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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

Tenmyouya’s “Baku.”

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.

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I don’t know if I will come back to write more about the teamlab & Tenmyouya Hisashi sections of the exhibition “Garden of Unearthly Delights” at Japan Society. But, I did have some thoughts about how the exhibit overall was organized.

Above: “United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World” by teamlab (2013), as installed at Japan Society in the “Garden of Unearthly Delights” exhibit. Below: Itô Jakuchû’s “Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants” (18th c.), on display at LACMA.

As I made my way through the exhibit, I knew I felt there was something missing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Now, as I write this, and think about it, I’ve realized what it was that was throwing me off: the exhibit represents these artists as individual geniuses, as individual artistes if you will, looking at their personal inspirations and ideas, rather than presenting it in any way as representative of current/contemporary trends in Japanese art. Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. But it is a choice, and a difference. Part of what fascinates me about neo-Nihonga, and about much else that’s going on in Japanese art right now, is what it represents in terms of ideas about art, about Japanese identity, and so forth, and how it fits into a broader narrative of Japanese art history. To talk about individual artists with individual ideas and inspiration is one thing – these men are certainly extremely impressive and intriguing, their works inspired and beautiful – but, with the implication that they stand alone as individual geniuses separated from their contemporaries, or to put it another way, absent the implication that they are in any way representative of broader trends in style, attitude, or themes, for me, it feels like there is something lacking.

Tenmyouya Hisashi’s installation at Japan Society, including a rock garden meant to reference, or evoke, that at Ryôan-ji.

What I love the most about Tenmyôya’s “neo-Nihonga” is how it fits into a narrative, a tradition, recalling and reviving subjects, themes, stylistic elements of the Edo period and of pre-war & post-war Nihonga, representing not something divorced from tradition, something purely unique to Tenmyôya, or purely unique to contemporary art, lacking in precedent, but rather, representing the next step in the development of those forms (perhaps, arguably), as we pass into the 21st century. Taken together with Yamaguchi Akira, Yamamoto Tarô, and others, there is something to be said for the ways in which some/many 21st century Japanese artists are turning away from the acultural/pan-global stylistic & thematic trends of Modern art (see the work of Gutai, Mono-ha, and Hi Red Center, which look like they could have been made by anyone, by an American or a European, marking Japan as part of a global modernist art movement, divorced from and indeed explicitly rejecting the art of the past), and are instead turning back to producing art that is distinctively Japanese, that references and draws upon Japanese art history, and that says something about Japanese cultural identity today. Ikeda Manabu is not exactly neo-Nihonga like Tenmyôya is; he’s not really drawing upon traditional themes or styles. But, his work is still very distinctively Japanese, featuring Japanese elements such as torii gates, but also displaying an interest in the dense energy of metropolitan urbanity, and in brilliant nature (lush greenery, beautiful blue water) emerging out of, or coexisting alongside of, industrial ruin. His works feature crashed planes and rusting ocean liners surrounded by green and blue, by birds and people, countless dense details of a world that in some ways reminds me of the jumbled-up aesthetic of Howl’s Moving Castle, perhaps. In today’s post-3/11 world, Ikeda’s works take on new meanings, as even works done before 2011 come to exude feelings of the power of nature, the danger of thinking you can control or overtake it with industrial modernity, the ruin, indeed, of industrial modernity – the idea that we have moved, or that we need to move, past that, into a new, postmodern way of living that is either more in tune with nature, or that at least puts that particular 20th century mode of steel-and-concrete modernity behind us. His work Foretoken, along with his great wave, fit into a theme or narrative of what Japanese artists are doing, what they are thinking, post-3/11, as reflective too of what Japanese people are thinking and feeling post-3/11, that I find quite evocative, intriguing, and meaningful. This fits into a broader imagination of Japan, and of this moment in the narrative of Japanese art history, better than trying to understand Ikeda as an individual set-apart.

Yamamoto Tarô, “K-Pine tree Old man screen” (1999). Image from Imura Art.

