I recently attended the Minneapolis Institute of Arts feature exhibition: “The Audacious Eye —Japanese Art from the Clark Collections.” The Twin Cities offer a wealth of arts opportunities in every genre, so exhibitions like this sometimes get overlooked. Many people may not know that the MIA houses an enormous amount of Asian art. This particular exhibition was born out of a recent gift of 1,700 pieces of Japanese art. The MIA’s press release states that this gift will ensure “the museum’s status as one of the nation’s foremost centers of Asian art.” The Clarks were a couple of private art collectors from central California. They gave their entire collection, valued at $25 million, to the MIA.
This collection spans ten centuries. As such, some people might be inclined to dismiss this kind of exhibit as old and stuffy. But I tend to see Japanese art somewhat differently. As an abstract painter myself, I know that traditional Japanese art is continually vital to modern artists today. You may not have heard of Yamaguchi Soken. But you’ve likely heard of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Whistler, Degas, Manet, or Monet! All of these timeless artists were strongly influenced by Japanese painters.
The exhibit’s introduction explains that Japanese art between the 6th and 15th centuries was strongly influenced by Buddhism. Buddha and Bodhisattva sculptures, as seen in this exhibit, are often rather educational. That is, religious figures are often depicted in poses symbolic of Buddhist teachings. But one gets the impression that the collectors were most interested in their personal esthetic taste rather than any clear religious themes. Mr. Clark has stated that he has a “funky, bizarre” taste in collecting. Most traditional Japanese art operates on multiple levels. Viewers get to decide how deeply they want to look and learn.
Works included from the Kamakura Period (14th century) depict the leaders of Pure Land Buddhism, and also include landscapes done with ink on paper. Zen monks of this era were often landscape painters. This was part of their spiritual practice. For them, painting was essentially a combination of contemplation, meditation and mindfulness. They observed their natural setting carefully, and then rendered their impressions of it rather quickly.
This exhibit contains numerous works from the Edo period, a favorite era for the Clarks. The Edo period is noteworthy in large part because it marks a change in tradition. A certain irreverence in subject and style arose here, which was new and exciting at the time. Like much noteworthy art, this art broke the rules. The Edo period was a stable time for Japan. This stability helped to create a relatively educated and affluent art audience. Therefore, artistic fads could develop among common people, and many people became wealthy enough to commission their own art to their own specifications and taste. So the subjects depicted in art of this time became more diverse. