Archive for the ‘Japanese design’ Category

The 14th century graves of Shimazu Ujihisa (center), his daughter (left), and wife (right), at the Shimazu clan cemetery at Fukushô-ji, in Kagoshima.

Almost done with exams. So close I can smell it.

If you’ve been to Japan (or even if you haven’t), you’ve probably seen stone grave markers like this one. If you’re a nerd like me, you might have wondered something about them. What does the shape symbolize? How long ago did the Japanese start using them? How has the shape, or other aspects of their use, change over time? Despite the ubiquity of these grave markers – you can find them in just about every cemetery in Japan – and their distinctive aesthetic / sculptural form, in my experience, textbooks and classes on Japanese art and architecture typically skip over grave practices entirely. I have never yet been to China or Korea, but I am told that Japanese grave markers and burial practices otherwise are rather distinct from those on the continent… so you would think it would be something worth talking about.

One of the few things I did hear about these five-stage gorintô structures previously was that they are meant to represent the five elements. But, I’d always been confused as to which set of elements these were supposed to represent; if the five Chinese elements are wood, metal, fire, earth, and water, then how/why would this Japanese form feature such associations with earth, water, fire, wind, and void? Turns out the latter are the Indian five elements, adopted more directly into Japan from Sanskritic/Buddhist origins than the natively Chinese (Confucian? Taoist?) wǔ xíng. The form is also used as a tool for meditation, the five stages representing five portions of the human body, or of Dainichi (the Universal Buddha), associated with the elements. The folded legs are earth; the hara (abdomen/stomach) is water; the chest fire; the head air; and above that, void.

Fortunately, Prof. Hank Glassman of Haverford College gave a fascinating talk on the subject recently. As he explained, as recently as the Heian period, visiting graves was not a widespread custom, and graves generally were not even marked. Eiga monogatari, from the early 12th century, is among the earliest literary works describing a visit to a grave, yet here it is still limited to the top echelons of the elites, and the grave remains unmarked. A member of the Fujiwara clan seeks to visit his father’s grave, to tell of his promotions in title/post to his father, but worries he won’t be able to find the unmarked grave, which is also overgrown with weeds, since the custom of maintaining or cleaning graves was also not widespread yet; Glassman suggests the practice of maintaining, marking, and visiting graves may have become more standard in Japan along with the introduction of the Neo-Confucian teachings of Zhu Xi, which would have emphasized filial piety – obligations to one’s parents, and ancestors.

Sotoba at Negishi Cemetery in Yokohama.

The first stone gorintô grave markers are believed to have been based on wooden ones, a few of which survive, albeit only from later centuries. Even before that, however, the first gorintô were far smaller. They were reliquaries, as is the original essential idea of the stupa form. Some of the earliest such gorintô reliquaries date to the 1190s, and have been found in rock crystal or bronze, placed inside Buddhist statuary, as receptacles for holding relics of the Buddha, arhats, or other significant Buddhist figures. This form was then adopted onto carved flat wooden planks, carved only into the topmost sections of the plank; this evolved by the 12th century into the fully three-dimensional wooden form, and then the stone one, but still survives too in the wooden planks (sotoba) seen all the time at Japanese cemeteries today. These, we learned, are typically replaced at a given grave every day for the first week after burial, and then annually after that; Glassman spoke of the beauty and impressiveness of the monks’ skills at inscribing calligraphy, in both Chinese and Siddham, on these planks by brush.

A small gorintô atop the grave of Murasaki Shikibu in Kyoto (presumably a later addition, though I don’t know how much later).

It was only in the late 12th century that the custom of stone grave markers is thought to have been first imported from the continent, though adapted to a distinctly Japanese form (shape) of marker, already in use in wood. Even then, the practice was initially rather limited to the aristocracy, and to the most prominent of religious figures. The first gorintô grave markers are believed to have been carved and erected in Japan by a group of Chinese stonemasons invited from the continent to aid in the rebuilding of Tôdai-ji, which was destroyed in the Genpei War of the 1180s. Once the Tôdai-ji project was completed, for some reason these stonemasons remained in Japan rather than return home to China; this may have been because the journey was too difficult in some way, or too dangerous, though probably not because of expense, given that the Tôdai-ji project itself was extraordinarily expensive, including the shipping of many tons of stone from Suzhou to Nara, so surely the shogunate (or whomever) could afford to fund the return trip.