I think it’s wonderful that we have such great diversity in the arts today, that people like Ikeda and Tenmyôya are not simply operating within a school style, as (e.g) Kanô Tan’yû and Eitoku were. They’re each doing very distinctive, unique work, and as such we have a greater diversity of Japanese art than ever before in history. And it’s wonderful that we are able to speak with them, interview them, and find out about their personal individual thoughts, ideas, philosophies, something we can’t really get from the majority of historical artists. And, there’s nothing objectively wrong, inferior, or lesser, about approaching these artists as individuals. It’s a very standard way for contemporary/modern art experts, gallery owners, curators, to talk about these things. And it is perhaps reflective of the gallery director Miwako Tezuka’s identity as such an expert in the contemporary, rather than in the historical. There is absolutely something to get out of this approach, and for all I know, it may be a very intentional political position on her part, to represent them in this way. As Tezuka is Japanese herself, she may well wish to not display quote-unquote “Japan,” but rather to bring these artists as individuals into a similar place as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, whoever else, who are generally seen as individuals and not so much as simply representative examples of broader trends in American or English art. There is great validity in that argument, too. But, for me, I much prefer the idea of fitting these artists into broader narratives of Japanese modern, modernist, and then post-modern(ist) art, and into broader themes of Japanese identity, Japanese relationship to history & tradition, Japanese reactions to modernity & modernism, and Japanese feelings or attitudes post-3/11.

All photos & videos my own, except the Yamamoto Tarô image from Imura Arts. “Garden of Unearthly Delights” is open at Japan Society until Jan 11.

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I have had my eyes set on seeing “Garden of Unearthly Delights” at Japan Society for quite some time, and after Kathryn’s review of the catalog on her blog, I was all the more excited for it. Garden of Unearthly Delights is Japan Society’s latest show of contemporary Japanese art, featuring works by Ikeda Manabu and Tenmyouya Hisashi – two artists they also featured in their exhibit Bye Bye Kitty a few years ago, and who I’ve written about before – as well as works by a collective known as teamlab.

The show opens with a series of works by Ikeda. I had previously only seen his “History of Rise and Fall” and “Existence“, which were included in Bye Bye Kitty. To see these other works now gives a larger sample size, so to speak, and thus a better sense of what type of thing he does. This first gallery is painted a light blue, and there is a sense of calm, happy, uplifting beauty. His works feature flourishing nature – trees and grasses, and beautiful blue waters – as well as birds and people living vibrant lives amidst it. There are bits of ruins, giving the sense of a society building a brighter future atop the ruins of industrial steel-and-concrete modernity. There is a sense of hope, and of just beauty, in these astonishingly painstakingly rendered pen-and-ink pieces.

Ikeda Manabu, “Imprint” (2011). Pen and acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board. Detail.

But then, as we enter the next room, there is great sadness and contemplation, too. A copy of Hokusai’s “Great Wave” (which seemed oddly boldly put out in bright lights, but then again Prussian blue isn’t so fugitive, so I guess maybe it’s okay?) echoes Ikeda’s “Foretoken”, his largest work yet. But before we get to looking at that any more closely, there is “Imprint,” done in 2011 while Ikeda was an artist-in-residence at a program in Vancouver. Much has been said since 3/11 about the beauty and yet destructive power of nature as a theme in Japanese art & literature, especially since 3/11; I’m not sure I have anything more eloquent or meaningful to add on that point.

Here we see brilliant blue water and white crests of foam, what would be a beautiful, entrancing, ocean scene, like the brilliant blue of the waters off a Hawaiian or Okinawan vacation beach… except for the red torii peeking out in the darkness beneath the waves. Though “Foretoken” was made in 2008, it eerily predicts (foretokens) the terrible tsunamis of March 11, 2011, which so ravaged not only much of the Tôhoku coast, but also had great impacts upon Japanese national identity and social/political/cultural discourse. I was not in Japan on 3/11, nor for several years afterwards. But I have heard professors speak who were there, especially anthropologists & sociologists who more so than us historians are keenly in touch with the contemporary, and it is evident that this has had a profound impact upon them, and in their eyes, upon Japan, in ways beyond what I myself might perceive or be aware of.

Above: Ikeda Manabu, “Foretoken” (2008). Pen and acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board. Below: Detail.

In large pieces like “Foretoken,” or like “History of Rise and Fall,” Ikeda says he thinks of new ideas as he works. Both of these pieces are giant jumbles of new and old, manmade and natural. A red-bottomed industrial-looking ship is beached, practically embedded in the rocky mountainside. Trees grow out of a giant crack in its side, and birds fly past, while only a few inches away (on the work), skiers slide down snowy slopes. In another section of the work, people stand on a ledge formed by what looks like the remnants of a passenger jet’s wing, before a torii embedded in ice, while nearby a fire burns deep in the mountain. I am told the crests of the wave that dominates the piece are meant to resemble the shapes of the Japanese islands. Ikeda produces this works one pen-stroke at a time, with a simple nibbed fountain pen, and as he goes, filling in the textures of one square inch at a time, he apparently improvises and creates new “hidden” details – the skiers, the torii, a twisting green slide, a flock of birds – as he goes. A video in the small middle gallery shows Ikeda at work – it’s really kind of incredible how slowly the process goes. Ikeda even jokes that his guests – the host of the TV show this segment is from – won’t be able to really see any big change, in the brief time they’re filming.

