International Herald Tribune, APRIL 1, 2006
The irresistible comeback of Japan, from sales to shows
By Souren Melikian
NEW YORK Suddenly, Japan is looming very large on the art scene. After a prolonged period of effacement that many thought might last indefinitely in the market, it has recovered a highly visible profile.
In the auction arena, Christie's opened its Asian week Tuesday with a sale of Japanese art ranging from color wood block prints to sword blades.
Leading dealers are holding selling shows of Japanese painting and graphic art with titles such as "The Floating World in the Eighteenth Century" (Sebastian Izzard at 17 East 76th Street) and "Masters of the Brush in Early Modern Japan" (Mitsuru Tajima from Tokyo on Kazuhito Yoshii's premises, also at 17 East 76th Street.).
Those to whom cultural history matters as much as the objects will be gripped by the exhibition on view at the China Institute until June 10. "Trade, Taste & Transformation" is about the Chinese porcelain makers working between 1620 and 1645 in a manner inspired by Japanese wares and adopting aesthetic principles that often were the very opposite of their own.
This surge of awareness of things Japanese is not merely a New York phenomenon. In Washington, the nation's premier institution of Asian art, the Freer Gallery of Art currently holds an exhibition partly drawn from its fabulous holdings in Japanese prints - Hokusai through May 14 and Edo paintings and prints through May 29.
This unexpected Japanese revival has been triggered by a new mood activating more permanent factors. Market professionals have been loosely aware for some time that a few Japanese collectors were silently back in action, even as collections of Western painting and early Chinese art built up in the 1980s continue to trickle back to Western auctions. And when auctioneers and dealers smell money, they jump into action.
Behind this, there lie more fundamental facts stemming from the cultural history of the West and its rapport with Japan.
Christie's would not have been able to stage its sale were it not for 150 years of intense European and American collecting. By the end of the 19th century, the Western discovery of Ukiyo-e ("The Floating World") color prints, which began around the 1840s in Holland, led to the transfer to Europe of tens of thousands of these prints, which were still looked down upon in their homeland by traditional connoisseurs. They saw it as a form of art for the uneducated masses - meaning not cast in the mold of Chinese-based culture.
The impact changed the course of modern art. The West did not go in for color shock. Van Gogh would never have thought of associating deep blues and acid yellows in his greatest paintings of 1888 and 1889 had he not experienced in Paris the electrifying discovery of Hokusai's prints.
Some of these Hokusai prints were up for sale Tuesday, often in impressions that were not very good and in a condition that would have inspired sophisticated collectors with total contempt 20 or 30 years ago. If told that the graphic artist's view of Senju from his famous series "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji" was a "moderately good impression," slightly soiled at the bottom right, with a small hole and small repairs, they would have laughed at the thought of paying the $20,400 it cost Tuesday. Nor would they have stooped so low as to buy the $9,000 "Kajikazawa" landscape from the same series in which Mount Fuji is wonderfully handled in just three lines on the white horizon.
Yet these modest impressions were much the same as those that Western artists had been looking at. They did not care if there was a crease here or a small hole there. All they had eyes for was the power of brevity in visual art.
More important, I strongly believe that the sight of Japanese prints, aside from radically modifying European compositional schemes and layouts as it did with Emile Bernard and others, was the catalyst that allowed the West to move away from faithful representation, academic or Impressionist.
One of the most powerful images to be seen in New York last week is the print of an actor by Katsukawa Shunsho on view at Izzard's. It probably dates from 1772 and shows how far Japanese printmakers had already gone. Cubist stylization is already there. The grimacing mask is the only element that clearly tips the scales in favor of figuration.
Another feature of Japanese printmaking that would change the course of Western art is, precisely, the grimace. Its art was carried to a peak by the mysterious Toshusai Sharaku, whose known images all date from 1794 or 1795. Izzard shows one of his great portraits of actors, "Otani Tokuji as Sodesuke, a Retainer." Gray, black and white predominate. The colors sustain the mood of livid rage projected by the man's masked face. The discovery of such images released in the Western artists' minds the ability to synthesize and simplify. That laid the foundations for the art of the poster and, at the upper end, opened the doors to the violent sneers of Expressionism.
It is no accident that a great admirer of Japanese prints, Toulouse-Lautrec, was on the one hand the true inventor of the art of the poster and on the other the first great master of the sneer in his portraits of cabaret performers and ladies of the night.
It is tempting to speculate what would have happened if the avant-garde artists of the late 19th century had chanced upon earlier aspects of Japanese art.
In "Masters of the Brush in Early Modern Japan," Tajima has two amazing hanging scrolls. One signed by the 16th-century Zen monk Sesson Shukei is a landscape in which abstract forms "coalesce into a recognizable topography," as the dealer puts it. In the other scroll, done by an 18th-century Zen master, Torei Enji, a single ring was painted by the artist at one sweep of the brush. In China, whose culture underpins that of Japan - Zen Buddhism is Chan Buddhism sung with a Japanese accent - the circle stands for the sky, and in Japan it can symbolize a deity's mirror. Tajima comments: "Perhaps drawing from the circle's symbolic roots in the sacred, Zen Buddhists came to associate it with emptiness, or a state of perfection that could be attained only through completely ridding the self of human passions and attachments to the material world."
Next to the circle, ideograms dashed off ask "what is this?" By asking "the deceptively obvious question" (answer: "a circle"), the monk forces the viewer to meditate on the nature of emptiness symbolized by the ring.
Take out three seals, and the scroll could be a New York School work of the 1960s. With a difference. The Zen thinker's Expressionist abstraction has a meaning echoing the meditation of the East. It is not the whim of an adult teenager on the loose.
There were lighter moments in the Chinese-Japanese interaction, and it is one of those that makes the China Institute show enchanting.
The Jingdezhen potters, Julia Curtis writes in the scholarly catalogue, were producing blue and white wares for export to Japan and accordingly endeavored to follow some Japanese rules. They must have felt like schoolboys romping about in the schoolmaster's absence.
Asymmetry was recommended and roughness held in favor, in breach of all Chinese principles. The potters gave vent to their sense of fun. On the sides of a white ewer, irate buffaloes painted in blue seem to be slipping down the white surface. A dish is shaped so as to suggest the bowing figure of a European humbly presenting some offering. Goggle-eyed and pug-nosed, the foreigner smiles inanely. This is, in cultural reverse mirror-image, the equivalent of the potbellied Chinaman in Meissen porcelain.
At their most lighthearted, China and Japan buried the war hatchet when exchanging visual ideas about the gawky obsequious barbarians from the other side of the planet. Thus does art bear witness to the ancient roots of the mutual affection felt by East and West.
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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