Let’s step back a moment. The Great Buddha Hall at Tôdai-ji, then and now the largest wooden building in the world1, and housing the largest bronze Buddha in the world at that time, if not today, was destroyed by warriors of the Taira clan in the 1181 Siege of Nara. Even before the end of the war in 1185, efforts to rebuild the great temple were begun. Hônen (1133-1212), founder of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan, was asked to head up the project and apparently turned it down. One of Hônen’s direct disciples, Shunjôbô Chôgen (1121-1206), then took up the project, coordinating both the fundraising and the construction. It was Chôgen, who had previously spent time in China, who organized to have a group of stonemasons come from Ningbo, then known as Mingzhou, to help with the project. Glassman says we do not know just how Chôgen knew, or found, these stonemasons, but he conjectures that they may have been associated with temples Chôgen stayed/studied at in China.

Based on inscriptions on some of these stone markers, and other objects, we know that one of these Chinese stonemasons was named Yī Xíngmò (伊行末, I Gyômatsu or I Yukisue in Japanese), and that his son Yī Xíngjí (伊行吉, J: I Gyôkichi, or I Yukiyoshi) was active in Japan in the late 12th or early 13th century as well. Yī Xíngmò would have been fairly young at that time, and is believed to have been only a junior member of the team, perhaps even an apprentice, when he accompanied some number of master stonemasons to Japan in the 1180s; however, it is his name which comes down to us today, by virtue of inscriptions such as those on certain stone carvings at Hannya-ji in Nara, by his son Yī Xíngjí.

After arriving in Japan, the stonemasons determined that Japanese stone was too soft, and despite the incredible expense, Chôgen apparently managed to afford to have tons of stone imported from China. This comes as a particular surprise given the stories surrounding the fundraising efforts for the rebuilding of the temple. Monks traveled the provinces collecting donations, and in fact, a very famous and popular kabuki play, based on an earlier Noh play, features Minamoto no Yoshitsune and his companion Benkei pretending to be just such donations-collecting monks, traveling the provinces, as part of Yoshitsune’s efforts to escape from his brother’s men. Still, in any case, the stone was boated in, and two stone lions believed to have been made at that time by those Chinese stonemasons still survive today at Tôdai-ji. A group of four stone statues of the Deva Kings they are said to have produced at the same time do not survive, however. The stone lions are quite ornately decorated, with carved-on wreaths and sashes; in China, ornamentation on stone lions was restricted to Imperial tombs, but in Japan, such attitudes and policies were not in place, and further this was one of the greatest – and originally strongly Imperial-associated – Buddhist temples in the realm.

The graves of Katsu Kaishû and his wife, at Senzoku-ike Park in Tokyo.

Once the Tôdai-ji project was complete, it is believed that some of these stonemasons may have found work at Mt. Kôya, where some of the first gorintô stone grave markers would have been produced. Glassman says Mt. Kôya might represent the largest graveyard in the world; I have never been, but would love to visit. The earliest gorintô marked the graves of eminent monks, and of members of co-fraternities, not only in the Kyoto/Nara region and at Mt. Kôya, but rather broadly across the archipelago; the oldest extant stone gorintô inscribed with dates are located in such disparate regions as Hiraizumi, in the far north, and in Ôita prefecture, in Kyushu; both of these date to 1269.

Yi’s descendants went on to become well-established, with at least two major branches of gravestone-carving styles developing. The main branch of descendants and disciples, still called the “Yi school,” or I-ha (伊派) in Japanese, was based largely in Nara and Kyushu in the early medieval period, while another branch, the Ôkura-ha (大蔵派), became prominent in the Kantô (around Kamakura, and what would later become Edo, and then Tokyo).

All photos my own.
1. Or, at least, the largest wooden building constructed prior to the 1990s or so. According to Wikipedia, a baseball stadium in Akita, built in 1998, is larger. Boo.

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As with Japanese architecture, “design” has very much the potential – or should I say the danger – of you ending up with a coffee table book, full of beautiful pictures but with very little content. There is also the risk of ending up with a book where the content is all hand-wavey, Orientalist (or bordering on Orientalist) talk about the simple elegance of Japanese design, one where the author is just so captivated, so stunned, by his/her admiration for the simplicity and refinement of the style that they are unable to say anything meaningful. Thankfully, and as I expected, Graham, a former professor and curator at the University of Kansas, is not that author.

She organizes the book in an interesting fashion, with a series of sections on individual aesthetics such as iki, miyabi & fûryû, wabi & sabi, and kabuku & basara, followed by, in Chapter Two, a few pages on religious influence in design, and then a lengthy section on “Ten Key Characteristics” of “design in Japanese culture.” These ten feel like they border on an Orientalist approach, I’m afraid to say – perhaps it is because they are presented in a list as they are, as though these were the definitive, categorical aspects to understanding the fundamental notions underlying all of Japanese culture. And yet, at the same time, even as you run the risk of reifying all the old stereotypes, it’s not as if these things aren’t at least partially true. Japanese design does show great attention to detail, appreciation of changing seasons, and so forth.

