Japanese Landscapes @ the Clark

Thursday, December 20, 2012

On Saturday, I celebrated my birthday with a visit to the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture, and took along my wife and my father.  I try to get this museum as often as their exhibitions change, and Near and Far: Landscapes by Japanese Artists.  Rotation 1: Imagination of Nature closes December 22.  Its companion, Near and Far: Landscapes by Japanese Artists. Rotation 2: Idealization of Reality, opens January 6.
We arrived just a few minutes past 1:00 pm on Saturday, just a little late to catch the beginning of the weekly docent tour.  Our three doubled the audience to six as Sonja Simonis, curator of this exhibit, talked about the individual artists, the 29 landscapes on display, and the represented traditions and influences, especially as the Japanese adapted what they learned from the Chinese.  The Clark Center invites young scholars for assistant curatorial internships, and Simonis is the 18th intern in thirteen years.  She told me she did most of her studies in Berlin, but researched her thesis in Japan.

The collection goes back into the 15th Century, and some of the commentary refers back to about the 10th.  Several traditions are represented: Zen priests who painted as a path to enlightenment; Daoists who painted as a path back to nature and tranquility; bunjin, or literati, men of letters who painted as a pastime and to share with their friends; and professional painters who decorated castles for the Shoguns and Daimyo.

One of the oldest pieces, Mountains by a River, is attributed to Kenkō Shōkei (active about 1478-1506), a Zen priest who studied paintings from Song and Yuan China.  In the Zen tradition, landscape paintings—usually of fictitious locations—served as meditative devises.
Detail from Mountains by a River, a matching pair of hanging scrolls, attributed to Kenkō Shōkei.  Ink and color on paper.
As an example of the professional artists, the Kanō family ran an art school and served wealthy patrons, from the late 15th Century, until near the end of the 19th.  In its fifth generation, a prodigy named Kanō Tan’yū appeared before Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa at age ten.  He joined the palace staff at age 15.  As Simonis explained, Winter Landscape demonstrates how Japanese painting of this period retained a preference for extended empty spaces, a characteristic of Zen.  Only later, under Chinese influence, did painters choose to fill the entire frame.
Winter Landscape (above), with detail (below), by Kanō Tan’yū (1602-1674).
Itaya Keishū (1729-1797) founded a school in Edo (Tokyo), and worked for the Shogun.  In Priest Looking out into a Snow-covered Landscape, I was most intrigued by the painting’s three sets of angles.
Itaya Keishū (1729-1797), Priest Looking out into a Snow-covered Landscape, hanging scroll, colors on silk.
One set of angles is established by the house and the fence in the foreground.  The right span of fence points to the bridge, and the left span points at the contemplative priest.  A second set of angles comes from the mountains and the pitch of the roof, and a third in the branches of the tree.
Detail from, Priest Looking out into a Snow-covered Landscape.
The majority of paintings in this exhibition date from the Tokugawa period.  The Shogunate cut-off Japan from outside influences, allowing only one Dutch ship a year to land at Nagasaki, and a small trickle of Chinese to visit.  With Japan’s historic ties to Chinese literature and art thus inhibited, a yearning after things Chinese found expression in a school of art called Nanga.  These artists (Bunjin 文人, or, "literati") were united more by the self-identification as intellectuals than by specific artistic techniques, but they tended to choose Chinese subject matter, and to tag their paintings with Chinese-style poetry.  Even after the fall of the Tokugawa, as European techniques made their way into the paintings, the subject matter and poetry remained Chinese.

When I looked closely at Landscape after Dong Yuan, by Nakabayashi Chikutō (who predates the opening of Japan), I was struck by its near-Pointillism, a technique I associate with late 19th Century, European Impressionists.
Landscape after Dong Yuan, by Nakabayashi Chikutō (1776-1853).
Thus I enjoyed a moment of smug satisfaction when the label said, “Dong Yuan (died ca. 962) was one of the “Four Masters of the Song Dynasty” (960-1279) and particularly famous for his pointillist painting technique.  Here, Nakabayashi Chikutō successfully employs this painting method in order to create a calm and relaxed atmosphere.”