I continue to learn new ways of looking at and thinking about art – perhaps it is a result of my recent readings & discussions about performance theory, but I found myself thinking, asking, not about the “meaning” of elements of these works, but rather about their effects. What effect does it have that Ikeda so often represents people and animals in white silhouette? I feel like it actually enhances the feeling of energy and dynamism of their interaction with the environment; they are not simply a part of the static scene depicted on the canvas, but are separate from it and yet embedded in it, interacting with the slopes, spans, and surfaces. Beyond that, I don’t know. What do you think?

Though Ikeda does not use traditional materials or techniques, and does not reference traditional aesthetics, subjects, or iconography as directly as Tenmyouya, his work speaks to Japanese identity and Japanese history in a way that makes him very solidly a “postmodernist” artist in my mind, even if not necessarily a Neo-Nihonga (neo-neo-traditional Japanese painting) artist as Tenmyouya describes himself. This is a theme I’ll return to in my last post about the exhibit, and explain further what I mean by “postmodern.” But, one thing that is often cited about Ikeda that does connect him to Japanese tradition is the idea of mastery, of taking a long time to do something very precisely, very carefully. The word takumi (巧, meaning “skill,” or 匠 meaning “master craftsman”) is often used to describe him. I don’t want to get into it here, but this is a big deal; I don’t know about in Japan, but one often gets the sense – and this is not just me talking; I’ve heard MFA Studio Art students themselves talk about it – that (post)modern art in the United States, especially as taught within MFA programs, has become so much about the theory and the conceptual, and so little about the skill or the technique. That showing great attention to masterful technique alone – showing that one has mastered their craft, or mastered the art of painting, the art of sculpture, the art of … etc. – makes Ikeda stand out as different, and as evoking tradition, really says something about the state of art today, don’t you think?

In my next post, I’ll talk about the teamlab installation, and Tenmyouya Hisashi’s works in this exhibit. Thanks for reading!

A big shout-out to the Japan Society Gallery for putting together this fantastic exhibit, and for allowing photographs! I know it’s difficult with contemporary art especially, given the active copyrights and such, but you made it work, where so many of your exhibits in the past it wasn’t allowed. Thank you! (After all, as a friend pointed out, what am I going to do with the photos anyway? Sure they’re up online now, but the photos I took with my little point-and-shoot digicam are nowhere near publication quality. If I really wanted to do anything real with them, I’d still need proper permissions; so, might as well allow photos, I guess? Right?

Garden of Unearthly Delights is open at Japan Society (333 East 47th St, at 1st Ave, NYC) until Jan 11. Go see it now! And, if you happen to be in Madison, Wisconsin, Ikeda is currently artist-in-residence at the Univ. of Wisconsin Chazen Museum.

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It’s always nice to feel a bit still connected to goings-on at Japan Society in New York. Sadly, I won’t be in town to see most of this, but I thought I might share briefly about some stuff going on over there.

FILM:
First, an upcoming film series they’re doing. Entitled The Dark Side of the Sun: John Zorn on Japanese Cinema, the series includes one film a month, from October to February, all chosen by “maverick avant-garde composer, musician and arranger John Zorn,” and representing a wide variety of genres and styles. None have been shown at Japan Society before, and so far as I am aware (but then again I’m not very knowledgeable about film) none are the typical standard ones you’re likely to have seen before.

Here’s the line-up, very briefly:

*Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands (荒野のダッチワイフ)(Saturday, October 18, 7 PM) – a 1967 film directed by Yamatoya Atsushi, described as “about a hitman (Yuichi Minato) who is hired by a rich real estate agent to find an abducted woman (Noriko Tatsumi). This simple setup gives way to a hip and chaotic worldview full of hard-boiled characters, sexy action, and hallucinatory imagery.”

*Crossroads (十字路)(Saturday, November 15, 7:30 PM) – a 1928 silent film directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa (1896-1982), and accompanied live on shamisen by experimental musician Yumiko Tanaka. I don’t know much about the film, or the director beyond having seen his film “Page of Madness” (狂った一頁), but, live shamisen? You can’t beat that.