In the third chapter, Graham provides brief biographies (roughly half a page to a full page) of a series of prominent 19th-20th century Westerners who “introduced” Japanese art & design to the West, and played key roles in promoting it. This is kind of nice, for me in particular as I’m always looking for info I can adapt directly into the Samurai-Archives Wiki, and its a fine way to learn a little more about the likes of Denman Waldo Ross, Arthur Wesley Dow, Laurence Binyon, and Theodore Duret.

Overall, there’s a lot of good information in this book, introducing readers to proper Japanese terms for a variety of aesthetic categories, for example, and there are tons of gorgeous pictures. Still, overall, it feels a bit scattered. I wonder if the book might have been better, stronger, if it focused on just one of these three chapters, and expanded on those themes into the full length of the book. As much as I enjoy the opportunity to read more about these prominent Western “promoters of Japanese art,” for example, a book which devotes more than a few pages to each of a number of aesthetic categories – iki, wabi & sabi, etc. as mentioned above – might feel meatier.

One thing Graham’s book certainly is not, which I sort of expected it might be, is a detailed description of individual creators – Yanagi Sôri, Tange Kenzô, George Nakashima, Rosanjin – and their works. For better or for worse, it is instead a broader-ranging discussion of aesthetics and style throughout many aspects of Japanese arts & design, touching upon architecture, painting, ceramics, lacquerware, and numerous other arts but each only briefly or tangentially. There is great value to this book, for sure, but when I think of all the things it leaves out – it is neither an in-depth discussion of individual creators, nor a systematic treatment of styles of architecture, pottery, or woodworking, nor does it delve into the aesthetics and style of objects normally outside the realms of art history – things just a little too everyday – – well, I guess I’m just a bit undecided about the book. It’s definitely very beautifully put together, though, and the information it provides is undoubtedly high quality and reliable. For under $20 (it’s $24.95 cover price, but even on Tuttle’s own page it’s showing $17.47 right now), you could do a lot worse.

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I’ve added a new image into the header rotation. It’s a map of the city of Kagoshima by Yoshida Hatsusaburô (1884-1955), from 1935, visible here on the website of the Maps Communications Museum.

Hatsusaburô’s maps are really something incredible, showing something rather resembling an actual bird’s eye view of what the city might have actually looked like, complete with topography and a few select examples of notable architecture. In a way, they’re the ultimate combination of modern realism of depiction (fine details, correct proportions) and pre-modern bird’s eye views, with nothing of modern abstract cartographic conventions.

You can see more of Yoshida’s maps on recent posts on Shinpai Deshou and Spoon & Tamago, and at the Maps Communication Museum website.

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I recently discovered the website nippon.com. Run by Nippon Communications Foundation, the people behind Japan Echo (published until 2010), with support from the Nippon Foundation… admittedly, these are not organizations with which I am familiar, but as compared to certain other sites, they do a truly excellent job of providing quality content. Nippon.com’s articles are not superficial treatments or basic summaries of the most canon Japanese tourist sites & cultural experiences, aimed at first-time (and possibly one-time-only) visitors to Japan; rather, they are aimed at those with a more serious interest in Japanese culture, who may be relative beginners but who are serious about learning more, and engaging with issues related to culture & heritage preservation, traditional arts, and historiography.

The articles on Nippon.com go far beyond the standard stories in several ways – both going deeper, as in the case of articles about specific goings-on in the kabuki world & interviews with kabuki actors in place of the very superficial and generic “kabuki is a traditional theatre form dating back hundreds of years, with colorful costumes and bold action. Even if you’re only in Tokyo for a few days, you should definitely try to check it out!“, and going beyond in the sense of discussing aspects of Japan way off the beaten track. Take for example Nippon.com’s series of articles – yes, an entire series – on Islam in Japan, including two on Tokyo’s largest mosque, and one interview with a Japanese convert to Islam who makes efforts to combat stereotypes and ignorance, and to educate people about Islam.

Apropos of nothing, a view along the Kamogawa in Kyoto. Photo by own.