Nakabayashi served as a Nanga theorist, painting and writing in Kyoto.

Mizuta Chikuho (1883-1958) taught painting and frequently served as a judge in art exhibitions.  In Fairly Unsettled Weather (1928), a figure in a blue kimono looks out from the window, the painting’s only deviation from a shades-of-gray color scheme.

Fairly Unsettled Weather (1928), with detail at right, by Mizuta Chikuho.  Ink and light colors on paper.
The exhibit places side-by-side three paintings by Fukuda Kodōjin (1865-1944).  As a young man, he earned his living as a poet, first with a volume of Chinese style poetry, and then selling haiku to magazines.  He was also a master at calligraphy.  Later, he developed his own style of painting.  Or perhaps I should say several styles, because each of the three Kodōjin painting in this exhibit demonstrate a different approach.  A web search turns up a recent book on Kodōjin, by Stephen Addiss, with over 100 of Kodōjin’s haiku and tanka poems.  Each poem works in tandem with Kodōjin’s art. The representative ink paintings each distort space, somewhat whimsically, but my favorite, Plum Blossom Library, also used color.
Plum Blossom Library (1926), with detail at left, by Fukuda Kodōjin (1865-1944).  Ink and colors on silk.
The inscription reads, “Drinking alone, wine beside the flowers,
Spring breezes fluttering the lapels of my robe.
With just this peace my desire is fulfilled, while the world’s affairs leave me at odds.
White haired but not yet passed on,
These green mountains a good place to take my bones.
Who understands that this happiness today lies simply in tranquility of life?
(trans. Jonathan Chaves)

Color and detail also attracted me to Komuro Suiun’s Mount Hōrai.  A contemporary of Kodojin, and another Daoist painter of the Nanga School, this painting pictures the palace of the Daoist Eight Immortals, who live in a place without pain or sorrow.  Near the inscription, a flock of crains symbolize luck and long life.

Mount Hōrai, with detail on right, by Komuro Suiun (1874-1945).

The most dramatic piece is also the most recent (1984). The full 12 panels of Hekiba Village, by Araki Minol (1928-2010) extend 72 feet, but the display room could only comfortably hold the four panels at the right end of the series.
Twenty-four feet from the 72-foot long of Hekiba Village, by Araki Minol.
Even so, I enjoyed both the full effect from standing away, and the close-up details of careful study.
Detail from Hekiba Village, by Araki Minol.
Born in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, Araki Minol began painting at age six, surrounded by Japanese, Chinese, and Russian influences.  He trained and had a very successful career as an industrial designer, with homes in Tokyo, Taipei, and New York, and life-long association with clients like Tandy/Radio Shack.  Only late in his life did friends convince him to display his paintings.

In this video, I attempt to catch the sweep of Hekiba Village.

The second half of this exhibit begins with a lecture by Sonja Simonis, at 2:00 pm.,  Sunday, January 6, 2013.

One final thought: Beside the art gallery, the Clark Center has a bonsai garden, and this has recently been redesigned to better show-off the collection.

(My review of a previous exhibition at the Clark)


Thank you for the reminder of the Clark. I've always wanted to go and maybe between your post and the Christmas break I may go.

Steve said...
December 20, 2012 at 12:39 PM  

Steve, this Saturday is the last day of the current exhibition. Then they will be closed to set up the new one, which will open on the 6th. If you want to be part of the opening day lecture, you'll need to call ahead for reservations. Which reminds me, I need to do that.

Brian said...
December 20, 2012 at 2:44 PM  

Those are wonderful work of art! - www.metropolitanpainting.com

Unknown said...
December 20, 2012 at 6:38 PM  

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