*Top Stripper (丸本噂のストリッパー)(Thursday, December 11, 7 PM), a 1982 pink film directed by Yoshimitsu Morita, who we are told “was one of the handful of young, radical directors who were given the opportunity to explore the visual medium via the constraints of the pink genre.”

*Matango (aka Attack of the Mushroom People)(Friday, January 23, 7 PM), by none other than Ishiro Honda, director of the original Godzilla. Mushroom People. What more do we need to say?

*Finally, the first-ever official showing in the US of Ôshima Nagisa’s 1964 film It’s Me Here, Bellett (私のベレット), preceded by eight experimental shorts by the godfather of anime, Tezuka Osamu. Friday, February 20, 7 PM.

Here’s a blog post from Lucky Girl Media about the series that may fill you in further.

PERFORMING ARTS:
The film series – specifically the Nov 15 showing of Jûjiro – also intersects with a running theme of this year’s Performing Arts season schedule, “Shamisen Sessions,” a whole bunch of events I wish I could be there for, beginning with the rightfully sold out Sept 27 concert by Agatsuma Hiromitsu – easily one of the most famous Tsugaru players active today, after the Yoshida Brothers – and pop/jazz singer Yano Akiko, who has recorded with the Yellow Magic Orchestra in the past.

The Society’s performing arts programs are always great, but I think it is somewhat rare to have this many traditional (or traditional-related, given the experimental and exciting things some of these performers are doing with shamisen) events in one season. I don’t play shamisen myself, though I’d like to try/learn someday, and just listening is always wonderful. I would love, too, to hear any of these performers talk about their thoughts on tradition, on continuing/maintaining and experimenting with traditional instruments and songs, and on the place of traditional non-Western instruments in modern/contemporary music.

The season also includes shamisen performances, workshops on shamisen, Nihon Buyo, and Noh, and a concert with Okinawan sanshin player Yukito Ara (*dies*). In addition to the “Shamisen Sessions,” another series or theme this year is “Stories from the War,” which includes a series of performances of Noh plays new and old in May, and in January a performance written and directed by huge-big-name contemporary artist Miwa Yanagi. I don’t see anything on the website indicating whether Yanagi-san will be there for a Q&A or anything, but, wow it would really be something to meet her.

GALLERY:

Of course, god forbid any of these performances should be shown during Christmas break, when many people, like myself, come home to New York and would love to get to see such things, but, at least the gallery will be open, and this fall/winter’s show, Garden of Unearthly Delights, which just opened earlier this week, and shows until January 11, looks to be an incredible one.

It features Ikeda Manabu and Tenmyouya Hisashi, two of the artists from the Bye Bye Kitty exhibition a few years ago, plus teamlab, with whom I’m not so familiar, and continues, as I suppose I should have expected gallery director Miwako Tezuka would, in the wonderful exciting trend of Japan Society introducing New York, and the United States, to brilliant, creative, inspiring Japanese contemporary artists who are not Murakami Takashi or Yayoi Kusama, and who draw upon traditional imagery, motifs, and styles, to create some really incredible, vibrant, new and very 21st century work. This isn’t the 1960s anymore, and MoMa can keep its ostrich head in the sands of the past, but Japan Society is pressing forward with some of the newest works by some artists who are really pushing the boundaries and doing wonderful exciting stuff.

The show includes Tenmyouya’s first ever installation piece, based on or inspired by Zen rock gardens, as well as some animated pieces by teamlab clearly based on the work of Itô Jakuchû. While I don’t like the idea of saying “if Jakuchû were alive today, he’d be this (or that) sort of artist, and he’d make this or that sort of thing,” there really is something about these animated pieces – at least what I’ve seen of them so far in promos for the exhibit – that strikes me as falling within a continuity of his work, as not being opposed to it or a break from it. It’s bird-and-flower painting for the 21st century, not a break with the past but a continuation of it, a continuation of engaging in the same themes, the same aesthetics, and just bringing it up to the present (or the future). Ikeda and Tenmyouya’s work, meanwhile, remix past and present, erasing the borders between the two, and helping us imagine the past as being perhaps not so unlike our own time, and vice versa.

I really cannot wait to see this show. In the meantime, maybe I’ll prepare by watching some interviews with the artists.