I am particularly impressed by the site’s use of interviews with, and articles by, prominent experts on the subject, where many other sites and publications simply use their own internal tourism/journalism staff, who repeat commonly-held beliefs or attitudes, without any true expertise. One of the first posts on Nippon.com I discovered, which immediately told me this was a very different kind of site, is one entitled “Foreign Relations in Early Modern Japan: Exploding the Myth of National Seclusion.” The misconception that Japan was “closed” or “isolated” during the Edo period (1615-1868), the connected idea that Edo period Japan was “dark,” regressive, or backwards as a result, and the continued use of the term “sakoku” (lit. “chained country”), is truly one of my greatest personal pet peeves as a historian. I know it sounds terribly obscure and picky and geeky, but this is actually a big deal – it has a major impact on how we, as Americans, as Japanese, as Europeans or Chinese, view and understand Japan. Scholars such as Arano Yasunori and Nagazumi Yoko in Japan, and Ronald Toby among others in the US, have been arguing since the 1980s that Japan was not “closed,” that it was quite active in international interactions and cultural exchange, and that we should stop using the word “sakoku,” and yet, today, far too many sources (tourism websites, guidebooks, popular magazines, TV shows, even supposedly top-rate newspapers and, sadly, occasionally, scholarly works) still continue to reinforce these misconceptions. And since TV shows, newspapers, magazines, and tourist materials are so much more widely consumed than history books and scholarly journal articles are, these misperceptions persist. I don’t know their numbers – hits, readership – but Nippon.com represents a more widely accessible and more “popular” form of media – an online popular magazine, if you will – and Arano Yasunori’s article on their site is a truly excellent treatment to the subject. It is thorough and reflective of the latest research, and genuinely informative, as well as easy to read, clear, and engaging, with lots of nice diagrams and images, and all while being relatively short.

Ainu robes on exhibit at the East-West Center Gallery in Honolulu, Feb 2013. Photo my own.

Nippon.com goes further, with equally interesting articles on “The Ainu and Early Commerce in the Sea of Okhotsk,” “The Dutch East India Company and the Rise of Intra-Asian Commerce,” “Historical Trends in Eurasia and Japan: Mongols to Manchus,” and “The Extra-National Pirate-Traders of East Asia.”

The breadth and depth of articles on this site is truly incredible. I wish I had the time to read more of these articles, on everything from “The Xinhai Revolution and Sino-Japanese Relations,” to “The Dolls that Sparked Japan’s Love of Robots: “Karakuri Ningyō”,” to The Aichi Triennale and contemporary art in post-3/11 Japan, to the history of asadora (TV morning dramas).

I am really impressed with this site, and think it may be one of the best on the Internet, for high schoolers, college students, armchair historians, or anyone interested in learning more about Japan, through short but high-quality articles introducing a truer, more complex, vision of Japan – a Japan with a long history of interactions with Russia, a Japan with a contemporary Muslim population, a Japan wrestling with maintaining, preserving, protecting, and changing traditions.

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Alex Kerr spoke recently at a TEDx event in Kyoto, once again on the topic of reviving old architecture, old spaces, to make them livable for the modern age, and attractive, overturning the old idea that “modernity” is built in concrete and in “modern” boondoggles, and suggesting a possible way of reviving old towns. This is something I’ve been interested in for many years – in fact, it was Kerr’s Lost Japan that really helped cement my interest in Japan, ten years ago, when I was in college; I have posted about this stuff before, and I’m not sure I have anything too new to say, so, apologies for that, I suppose, but I still think it a very important and very interesting topic.

The city of Sakura, in Chiba prefecture, as seen from the Sakura Art Museum, facing towards Keisei Sakura Station. Photo my own, July 2013.

Japan’s provincial and rural areas (“the inaka“) are facing a serious depopulation problem. We’ve been hearing about it for a long time, and continue to hear about it, from countless different news sources. I’m not sure if I’ve ever really seen it for myself, but then I’ve also never really spent much time in the inaka, with the exception of Sakura. And I wasn’t really able to get a sense of whether this is going on in Sakura, or how Sakura is doing. Certainly, the city looks like it’s seen better days, or like it’s still waiting for some economic (re)birth to make its way out there – but, only an hour from Tokyo, with a direct train line to Ueno, I think that for Sakura that time will come, soon. Not that I know anything about demographic or economic statistics, but just from what I’ve seen, I get the impression that many Chiba communities are in fact growing more urban, more connected, more populated. I saw so many advertisements this summer for all kinds of new housing complexes and such, encouraging people to move out to these otherwise rather peripheral towns, with the assurance that even though you’re living in a town whose name rings of the tall grasses of the middle-of-nowhere of the Musashi Plains, you’re actually quite close by train to Tokyo, that there’s this and that shopping mall and supermarket, etc.

Now, I’ve drifted off-topic (and, that reminds me, I never did get back to writing a Part 2 of my Sakura posts), but, in this video Alex shows us a model diagram of an Inland Sea town – I wish he had said which one – in which an amazingly small percentage of the buildings are marked as occupied. It’s really kind of incredible to imagine. I’m very much looking forward to at some point in the next few years visiting Tomonoura, Mitarai, and some of the other ports and post-towns that the Ryukyuan embassies which I study traveled through. Not just for my sake, of course, as a tourist/historian or whatever, but for the sake of the people who live there, and for the sake of the great history of these towns, I hope they are better off than that; though, of course, every town, no matter how small, has its history, its traditions, its famous places, and it’s heartbreaking, it’s really kind of crushing to think of communities, with all their collective memories, collective identities, just fading out and disappearing. Three hundred year old being abandoned, locally favorite restaurants or shops, passed down through the generations, becoming shuttered as “everyone” has gone… And pardon me for taking the historian’s perspective, but how many of these regional towns have shrines or temples or other historical sites of great local, regional, or even national importance, and what does it mean for those sites – conceptually, discursively, spiritually – as these towns fall apart around them?

