The Golden Journey

May 16, 2009
Kitagawa Utamaro, Hairdresser (Kamiyui), c.1797–98, colour woodblock print, 38.0 x 7.6 cm
Kitagawa Utamaro, Hairdresser (Kamiyui), c.1797–98, colour woodblock print, 38.0 x 7.6 cm

Late last year the Art Gallery of NSW held a small but fascinating show celebrating the thousandth anniversary of Genji Monogatari – often hailed as the world’s first novel. One of the delights of that exhibition was the sense of cultural continuity that ran through the display, from the decorated screens of the early 1600s to the Manga comics of today.

Until the end of May the Art Gallery of South Australia is presenting an event that feels like the main course for which Genji was a plate of elegant sushi. The Golden Journey: Japanese Art from Australian Collections, is one of the shows of the year. While not pretending to be a comprehensive survey of the history of Japanese art, this display of some 300 items takes us from a large earthenware jar of the Yayoi period (400 BCE -250) to Allegory III (1988), a charred wooden canoe, by the contemporary sculptor, Toshikatsu Endo.

On the journey we take in some extraordinary pieces of Buddhist and Shinto sculpture, screens and scroll paintings, ceramics, furniture, textiles, ukiyo-e prints, and many other varieties of fine and decorative art. Everything has been sourced locally: chiefly from the holdings of the Art Gallery of South Australia, supplemented by judicious loans from private and public collections across the country. The result is an immaculate feat of curatorship by James Bennett, the AGSA’s Curator of Asian Art.

A show such as this, based on the somewhat arbitrary patterns of acquisition that have waxed and waned since the late nineteenth century, must inevitably have its strengths and weaknesses. The great success of The Golden Journey is that one notices only the striking or unusual object, never the gaps. In every room, and every period, there is something that catches one’s eye and invites the closest examination.

The AGSA began collecting Japanese art in 1904, but by this stage fashionable taste had been besotted with all things Japanese for at least thirty years. Ever since the Emperor was forced to open his borders to foreign trade in the 1850s Japanese goods had been trickling back to the west. Artists such as Monet and Van Gogh accumulated collections of cheap ukiyo-e prints, while the most fashionable salons in Paris, London and Boston were laden with Japanese ceramics, lacquerware, screens and silks.

Gilbert and Sullivan mocked the booming trend in The Mikado (1885), but this most popular of musical comedies only served to inflame the mania for Japan. Adelaide followed suit, with wealthy collectors such as William Milne and Sir Samuel Way acquiring extensive collections of Japanese art. The catalogue quotes a visitor to Way’s mansion, who described “a perfect museum of beautiful specimens of Japanese art and curios of all kinds.”

In time, the most important pieces in these collections would be transferred by purchase or bequest to the AGSA. This legacy has been continued by the donations of contemporary patrons such as Andrew and Hiroko Gwinnett.

In a way that would be inconceivable today, when the value of everything is so widely known, in those early local bequests there were some rare and marvellous works. One of the most remarkable is a handscroll painting by Kodama Teiryo called Scenes of the Ezo fishing grounds (c.1751-64), which documents the everyday interaction between the Japanese and the minority Ainu. This work was brought to Adelaide by John Daniel Custance, a British agricultural expert, who spent three years in Japan. Upon Custance’s death in 1923 the painting was given to the AGSA by his son. It was paid little attention until 2000, when the gallery had the painting examined and found that it depicted the exploitation of the Ainu in an unusually candid manner. Nowadays a copy is on permanent display at the National Museum of Japanese History in Tokyo.

The Golden Journey is the culmination of a research process that has led to a series of happy revelations about the Japanese collection. The catalogue, by James Bennett, Amy Riegle Newland, and a host of guest writers, is a fitting accompaniment to this show. It is beautifully designed and produced, filled with scholarly information, and extremely readable. Long after the exhibition is over, this publication will enjoy an international market. It sets a standard to which other Australian public galleries have rarely aspired in recent years.

