Thursday, August 11, 2016

Japanese modern art: revisited


In October of 2013 I went to the National Museum of Modern Art Kyoto for the first time.  I was somewhat disappointed.  17 years of visiting MoMA in New York had shaped my idea of what "modern art" is.  There was nothing modern about what I saw on that first visit.

I have been back to MOMAK at least half a dozen times and have seen some amazing exhibitions.  But I never really saw what I was looking for - until now.  I read a rather terse and bland review in the Japan Times of the new exhibition, "A Feverish Era: Art Informel and the Expansion of Japanese Artistic Expression in the 1950s and '60s".  All that digging, all those broken shovels and picks.  Finally!  It was as if someone had been hiding this art from me: "No, he's not ready.  Not yet."

In 1956 French art curator/collector Michel Tapié organized an exhibition in Tokyo department store Takashimaya called Sekai Konnichi no Bijutsuten (Exposition Internationale de l'Art Actuel).  This show, featuring works by Jean Dubuffet,  Georges Mathieu, Willem DeKooning and Sam Francis among others, had an enormous impact on the Japanese avant-garde.  This current exhibition at MOMAK attempts to show what happened to art in Japan after that.

There are some blatant copy-cat pieces that now, in the 21st Century look a bit cliched.  But then who was influencing who, really?  When you look at a painting by Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline you can't help but think of shodo (Japanese calligraphy).  And there is some evidence, though often deniedthat these artists were influenced by Japanese art.  It is often a case of the "chicken and the egg" when tracing artistic inspiration.  Regardless, the international exchange of ideas and artistic cross-pollination in the pre-internet days is fascinating to me. 

There are some truly outstanding pieces in the "Feverish" exhibition by artists like Yasukazu Tabuchi, Minoru Kawabata and Taro Ogi that had me completely transfixed.

There should be a dance with a good painting, the viewer moving in and out, left and right, up and down.  Your breath and heart beat should change, quicken or slow.  You should for at least a moment feel lost, feel small, feel joy or sadness or both, be slightly or completely perplexed.  The wonder should not be the same as for a magic trick: how-did-they-do-that.  It should be the same as for an old tree, a new snow or the pounding surf.  That is when an artist has done his/her job.

I knew Japanese painting couldn't only be cherry trees, cranes and stoic Buddhist monks.  Alas, my supposition has been confirmed.  Feverish indeed!

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