Okay, admittedly perhaps not the greatest example, as I don’t even know precisely what this building is, or what it was built for. But, out of the photos I myself have, let this building, located near the Fukuoka Dome SoftBank Hawks ballpark (Go Hawks!), and visible from the freeway, stand in as representative of the great many massive “modern” construction projects visible all over the place in Japan. Maybe it’s a huge sports complex for the whole city, and maybe it is perpetually under-used. Or maybe it’s something else; I must admit, I don’t actually know. Photo my own, June 2008.

Kerr rails against the tactic, or philosophy, that revitalization of rural areas comes through “modernization” – the modernization of the 1950s-70s mind, centered around concrete and steel, towers and municipal centers, shopping malls and highways. He cites as one of his examples Gold Tower, in Kagawa, which according to real estate data mining company Emporis, “closed on Sept. 30, 2001 as a result of mounting debts due to continuing decline in the number of visitors,” though it has since reopened, and that one of the attractions within the building is a toilet museum. Yeah. This sounds pretty typical of these kinds of projects.

The former geisha teahouse Shima, in Kanazawa’s Higashi-chayagai geisha district. Maintained today as a historic house / museum. Photo my own, January 2008.

In essence, we have a dichotomy, between these “modern” buildings, and an idea that the only way to preserve or conserve or maintain historical & traditional spaces is as museums, or historic houses, which no matter how well-maintained, or well-operated, are essentially relegated to a peripheral space, outside of everyday life. I can’t imagine that locals in Sakura have all that strong or close a relationship with the Juntendô; I wonder how many have even visited. And, even to the small extent that Sakura gets any kinds of tourists at all, I wonder how many visitors the Juntendô, or the Sakura samurai houses, really get on a daily basis. Not that it’s about “gate” – the number of visitors to a single institution, or how many revenue is earned from that – but it is about the revenue that the town as a whole, including its shops and restaurants, receives from people wanting to visit. And that includes not just “tourists” but people from other neighboring towns, etc. And this is where I think Kerr’s ideas are the most applicable – because though he speaks a lot about restoring individual homes and restaurants, what I think he’s really talking about is reviving the entire feel, the entire atmosphere of a town. With enjoyable, livable, shops, restaurants, and homes, people will enjoy living there, will enjoy coming to that town even just from the next town over in order to go to these nice restaurants, etc.

One of a great many traditional-style machiya townhouses in Kyoto which I’ve seen transformed into a beautiful, functional, (post-)modern contemporary space, rather than being knocked down and replaced with a “modern” structure in concrete or whathaveyou. Photo my own, June 2010.

I don’t know if an architect might say I’m using the terms incorrectly, but as an art historian, I’m pretty sure this is (more or less) precisely the difference between the “modern” and the “post-modern.” We need to put aside the ideas of modernity from fifty years ago, these ideas that modernity is centered around concrete and highways and big monuments, and we need to turn to a post-modernity, that blends tradition and culture with modern conveniences and amenities, to create something that feels warm and human, not sterile and mass-produced like the interior of a shopping mall.

Alex Kerr’s own home at Yada Tenmangû in Kameoka, a short distance from Kyoto proper. The old home retains its traditional feel, but has been modified to have not only standard modern conveniences, but to be truly livable in an upclass second home sort of way.

This post has gotten much longer already than I’d expected or planned, but just to wrap up, I guess, I’d like to say that I love what Kerr and his people have been doing, in Ojika and elsewhere, reviving towns and preserving old buildings and traditional aesthetics by creating these wonderfully beautiful neo-traditional, post-modern spaces. I very much look forward to someday visiting Ojika, and Iya-dani, and countless other places around Japan and enjoying these spaces. I just have one problem, which continues to be one of my chief problems with Kerr’s work, namely that these spaces are expensive! Look, I know it costs a ton of money to renovate these places, and that you, or the owners of the property, need to make their money back; and I know that the invisible hand of supply & demand guides prices, and that if prices are able to stay high, it’s because there are enough people willing to pay it. But, still, I have a problem with seeing all these places, so beautiful, so wonderful, with the implicit notion that we should all aspire to live this way, and to then be told that staying in one of these homes is going to set me back $500/night. That, at least, is what some of the machiya in Kyoto renovated by Kerr’s organization go for – the cheapest rates at Chiiori in Iya Valley appear to be $100/night per person, and that’s only if you have a group of at least eight reserving to share the room. So, the question comes around to, for whom are these spaces being renovated? For whom are these spaces being created? Yes, it benefits the local community, and that’s wonderful. But, if the only tourists you’re bringing in are of a certain economic status, and if a great many of the people who love what you’re doing and want to partake of it are unable to afford it, that’s a problem. These may be private spaces, but even so, I think there are important connections to, for example, the extensive discourse on museum admission fees, class, and access to art/culture/history.