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Before my visits to the Metropolitan this past summer, I had only the vaguest of ideas as to who Sakai Hôitsu was, what his paintings were like, or whether or not I liked them. A triptych of the four seasons and the rising sun changed all of that.

That set of three pieces is included in “Silver Wind: The Arts of Sakai Hôitsu,” an exhibition focusing on Hôitsu and his chief disciple Suzuki Kiitsu, showing at Japan Society in New York through January 6th. The Society has done a lot of great shows in recent years, but I really must say, it is rare that I see an exhibit at any museum/gallery where just about every single piece grabs me and makes me want to look at it forever. Art dealers and collectors are always saying you should look for what grabs you, look for pieces that you just know you’ll truly treasure – and I think I have found mine. I likely will never be able to afford a Hôitsu or a Kiitsu, but fortunately there are a good number of later artists – “modern” “neo-traditionalist” Nihonga artists – whose work is in very much the same vein. Not that I want to make this post about buying or collecting – I say all of this simply to indicate something of how much these pieces grabbed me.

Hôitsu lived from 1761-1828, chiefly in Edo, and became quite connected to Edo’s artistic circles. One piece in the exhibition, believed to have been put together for his 60th birthday, is a conglomeration of tiny compositions by himself, Watanabe Kazan, and sixty-six others. Other pieces in the exhibit show his connections to the likes of Kameda Bôsai, his disciple Suzuki Kiitsu of course, Nakamura Hôchû, and to the cultural arena of the pleasure districts as well – though he never married, he had a lengthy and serious live-in relationship with a particular courtesan. He was born into a prominent and wealthy samurai family, which had in decades past been patrons of Ogata Kôrin. After in his early years creating a number of bijinga paintings of courtesans in the ukiyo-e style, he turned for the remainder of his career to working “in the style of Kôrin,” a phrase quite similar to the actual meaning of the word “Rinpa” (the “school” of painting to which Hôitsu is said to belong, and to which the current exhibit/rotation at the Metropolitan is devoted). In 1815, he organized an exhibition of works by Kôrin on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Kôrin’s death, and produced a woodblock printed book called Kôrin hyakuzu (Kôrin One Hundred Pictures) depicting either Kôrin’s works, or works of his own inspired by or based on Kôrin’s compositions. I thought it interesting that, as one of the gallery labels points out, we remain unclear as to whether the book served as a basis for many of Hôitsu’s compositions, or whether the book records compositions he created on his own, based on other sources.

A page from the Kôrin Hyakuzu, depicting a folding screen painting of waves by Kôrin, also included in the current Japan Society exhibit, and based on which Hôitsu produced his own screen paintings of waves, which are today a National Treasure. This copy of the book, image (c) British Museum.

In any case, the exhibition contains a surprising number of pieces with fun and interesting historical connections – all too often there are pieces that would be just incredible to include in an exhibition, and they just can’t be obtained. I’m sure that happened here, too. There’s only so much you can do. But, even so, the exhibit includes an original work by Kôrin (a two-fold folding screen depicting waves), illustrated in the Kôrin hyakuzu, alongside a pair of folding screens of waves, by Hôitsu, against a silver foil background, which is said to have been based directly upon that Kôrin work. The silver Hôitsu screens are today a National Treasure, and so it is a real coup to get to see them here in New York; National Treasures do not often leave Japan. Because of their special status, these will only be up until November 4th, so catch them while you can! The display of these screens has been extended now until November 11th!

A hanging scroll triptych depicting cranes, deer, and Jûrôjin (one of the Seven Lucky Gods), in bright brilliant colors and very clearly stylistically influenced by the Deer Scroll by Kôetsu & Sôtatsu (now at the Seattle Art Museum), and also depicted in the Kôrin hyakuzu, seems another wonderful “get” for the Society. I was personally quite taken by a pair of folding screens depicting the 36 Immortals of Poetry, or the Sanjûrokkasen, one screen by Tatebayashi Kagei (from the Cleveland Museum), and one by Hôitsu. Both seem nearly identical in composition – in which figure is positioned where, how they are posed, how they are depicted – and yet we are told that both artists based their compositions on the same original by Kôrin, never actually seeing one another’s versions. The Met currently has on display a hanging scroll by Kamisaka Sekka as well depicting the same subject, albeit not quite the same composition. The Hôitsu piece is especially interesting as it seems to be a full-scale study or preparatory work, largely unfinished, giving us therefore a glimpse into how artists of the time prepared their works. The outlines are all done, and the faces painted in, along with some sections in browns, greys, and blacks. The remaining sections each have the color written in, like a coloring book, in Japanese. This unfinished work is further interesting in that it was included in the very first exhibit in that gallery, after Japan Society first moved into this building in the 1970s.

