Tenmyouya Hisashi’s “Rhyme.” Detail. I am sad to see that more of my photos from this exhibit did not come out better. This, sadly, is the best shot I got of the piece – and with the tiny screen on the camera, I guess I thought it was better than this.
Okay. I said I wasn’t sure if I would come back to write more about this exhibit, but, Odorunara’s fascinating insights on the Mr. show at the Seattle Art Museum right now inspired me to suddenly find myself thinking about this exhibit again, and put me into “writing mode,” to write out my thoughts on the second half of this exhibit, at Japan Society in NY only until Jan 11.
Tenmyouya Hisashi, like Yamaguchi Akira, Ikeda Manabu, and Yamamoto Tarô, is easily among the most prominent neo-Nihonga, or Nipponga, artists active today, each of them doing work that strongly draws upon the Japanese art history tradition in one way or another. Yet, while the mainstream of Nihonga art focuses on continuing a tradition of painting bijinga (pictures of beautiful women), ink landscapes, and other such works with the dominant aesthetic being one of subtle quiet beauty, Tenmyouya instead takes a rather different perspective on the Japanese artistic tradition. Think about contemporary 21st century imaginings and stereotypes of “traditional” “Japanese” art: Buddhist iconography and samurai war scenes don’t generally enter into it. Yet, these are the chief things Tenmyouya references. If you know something about Japanese art history, you know that he is drawing heavily upon styles and subjects of the Azuchi-Momoyama period, including Nanban-e (pictures of Europeans), kabukimono (street toughs with outré fashions), and the flashy, showy, bold aesthetic of basara, which emphasizes wealth, bold colors, lots of use of gold, and has been described as “the family of beauty that stands on the opposite end of the spectrum from wabi sabi and zen.”1
Thinking about it, considering his choice of referents, and his militant or violent alterations to those themes, I feel one possible way to read Tenmyouya’s works might be that he is seeking to tell an alternate narrative of Japanese (art) history, and identity. Pointing to serene Zen rock gardens, intellectual literati ink landscapes, and the boisterous & colorful but ultimately harmless atmosphere of ukiyo-e (or, the quiet, refined, restrained elegance, for that matter, of the geisha, courtesan arts, etc. depicted in the ukiyo-e), one typical and dominant narrative of Japanese art history and aesthetics is one of cultured, refined, intellectual pursuits, and of relatively peaceful aesthetics. After all, peasant uprisings aside, the Tokugawa period may be one of the longest and most peaceful periods of peace any part of the world has ever seen. But then Tenmyouya’s work – his Fudô Myôô holding a bayonetted rifle with a Rising Sun flag; his rock garden bathed in blood and covered in skulls; the war scene hung on the wall; and many of his other works outside this exhibit as well – reminds us of the role war and violence played in Japanese history, and in art, and asserts perhaps that the militarism of the 1930s-40s (and the decades leading up to that) is not an aberration to simply be forgotten about, but rather something more intrinsic to Japanese history and identity, that the Japanese as a people, as a nation, need to come to terms with.
Fudô is hardly a common subject among the mainstream of neo-traditional (Nihonga) painters – throughout the 20th century, those working in the most traditional/conservative mode have often stuck to pictures of beautiful women in kimono, to ink landscapes, and so forth. Yet, one the earliest, and most famous Nihonga works, when Nihonga was first born in the 1880s, was a painting of Fudô Myôô by Kanô Hôgai. And, further, it was painted with the idea in mind that this represented (one part of) truly Japanese national essence and tradition. Admittedly, Ernest Fenollosa’s personal obsession with Buddhist art, and his personal ideas about what does and does not represent Japanese national identity, skews this somewhat, as he’s just one individual perspective, and a foreigner to boot. But, even so, it shows that at that time, at the end of 250 years of peace, the strong and frightening figure of Fudô, demonic in appearance, wielding a sword and lariat, and surrounded by flame, could be seen as an essential part of Japanese tradition and national character. By showing Fudô and Kannon armed with modern weaponry, Tenmyouya reminds his Japanese audience, perhaps, that Japan has /always/ been a militarist country, that it was ruled by samurai – by a warrior government, essentially a military dictatorship, in modern terms – and that Buddhism, and Buddhist figures such as Fudô, and Kannon (bodhisattva of compassion), have long been used in support of violent people and violent acts.
His two screens show a rather violent battle, but with no blood, and with a rather clean aesthetic to it overall. Violence in Japanese arts has grown quite aestheticized over the years, as seen perhaps most evidently in kendô, iaidô, and other martial arts, which today are so much more about forms, about meditative or spiritual aspects, distancing these arts from their actual violent origins and meanings. In short, violence gets aestheticized in Japanese art, and in Japanese memory of its own history, but, could this piece, along with the blood red rock garden, be saying that we need to remember just how violent and bloody Japanese history really was?
That said, I also think it is all too easy, and all too tempting, to ascribe anti-war sentiments and intentions onto any Japanese artist. While I would very much hesitate to suggest that Tenmyouya might be rightwing, nationalist, militarist, is it not possible that a Japanese artist is doing something that’s meant to address themes other than the country’s militarist past? Maybe he simply enjoys the rough, bold, aesthetics of Basara, and the “cool,” “awesome,” tough, characters of the samurai, gods like Fudô, and so forth? Plenty of people think samurai are cool without being militarists. Yamaguchi Akira does a lot with warriors on horseback, often riding horses which are actually half-motorcycle, very similar content in a way to Tenmyouya’s kabukimono/bôsôzoku stuff, yet, I don’t think anyone would ever even begin to think that Yamaguchi is militarist… Maybe Tenmyouya has some other intentions with his work. Life is complex. The world is complex. To assume that all Japanese art is about their relationship to the war is, actually, essentializing. American art includes works about just about everything (and many works about nothing at all) – why can’t Japanese art be just as diverse?
I guess I really should say something, too, about Tenmyouya’s piece “Rhyme,” and the questions it evokes as to media. “Rhyme” consists of two works which are mirror-images of one another. One is painted in acrylics, and the other is a digital reproduction, mirror-flipped and printed using a high-end artist’s inkjet printer. The iconography and subject matter is clearly Japanese. The use of gold leaf is very much Japanese. The horizontal format, evoking a folding screen (byôbu) is evocative of traditional Japanese art. But, Nihonga originally a hundred years ago was defined, essentially, by its use of traditional media (e.g. ink and mineral pigments on silk or paper, etc.), regardless of the subject matter, or style of depiction. Takeuchi Seihô did some gorgeous depictions of the Grand Canal in Venice, in a rather realistic (read: European) style, in inks on paper. Now, we have artists like Tenmyouya, Yamaguchi, and Yamamoto making works that reference and evoke and draw upon traditional Japanese art just about as closely as you can while still being outside of those traditions, and they’re doing so in modern/Western, or let’s just say non-traditional, media. Is it still Nihonga, or neo-Nihonga, or Nipponga? Especially if we use one of the latter terms, absolutely yes. But, is there something more to be said here, to argue for or against how to conceptually categorize these artists, and the trend or (sub-)genre they seem to represent? … Nothing that really comes to mind at the moment, beyond that I think it’s wonderful. Beautiful, powerful, and intriguing. Holes are beginning to be poked through the concrete, and traditional, or rather neo-traditional, Japanese culture, is beginning to sprout and grow up through those holes. Artists are turning away from feeling they need to prove themselves, and their country, as “modern,” and are turning back towards exploring, expressing, investigating, inventing, being Japanese.
1) Patricia Graham, Japanese Design, Tuttle Publishing (2014), 37-39.