One experience that cannot be reproduced in the catalogue is the shock to the senses when one enters the first room of the show, filled with early sculptures and ceramics, to be confronted with walls painted a lurid shade of blue-green. The expressive use of colour continues from room to room, in rich purples, browns, and other non-primary shades, forming a backdrop for items that are lavishly decorated, with frequent use of gold leaf. If we imagine the walls painted the usual off-white it becomes apparent that the strong colours considerably enhance the presentation.

It may be theatrical, but then Japanese art is largely a matter of dazzling surface effects – intricate detail set against expanses of emptiness. In a small print or a massive screen, negative space is no less important than the play of figures or objects. For instance, in the Edo period screens depicting scenes from Genji, recently included in the show at the AGNSW, small episodes from the story are spread across an area of three and a half metres, interspersed with billowing clouds of gold that make us feel we are peering down from a high aerial viewpoint, or encountering the story in a dream.

Even more brilliant are two gigantic Edo screens – Millet and birds (c.1625) and Autumn landscape with wild geese (c.1650), where birds and landscape are depicted in fine, concentrated detail against a plane of glistening gold. In the former, the richness of the material is neatly balanced by the casual nature of the imagery: birds caught in a net used to protect the crops, others cheerfully pecking at the grain directly in front of noise-making devices intended to keep them away. But it is the random scatter of flying birds, a dark curve of ocean, the mesh of reddish leaves, and the upright stalks of bamboo that give the composition its sweeping lyrical beauty.

In Autumn landscape, one is held by the delicate stippling of plants, but the real surprise are blades of tall grass that have been scratched out of the gold leaf surface in swift, confident arcs. Like so many marvels of the classical past, this gesture will strike many viewers – myself included – as astonishingly modern.

In their use of negative space, their sensitivity to the language of gesture or facial expression, Japanese artists have striven to imbue their works with a depth of feeling, and occasional playful humour, that in western art would not normally be associated with creations of such strict formal and technical accomplishment. Whether we are looking at a screen, a sculpture or even a tea bowl, the Japanese artist has left room for the viewer’s imagination to ‘complete’ the aesthetic experience.

The best pieces not only invite contemplation, they hold us in thrall.  In the wooden sculpture, Seated figure of an elderly rakan (17th-18th century), the face and figure of the old monk are completely stylised, but manage to convey a feeling of human sympathy that is undiminished after three centuries. The wrinkled, grimacing face records the spiritual sufferings the Rakan has endured on the way to enlightenment, while the rhythmic flow of his robes signifies the harmonious state he has finally attained. This is given further emphasis by the base upon which he sits, which resembles a lotus, emblem of a famous meditation position. Even the fragments of paint on the face, which are all that remains of the statue’s original polychrome surface, add to the impression of stoic endurance.

Scarcely less powerful is a 17th century tea bowl named ‘morning light’ – a miraculous combination of textures and tones, which epitomises the best traditions of these humble objects which the Japanese treat with the greatest reverence.

There is a reassuring sensation in encountering familiar works, and a room of ukiyo-e prints – including Hokusai’s inevitable wave – will fulfill this function for most viewers. Yet one of the pleasures of this show, and also the collecting policies of the AGSA, is the number of unusual, even eccentric pieces, such as a scroll painting of a primitive gun by the Zen master, Hakuin Ekaku, which bears the calligraphic inscription, They kick when fired (c.1750); or a couple of screens painted in ink and silver alloy, showing the classic Yin-Yang juxtaposition of the tiger and the dragon. This work is anonymous, raw and expressive. It is not the typical work that most museums would acquire, but holds its own in this exalted company.

In discussing two outstanding Buddhist sculptures, James Bennett writes how works were made as objects of tenacious devotion in what was perceived as an era of spiritual decline – a so-called “Dharma-Ending Age”. That was the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but who would deny that the Dharma-Ending Age is here once again? Shows like The Golden Journey reassure us that when the spirit declines with the All Ords index, there is always a Pure Land to be found in the experience of art.

 

The Golden Journey: Japanese Art from Australian Collections, Art Gallery of South Australia, March 6- May 31, 2009

 

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 16, 2009