On a related note, the Wall Street Journal recently posted about a couple who purchased an old saké merchant’s home in Hino and renovated it into a beautiful, traditional but very modern-livable home.

I would love to see more historical places rescued, transformed, and thus maintained, kept alive in this way. I would love to see a sea change from a concrete modernity to a more neo-traditionally culturally vibrant post-modernity. But, I also want to see it be one that I can afford, and that the people already living in these communities can afford, to partake of.

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While other museums continue to show the same standard stuff – hanging scrolls and folding screens by the Kanô school and Rinpa artists, with themes like “the four seasons” *yawn* – Japan Society amazes with another breakthrough exhibit. Any history book will tell you that in the Taishô (1912-1926) to early Shôwa periods (1926-1930s), Japan embraced many of the same fashions and trends that were popular at the same time in the West. Clubs & cafés. Jazz and cinemas. Flapper dresses and short bob hairdos. But what this Art Deco Japan looked like is not usually so clearly or thoroughly displayed. The exhibition Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945 showing at New York’s Japan Society until June 10 fills in this lacuna in Japanese art history, featuring many wonderful sorts of objects I’d never seen before, or perhaps even suspected existed.

We see kimono with designs featuring very modern/Western subjects, including skyscrapers and movie cameras; metalwork objects, including a small shakudô and shibuichi box with an extremely Art Deco design of a city fountain. The exhibit contains many decorative objects, from lacquerware and ceramics to metalwork objects.

But perhaps the most beautiful and impressive objects in the exhibit are the large-scale Nihonga paintings, including one of two young women on a sailboat, which I saw at the MFA’s “Shôwa Sophistication” exhibit a few years ago.

Junpû (順風) by Miki Suizan (三木翠山), 1933. Ink, colors, and mica on silk, mounted as a panel. 95 1/8 x 75 3/8 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo taken myself, 25 April 2009. Click here for a cleaner image at the official MFA website.

A pair of paintings by Enomoto Chikatoshi feature a woman skiing. Both employ squares of silver – not cut foil, but painted on in a metallic pigment – to simulate the snowy air. One, entitled Sekihô (“Snow Mountain”), is a framed panel behind glass, and visitors are allowed to walk right up to it. I appreciate, of course, the need to protect paintings by forcing visitors to stand behind the velvet rope, a few feet away from the object, but when it is possible to get up close, one can get a much greater appreciation of the textures and techniques used in the painting. The texture of the silk itself, as well as the way the colors are blended so expertly, so smoothly, creating solid areas of color and hiding the brushstrokes completely.

A pair of bronze fox sculptures/figurines by Tsuda Shinobu (1875-1946) are beautifully elegant, smooth and graceful. They seem almost soft, as if they were real, and living. Tsuda’s Lion is also quite impressive, as is a slightly more minimalist polar bear by Yamamoto Junnin. A bull by Hiramatsu Koshun is even more minimalist, in a good way. Normally, I’m not particularly interested in sculpture, especially modern, bronze sculpture, but these are surprisingly captivating.

It’s interesting to see how the Japanese, even as they adopt Western motifs, and new types of objects as needed for modern/Western-style lifestyles, continue to make traditional objects such as lacquerware boxes with sprinkled gold decoration, combining the old and the new (or the traditional and the Western/modern) in a single object.

In the third room of the gallery, we are finally formally introduced to the concept of the moga (モガ), or “modern girl,” the most representative icons of the style of the era. They have long dresses, high heels, curled hair, and long pearl necklaces unlike anything the kimono-wearing women of several decades prior had ever seen. The section includes a beautiful triptych of panel paintings by Enomoto, depicting scenes from the Ballroom Florida in golden fan shapes against a white, gold flecked background. The Ballroom Florida was, apparently, a rather high-profile nightclub of the time; Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks are known to have spent time there on at least one occasion. A 1935 photograph of a dancer looking at herself in the mirror brings to life the abstract idea of the Ballroom Florida, hammering home the idea that this was in fact a real place of that time.

While the pieces in the first room have certainly gotten me interested in the likes of Miki Suizan and Enomoto Chikatoshi, it was fun to see some more familiar names in this third room, which featured works by Itô Shinsui and Nakamura Daizaburô.