Another work in this vein, not only attractive and skillful and whatever but of actual art historical importance, and great to be able to see in the show, was a two-fold screen by Hôitsu depicting a scene of “Eight Views of Xiao and Xiang,” a very standard theme for ink paintings. This is, apparently, the only known monochrome work on folding screens by Hôitsu, who as we have seen normally worked in such bright bold colors.

I also enjoyed seeing a Hôitsu painting from the MFA (right) which was among their most recent acquisitions back when I was interning there, alongside a work from a private collection attempting to recreate the same composition. Another work, a depiction of Emperor Nintoku (one of a triptych of hanging scrolls), bringing the same bright bold colors, amazing cleanliness of form, incredible fine details, and contrast of bold colors to ink wash, that I love so much in all of his works, also was displayed alongside a study (or, as those in Western art might call it, a “cartoon”).

The final two sections of the exhibition were dedicated to Hôitsu’s student Suzuki Kiitsu. I guess there are only so many Hôitsu works you can manage to get together. Not that I’m complaining – many of these Kiitsu works were just as stunning as Hôitsu’s. I so wish that they allowed photography, so that I could have images of each of these, to go through each with you and post my thoughts on each one of them. Kiitsu did a lot of gorgeous works in the mode of Hôitsu, but he also brought some great innovations. A painting of a rising dragon and Mt. Fuji (right) shows the ultimate range of what can be done in monochrome ink, using a combination of ink wash (rendering Fuji in white as a negative image against the grey sky), fine clear lines (on the dragon’s body), and bleeding effects (in smoke that surrounds the dragon), with the only color being gold used in the dragon’s eyes and in the lightning which accompanies the dragon’s storm. A pair of lines at the bottom of the composition form a “whoosh” mark, like in comicbooks, adding great force, momentum, and speed to the image, making the viewer see the dragon not as floating gently, but as rapidly, forcefully, flying up out of the water and into the sky.

Right: A scene in the Yoshiwara licensed quarters, by Suzuki Kiitsu. The other hanging scroll of the pair depicts a scene in Shinagawa, an unlicensed pleasure district also in Edo. I just adore the bright colors and fine details in these works. Indianapolis Museum of Art.

In a painting of the bodhisattva Kokuzô (of which I sadly cannot find a photo online), Kiitsu deploys an extensive amount of a beautiful deep blue mineral pigment, and a variety of other bright bold colors, creating an effect reminiscent of Tibetan thankas and really quite different from what we normally see in Japanese Buddhist paintings – he goes further, painting in the entirety of the painting’s mounting, down to the sections of silk that wrap around the wooden rollers, imitating or emulating, in trompe l’oiel fashion the appearance of a painting mounted in the traditional way within sections of brocade.

And, of course, the exhibit ends with Kiitsu’s massive Morning Glories (Asagao) screens, a classic example of purely decorative Rinpa composition very much “in the style of Kôrin,” in all their bright blue, green, and gold glory. Throughout this exhibition, we see the things I fell for in the Hôitsu works I saw at the Metropolitan exhibit – bold bright colors, incl. red maple leaves, green leaves, deep blue flowers, pinks used against white backgrounds to create incredibly textured sakura petals, and a multitude of fine, fine details in color, such as the lines of gold for veins of a leaf, or in the fine details of a figure’s garments. If I could get replicas of some of these works, to hang in my office, I would be a very happy man.

I have notes on so many of the works in this show, and am partially tempted to share them all. But, I think this post has gone on long enough, so I encourage you, if you can, if you have the chance, to make the time and go check out this exhibition, “Silver Wind: The Arts of Sakai Hôitsu”, at Japan Society (333 East 47th St, NYC) before it closes on January 6th.

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WordPress seems confused as to whether this is my 500th or 501st post. Either way, I’m amazed to have reached this milestone, and happy for either this post, summarizing exciting upcoming events at New York’s Japan Society, or the previous post, on a serious academic dilemma, to stand as my 500th post.

I have mentioned briefly before the artist Sakai Hôitsu and the upcoming exhibit of his work at New York’s Japan Society. I was very glad to get to see some stunning Hôitsu works at the Metropolitan this summer, and am sad that I won’t be around to get to go to any of the many events the Society is holding in conjunction with the exhibition.

