot love story additionally won the Special Jury Prize at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival.

Yet, despite a sterling career in cinema, from the mid-1970s onwards Hiroshi decided to focus his practice on sculpture and the Sogetsu School. In 1980, he became grand master (Iemoto) of the school, taking over from his older sister Kasumi, who replaced Sofu after his death in 1979. Kasumi succeeded as Iemoto for only one year as she, herself, died prematurely at the age of forty-seven.

‘Each Iemoto had a distinct personality, which of course had an effect in the school,’ Koizumi-Hanson explained. ‘For example, Sofu was extremely artistic, bringing all these non-fresh materials like iron. Kasumi favoured the use of clusters of very small flowers. And Hiroshi was a master of bamboo, creating these impressive structures,’ she said, showing me images of large-scale bamboo installations, so vast in scale that they can be read as architectural interventions.


Ikebana will fail if its ultimate goal is imitation of nature –even if the imitation is more or less perfect. Nature is already perfect. [...] One takes a piece of nature and adds something that was not there. This is what creation in ikebana means.[...]

Go ahead and create a false appearance; the appearance will become the reality. False appearances require creativity, and ikebana without creativity is worthless.

Sofu Teshigahara, The Book of Flowers (pp. 20 & 8)

In 2001, when Hiroshi died, his daughter Akane became the fourth Iemoto, a position she still holds today. 2017 was an exceedingly busy period for the school, which celebrated its ninetieth anniversary with a series of high-profile events and exhibitions.

Almost a century since it was first launched, the ikebana style created by Sofu Teshigahara is riding a wave of popularity. TIME Magazine even dubbed Teshigahara the ‘Picasso of flowers,’ a catchy label that endures.

According to Noriko Vincent, secretary and public relations officer at the Sogetsu Tokyo headquarters, there are currently 49 branches in Japan and about 120 branches and study groups overseas, including the London branch directed by Shoko. Over 20,000 ikebanists all over the world hold the qualification of Shihan (teachers’ diploma) and are engaged in the dissemination of the Sogetsu School in Japan and abroad.

In the spirit of Sofu, Sogetsu today pushes the boundaries of how and what contemporary ikebana should be, engaging in a variety of activities that include stage design, commercial displays and even fashion shows. ‘

Sogetsu Ikebana is characterized by the ability to arrange at any time, in any place and by anyone using any kind of material,’ Noriko told me. ‘The school has become more sophisticated through the passage of time, based on free and liberated expressions advocated by Sofu, who emphasised the personality of each arranger in their work.

’The link with visual arts is still very much present and prioritised, Noriko continued, through collaborations with artists in other fields, such as painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians and calligraphers. ‘At Akane Teshigahara solo exhibition HANA SO, held in commemoration of the Sogetsu 90th Anniversary, she collaborated with six contemporary artists. And our newly published textbook contains a section entitled Complementing an Art Work, which encourages ikebana learners to receive inspiration from artworks including contemporary art, and create ikebana works in the same space as artworks.

’Also in the West, contemporary artists – perhaps most notably Camille Henrot – succumbed to the charms and possibilities of the Sogetsu School. The French artist began developing ikebana compositions in 2011 when she moved to New York and recreated her personal library left behind in Paris with flowers, as if returning her books to their original vegetal state.‘

To me, the Sogetsu ikebana are really contemporary art, they are sculptural pieces. There is also something very playful about the way the Sogetsu School integrates materials alongside floral elements, including metallic elements, and stones,’ Henrot wrote from New York.

In 2012, at the Paris gallery Kamel Mennour, Henrot staged the show Is it possible to be a revolutionary and like flowers?, presenting the ikebana works she focused on exclusively for over a year. Some of the compositions presented at the show were made in collaboration with the Paris-based Sogetsu master Rica Arai.

‘As my interest in the Sogetsu School developed, I discovered the relationship between John Cage and the music and painting of the 1960s,’ Henrot said. ‘Coincidentally, I was reading Cage’s diary How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), and the connection between flower arranging and consolation, utopia and art forms that are wrongly labelled as decorative was something that I was ruminating upon. I was really fascinated by the story of the school and the Teshigahara family.

’Henrot continues to make and show ikebana works, most recently at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, as part of the major show Days are Dogs.


All flowers are beautiful, but not all ikebana is necessarily beautiful. Flowers, when set in ikebana, cease to be just flowers. Flowers become human in ikebana. That makes ikebana interesting–and also beautiful. Whether you set in an unnatural, natural, or supernatural setting, flowers become human. Because we have flowers, we have ikebana. Without humans, ikebana would be impossible.

Sofu Teshigahara, The Book of Flowers (p. 8)

Why does ikebana, and Sogetsu in particular, continue to fascinate? The question of their unique beauty might hold the key. Unlike western arrangements, ikebana arrangements tend to be much more sparse, their pro-portions perfectly measured. Looking at them, the empty spaces between vase, flowers and foliage seem to hold as much visual weight as what’s actually there. Absence is as important as presence. When thinking of ikebana, per-haps the gesture that comes to mind is a shear-wielding hand cutting superfluous elements away here and there. In western arrangements, a profusion of stems are shuffled and reshuffled, but rarely taken off.

Another fascinating aspect of ikebana is its relationship to nature. Many readers might think that these arrangements are tiny portions of nature, neatly packaged in a vase. But as Sofu’s teachings attest, ikebana’s relation to nature is much more complicated and not based at all on the principle of imitation. Ikebana takes nature and turns it into something highly stylised, even artificial. It is, in essence, a perfectly balanced hybrid of nature and culture.

Through human intervention flowers become imperfect and humanised, Sofu philosophised, as if ikebana provides a tender foliage bridge between the vegetal and human worlds. When we arrange flowers following the Sogetsu principles, we borrow something from their perfect natural beauty. In exchange, we infuse them with as liver of our imperfect, complex souls. §

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