The exhibition ends with something of a reproduction of a living room of the time, furnished in a Western style, with a framed painting on the wall of a kimono-clad woman before a Christmas tree – an even stronger symbol of the dramatic cultural shifts that had taken root by that time.

I do wish that the exhibit had provided some more information on each label, fleshing out our understanding of the people and places of this time; as is, it was my understandings of the history and cultural trends of the time that I brought in with me that made the exhibit make sense, and that made it exciting. I’m sure that for someone more familiar with the Art Deco movement as it existed in the West, the exhibit would have meant a lot, too. But, while I do genuinely feel bad to be critical, I do think that the exhibit would not have provided enough information, enough background to really inform, really fill in the more uninitiated visitor. …

Still, the works are gorgeous, and, again, it’s a colorful, wonderful cultural period of Japanese history that we normally see very little of in museums, and in classes. If you have the chance, I definitely recommend heading over, checking it out, and taking your time. Some of these pieces, if you really slow down, and take time to focus in on one object, you can really get so much more out of the experience.

Japan Society, 333 East 47th St, NYC. Exhibit ends Sunday June 10.

EDIT: Salon.com has a brief interview with guest curator Kendall Brown, explaining in more depth the ideas behind the show, and a slide show with more images. Sadly, a lot of the pieces that caught my eye and which I mention in this post are not in the slide show, but, other very attractive pieces are, giving a good sense of the sorts of things in the exhibition.

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*Yanagi Sôri, pioneer and giant in Japanese design, has passed away at age 96. I’ve read about his father, Yanagi Sôetsu 柳宗悦 (aka Muneyoshi), the founder of the mingei (folk art) movement. Sôetsu is a rather interesting character, his philosophies described by one prominent scholar as “Oriental Orientalism,” as he combatted the growing urbanization, industrialization, mechanization, of his world in the 1890s-1920s or so by turning to rural folk crafts, and to places like Okinawa, Taiwan, Korea, and Ainu lands, where he saw the waves of modernization had not yet reached, or had not yet soaked in as much, where the beauty of “traditional” handicrafts by anonymous craftspeople (i.e. absent the advent of the “modern” concept of the artist) could still be found.

I know less about his son, Yanagi Sôri 柳宗理, and would not mean to presume Sôri’s leanings, Orientalist or otherwise, but it seems beautifully fitting that the son should become such a pioneer in Japanese design, combining what is beautiful and romantic about rural handicrafts with a modern design sensibility. I am sure that his influence extends much farther, and deeper, than I know.

And, yet, there is still no Wikipedia article on him. I wonder if the added/renewed attention from his death will lead to that changing.

*Meanwhile, in other news, io9 and WIRED report on a series of studies (or the same study?) which reveal the power of the canon on our appreciation of art. The mythology of art appreciation in the West tells us that the best art, the true masterpieces, speak to us on some subconscious level, that it’s that stroke of genius that makes them so beautiful, so compelling, so much deeper and more meaningful and more powerful than a nearly identical work by a lesser painter. That there is something hidden in the master’s brushstrokes, or his technique or composition otherwise, that makes the work cross some threshold into masterpiece status.1

Yet, as we might expect, it is not (solely) the beauty or genius of the artwork that speaks to us; the canon, that is, the idea that we know that we are looking at something famous (or by someone famous) and that we ought to recognize it as a cut above, has a powerful impact on our reception of an object as well. Scientists using an fMRI machine to watch people’s brain activity as they were shown images of paintings have now added to the evidence for that phenomenon. Shown pictures by Rembrandt and told they were not by the master and were merely done by his students – or shown works by his students and imitators and told they were by Rembrandt himself – people’s brains lit up less in response to anything intrinsic to the skill or genius of the visuals themselves, responding more to the idea of it being a Rembrandt, or not being a Rembrandt.

Now, the questions and issues surrounding “authenticity” and the concepts of “copies” and “forgeries” are quite popular subjects in the field of art history right now, and I think both of these articles carelessly slip in their word choice here. But, it is my assumption that when they talk about “forgeries” or “copies,” they’re not talking about things produced to deceive, or mechanical or digital reproductions of Rembrandt’s work; they’re talking about genuine, oil-on-canvas, original artworks produced in the Renaissance period by Rembrandt’s students. Not what I would call a “copy” or a “forgery.” … I think it important, and interesting, to note this. But, even so, these findings, if not unexpected, are pretty cool, eh?

