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Natural Harmony

The complex prettiness of Japanese art.

Oct 3, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 03 • By EVE TUSHNET
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A Sensitivity to the Seasons

‘Persimmon Tree’ Painting by Sakai Hôitsu

‘Persimmon Tree’ by Sakai Hôitsu (1816)

Summer and Autumn in Japanese Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The idea that Japanese culture has a unique sensitivity to the seasons has been warped by repetition. It’s easy for Westerners to see a title such as the one for this show and imagine a room of hotel-wall pictures, delicate and meticulous—and utterly nonthreatening. The Met’s ads reinforce the cliché: Oh look, a branch of morning glories! How pretty!

But when you get up close, in person, those purple blossoms are more like an attack of morning glories. Suzuki Kiitsu’s 19th-century screen dominates one big wall of the exhibit. Huge royal-blue flowers seem to glow from within, on a gilt background whose negative space is as powerful as the fleshy flowers themselves. These are morning glories that look like they could eat small animals.

And while some of the show’s other artworks are graceful and quiet, even pretty, the curators have put together a show which looks at many of the shifting moods of nature, and human interactions with the natural world, to which we belong only uneasily.

“A Sensitivity to the Seasons” covers several centuries, and does not proceed in chronological order. It opens in the late 19th century, with Shibata Zeshin’s decorated black lacquered boxes, which bear images of summer and autumn fruits. These luminescent, highly stylized fruits seem to float in space: spare, stark, modern images which wouldn’t be out of place at an especially design-conscious casino. There’s no attempt at realism.

The practical character of many of these items—dinner sets, summer or autumn robes—combines with their elaborate decoration to provoke questions about art-making. A robe patterned with grapes twining on a fence is reminiscent of the Magritte painting in which a painting of a window stands in front of the window itself. But why do we feel as though depicting nature is at least as important as experiencing it? The experience doesn’t quite feel real until it has been depicted, and so we’re invited to contemplate screens in which a small scholar wanders along mountain paths, contemplating. A man in a robe depicting the harvest moon sits in a field under the harvest moon. Although human life and culture are seamlessly integrated into nature in many of these portrayals—a gourd has become a wineskin, millet rises in swaying, cultivated ranks, a bird perches on lantern strings—the show accurately presents humans’ art-provoking alienation from nature.

The show captures nature’s gentle moods: Shibata Zeshin’s “Autumn Grasses in Moonlight” shows a dark scene, momentarily still, with oversized insects (to evoke their sounds) against a giant full moon. Another full moon, this time on a box for writing paper, is raked by gilt clouds; gilt grasses shiver below, delicate, unprotected, and chased by the wind. But there are also moments of small violence, hinting at the nature that is “red in tooth and claw.” “Rooster in a Storm” shows its bedraggled protagonist bowing his head and bracing against the weather. “Birds Pursued by an Eagle” is a kinetic painting in which an eagle swoops down on a swan while other, smaller birds whirl and scatter away from the central drama of predator and prey. And in almost all of these artworks, the use of intense color and dramatic negative space conveys a sense of the size and power of nature, a sense that the natural world is a world of sharp contrasts, not always hospitable.

Many of the pieces are simply breathtaking, like the “Summer Kimono with Carp, Water Lilies, And Morning Glories” on which the blossoms float and drift through a heaven-blue, light-streaked expanse, alongside subtly colored shimmering koi. Sakai Hôitsu’s “Persimmon Tree,” in streaky gray with rich red fruit, shows the tree like a skeleton under a horizonless blank sky. It’s melancholic and compelling, with precisely curling leaves, like a giant praying mantis clutching the fruit.

And the moods of the humans participating in (and creating) these scenes change as well. There are flights of pure fantasy, like the charming “Pieces from a Robe (Kosode) with Islands” from the 18th century. Pink grasses and houses populate islands floating on a sky-blue and turquoise sea, all cupcake colors and glittery gold. There are those tiny scholars, dwarfed by the great mountains lost in mist. There are the melty, fleshy shapes of Fukuda Kodôjin’s 20th-century “Landscape,” whose tiered, swirling, surrealist shapes disorientingly reject realistic perspective.

There are the humorous panels of Kitagawa Utamaro’s “Enjoying the Cool Evening Breeze On and Under the Bridge,” whose comic-book conceit is that the people in each of the six panels are watching people in one of the other panels. The artist pokes gentle fun at the expense of these nosy, familiar characters. There’s even a scroll with acrobats riding bears! Something for everyone.

The Met presents this show as an introduction to one swath of Japanese aesthetics. Its captions emphasize the pervasive Chinese influence, and the interweaving of visual art and poetry. Captions note the association of certain images with moods: Quail apparently evoke isolation, for example, even when they appear in basically agricultural, and therefore implicitly social, scenes. Although it’s not easy to enter into contemplation in a major New York museum—amid hallway chatter, clicking cameras, and the guard’s low singsong warning, “Noooooo video!”—this exhibit’s smallish, slightly darkened rooms work hard to provide something approximating solitude.

Near the exit we get still more morning glories. These are from the 18th century, by Tawaraya Sôri, and the negative space here is even more imposing than in the Suzuki. The flowers unfurl from their tendrils at the outer edges of the big, pale screen, like astronauts venturing from the safety of their shuttle. The colors are not as battering as Suzuki’s—more muted and dusky—but the overall impact is still intensely dramatic. Japanese art, like nature itself, can be quite pretty. But as this show proves, even a flower on a trellis can inspire awe if you look at it the right way.

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington.

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