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Curator's Choice. The Inalienable Artwork by Yukio Lippit

What is it about art that allows it to evoke such powerful memories of other people? How does a given art object give rise to such poignant nostalgia? What magic enables it to conjure visceral feelings of longing or pull one into immersive reflection upon a past relationship? These are the questions that come to mind whenever I view Invocation Sheet (Nembutsu), a work of calligraphy in the Harvard Art Museums (HAM) attributed to the Japanese warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616)  (Fig. 1).

The art historical context of Invocation Sheet can be readily summarized. Ieyasu is said to have become increasingly devout in his late years, especially after he ceded the shogunal seat to his son Hidetada and retired to Sunpu Castle, in 1607. Legend has it that the monk Tōyo from the temple Daiju-ji urged Ieyasu to atone for a lifetime of murder and destruction by chanting and writing daily the nembutsu, or the name of the Buddha Amida. Scrolls inscribed with these daily invocations have survived in a wide array of collections, most notably The Tokugawa Art Museum, Tokyo National Museum, Idemitsu Museum of Arts and numerous temple collections. Some of these scrolls have colophons explaining their circumstances of inscription, and in many cases, fragments from a larger handscroll have been excerpted and remounted as hanging scrolls. Such fragments are still encountered on the antiquities market occasionally

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November/December 2020
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