It really just helps us call in question all the more so our assumptions about art, about the “genius” of the artist, and about the selection of the canon. We appreciate Rembrandt because we believe we are supposed to, because we have been trained by society, by museums, by art history class, by textbooks, to think that if we don’t see the genius in these works then there is something wrong with us, and not with the artwork. It ties in as well to discourses & social phenomena of cultural capital, and trying to be part of the cultural elite. It may be passé to just stand around and talk about how much you like the Old Masters as if nothing new has come along, and/or as if you don’t have an original thought in your head… it may be “cool” or “hip” to pretend like Michelangelo wasn’t really such a genius after all. But if you tried to argue for that seriously, at a fancy black-tie event in the Metropolitan, with a glass of wine in your hand, well, I don’t know what would happen.

The great masters, and the great masterpieces of history are considered as such because of some superior quality intrinsic to them, absolutely. At the core of every myth, there is a kernel of truth. But, we build up and build up the legends of painters, and of their artworks, appreciating them more for their fame than for their actual content, and being aware of that is a most important step towards revising our individual personal engagement with artworks, if not the entire system.

*Finally, for today, a brief article describing one of the leading book/paper conservation labs in Europe. The Institute of the Pathology of the Book in Rome has handled countless super-famous objects, including pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and objects involved in dramatic historical events – such as a book riddled with bulletholes from a World War II battle, and does very interesting, exciting, and extremely important work.

I’ve commented before on art conservation; I’m just fascinated by it. I think it’s really amazing what these people do.

The article refers vaguely to “a special paper used to ‘reconstruct’ damaged pages” made by a special firm in Japan, making it sound as if this is some super special material developed by this expert firm, when in fact, I suspect, the “special paper” they refer to has less to do with modern technology, and a lot more to do with Japanese craft tradition. Kôzo paper, made not from typical trees as typical paper is, but from a plant known as the “paper mulberry,” or kôzo, has been used in Japan since at least the 17th century, and was quite standard for Edo period prints and books. While I think it might be more absorbent in terms of not repelling the natural oils and sweat from your fingertips, it’s more flexible than today’s white printer paper, less crisp, meaning it doesn’t get creased or crinkled as badly, and it doesn’t tear as easily. Based on my admittedly limited experience visiting two paper conservation labs on opposite sides of the United States, I gather that even outside of conservation labs specializing in Asian materials (e.g. Japanese woodblock prints), the use of kôzo, or other types of traditional Japanese paper (washi 和紙, lit. “Japanese paper”), is really quite standard. So I find it amusing the rather vague way it’s referred to in this article.

What’s not so standard, on the other hand, is the use of “a special ultra-thin plastic film developed in Rome” to affix the Japanese paper. I guess it makes sense, as the right kind of plastic film would be acid-free, totally non-reactive (i.e. so it won’t chemically damage the paper as it ages), and, depending on what they’re actually doing here (the article isn’t clear), if they’re not using any liquid adhesive at all, then even more easily reversible than most techniques. The art & science of museum conservation today stands strongly on the use of reversible techniques, so that conservators in the future, with more advanced insights into material sciences and better conservation technology can undo what we do today, and re-conserve things in a better way. So much damage has been done over the years to artworks by conservators or restorers who, in doing what was cutting-edge at the time, were doing something today seen as destructive or otherwise outdated and not a good idea. Anyway, it’s just interesting that they use some kind of plastic film when the conservators I have spoken to use wheat paste, traditional Japanese methods, or other types of adhesives – generally leaning towards the organic/natural and traditional – to conserve objects. I’m not going to say that one method makes more sense than the other – what do I know, I’m not a materials scientist nor a conservator – but, it’s interesting to learn about a rather different approach.

(1) Totally incidentally, I recently learned that the word “masterpiece” actually originates from the late medieval guild system, in which the piece one produced in order to graduate from journeyman to “master” was called one’s “masterpiece.” I guess the term is still used sometimes today, when we talk about an artist’s personal growth and development, and how after many years, he produced such-and-such work, his “masterpiece.” But, most of the time, we use this term not to refer to a work in terms of where it fits in an artist’s development, and certainly not in terms of any practical, mundane aspect of guild certification, though I guess we do still have the “Master’s” of Fine Arts, and one’s Master’s Thesis piece, which linguistically doesn’t sound all that far removed from “masterpiece.” Hmm… But still, we do generally use the term “masterpiece” to refer to anything and everything of a certain caliber, regardless of where it fits in a narrative of the artist’s development, right? Interesting, no?, the evolution of terms.

-“Butterfly Stool” designed by Yanagi Sôri, photo by Flickr user Tomislav Medak. Thanks for licensing your photo Creative Commons.
-Self-Portrait age 23, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1629. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston MA). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
-A Smithsonian paper conservator working on pages from the Jefferson Bible, 17 November 2011. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The collection of Bible excerpts compiled by Thomas Jefferson himself, painstakingly restored/conserved, is on display now at the National Museum of American History in Washington DC, until May 28 2012.

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