Chief among them is a symposium scheduled for Sept. 29, which will feature some of the top scholars of Japanese art history in the world, including Kobayashi Tadashi – a top expert on Edo period painting, and someone whose work I have read a lot of, but whom I have never had the pleasure of meeting – along with Matthew McKelway and Haruo Shirane, both very big names in the field as well, from Columbia University. I hope there is some kind of transcript or publication afterwards that those of us who cannot attend might be able to get our hands on.

Prof. McKelway will also give another lecture on the subject of Sakai Hôitsu and Rinpa on October 18.


Judging from his style, and perhaps more so the immaculate condition of the works I saw, and the vibrancy of the colors, I would have guessed Hôitsu to be a Nihonga artist of the late 19th or early 20th century. But, knowing that he lived so much earlier, from 1761-1828, very firmly within the Edo period, I’d guess to place him instead with the so-called “Eccentrics,” people like Nagasawa Rosetsu who, similarly, produced works with a certain simplicity and cleanliness, but also with bright vibrant colors and dramatic content.

Right: A painting by Nagasawa Rosetsu, dated 1798, depicting the destruction in that year of the Great Buddha Hall of Kyoto. (Sometimes mistaken for being the Great Buddha Hall of Tôdai-ji in Nara, but I’m fairly certain it was the Great Buddha of Kyoto that’s referred to here.)

But, then, what do I know? If the experts call Hôitsu “Rinpa,” placing him in a category with artists like Tawaraya Sôtatsu, Ogata Kôrin, and Suzuki Kiitsu, known for their large compositions on gold-backed folding screens, then I guess they have very good reasons for saying so. Prof. McKelway, who guest curated this exhibit with the help of a PhD student specializing in Rinpa, is one of the leading Rinpa scholars himself, so if he and everyone else involved with the exhibit say he’s Rinpa, who am I to argue? What’s important is that his work is stunningly beautiful, expertly executed, and employs classical themes and references that give the works deeper meaning, making them all the more captivating.

As Rinpa works very often draw upon seasonal and classical literary themes, Prof. Haruo Shirane will be leading two events as well, discussing on Nov. 11 selections from the Heian period Tales of Genji and Ise, and on December 13 his own newest book, on seasonal references in the Japanese arts.

Meanwhile, Japan Society’s Performing Arts Department has an exciting season planned, as always. It includes a fair share of very modern/contemporary sort of things, but also on Oct 27-28, a rare opportunity to see Kagura, a sort of Shintô religious / folk tradition dance form. A December 8th concert claims to be Rinpa-inspired. I tend to be skeptical of such claims when made by experimental modern art types, but.. if it’s true, it could be a pretty amazing concert.

The exhibit itself promises to be brilliant, and while I am very much hoping to be able to catch it while on a very brief jaunt to the East Coast next month, I am sad that I won’t be around to enjoy all these other events. If you find yourself in the New York area, I encourage you to go.

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レンターネコ。ネコネコ。寂しい人に、。。。猫貸します。

Japan Cuts is finally coming to an end. There were plenty of films I missed, and indeed several still to come this weekend that I won’t be going to, but, after seeing about ten films in the last few weeks, well, it’s over for me, for this year. Big thanks to everyone involved in making Japan Cuts happen, and for having me as a volunteer. It’s a great feeling to be involved, not just as a spectator, but as a member of a team, an insider in whatever tiny way, rather than a total outsider simply paying to come…

The highlight of tonight, and for me one of the highlights of the whole festival, was that I got to meet Ogigami Naoko (Director of Megane, Toilet, Kamome Shokudô, and now Rent-a-Neko). It’s one thing to see celebrities from a distance – and seeing Yakusho Kōji speak was certainly exciting in its own way – but actually getting to talk to someone is a whole different level. It was very brief of course – just a little more than “I really like your movies, thank you so much for coming here tonight,” “Oh, thank you. I’m glad you like them.” But, still. A special opportunity. And she was very nice, very personable. Shy even. Not like a celebrity at all.

They screened her newest film, Rent-a-Neko, tonight. It was followed by Loan Shark Ushijima, which is a very different film, and which I’ll get to. But, between the two films, I think the theme of the night was very much one of deviating completely from the Hollywood formula, defying expectations or norms.

Rent-a-Neko follows a young woman who rents out cats, to help people suffering from loneliness. She herself has been quite lonely since her grandmother passed away, and herself without any boyfriend or husband, just a whole bunch of cats who, it would seem, are strangely attracted to her. There’s something very sweet about her, as she charges very little, and seems to really genuinely provide people with true comfort, both with her cats, and her words. The film is, for the most part, episodic, focusing on one person after another whom she helps. But nothing ever really develops out of it. There is very little overall plot, and no real resolution at the end.

I’m guessing that Motai Masako, who plays the friendly but decidedly odd older woman in Megane and in Kamome Diner, as well as the grandmother in Toilet, must not have been free for this. Perhaps I’m judging Ogigami’s distinctive style too much from those two films alone [I had not yet seen Toilet when I wrote this post], and expecting too much that this film too ought to have a similar feel. But, with Motai absent, and for other reasons besides – reasons I cannot quite put my finger on – Rent-a-Neko, while certainly enjoyable, lacked that particular feel or flavor which I have come to expect from Ogigami-sensei.

The world premiere of the film Loan Shark Ushijima (Yamikin Ushijima) was the second film of the night. An extension of a live-action television drama based on a manga, and centering on a world of loan sharks, prostitutes, protection money extortionists, and sadistic blackmailers, Ushijima is decidedly a very different film. But, here too we see a deviation from norms that leaves me scratching my head.

Films, of course, do not need to follow the standard, oh-so-predictable, Hollywood formulas. They don’t even have to have clear-cut good guys and bad guys. But, still, there should be some straightforward sense of a plot, and some underlying theme or message, as to how one ought to behave. Or something.

The chief protagonist of this film, perhaps, is the young ikemen Ogawa Jun (played by Hayashi Kento), leader and event organizer of a sort of ikemen idols group. He seems a good guy, near as we can tell, with innocent sorts of goals. He seeks fame and success, seeks to turn this idols group thing into a successful career for himself as head of a modeling agency, or event organizer for big nightclub events… And he’s gotten himself into trouble with a loan shark, with a protection racket, and with a crazy frightening blackmailer / serial killer / torture artist. Now he owes too many people too much money, and everything he does to try to resolve it only makes things worse.

There are a couple of other characters in the movie who are relatively innocent, who are not quote-unquote “bad guys,” but who have simply gotten involved in bad stuff, and who we root for to get out of it, and to survive. But basically everyone else in this film is one kind of wretched criminal or another, making it hard to really feel like we want to root for any of these people.

Maybe I just need to suspend my disbelief or something, but there were just way too many parts of this film that made no sense. Some of it can be chalked up to characters just making very dumb choices, but… To start with, the loan shark Ushijima charges truly ludicrous amounts of interest (e.g. something like 50% interest added on every day), and somehow is able to get away with it. Granted, we do get to see the full process of why it is that the cops can’t seem to hold him. But even so, the very idea that one can buy up others’ debts and then apply your own arbitrary and ludicrously high interest rates seems bizarre. Then again, I guess when you’re operating an illegal extortion racket, anything goes.

Why does Jun never call the cops? And where was the security at this very large, well-attended, high-profile venue, that everyone from the loan shark to the protection racket guys are able to get in without even the slightest indication that they had pushed through, or even ever encountered security to begin with? Where were the security guys, or the police, to kick them out? And, again, why does Jun try to play these terrible people against one another rather than call the cops?

In the end, I feel bad for Jun because he had such innocent, non-criminal goals and intentions. But, in a sense, he really brings it on himself by handling the situation so poorly. At every step, he has people making utterly unreasonable demands of him, and rather than tell them how unreasonable it is, rather than demonstrating any degree of business acumen or law-abiding common sense, he runs off to borrow more money to pay these extortionists, getting himself more and more in the hole. Miko, a friend of Jun’s who is forced by Ushijima to pay off her mother’s gambling debts, similarly makes asinine decisions. She agrees, for some reason, to pay all the interest on her mother’s debts, week after week, but on principle refuses to pay the principal, i.e. the original debts. What nonsense. If she had any marbles in her head at all, she would pay the principal, and refuse to pay the interest. At least then, very quickly, there would come to be no principal to owe interest on. Meanwhile, I guess we are to assume that her mother keeps accumulating new gambling debts because otherwise the whole thing should have been paid off ages ago.

Perhaps the message of the film is that our world is a twisted, nasty place, where the violent and criminal win, and the innocent and noble-minded lose. The message that you need to be careful, to not be naive, or else the world will ruin you, will destroy you. That if you’re going to get involved with the seedier aspects of our society, you had better know what you’re getting yourself into, or you will get eaten alive.

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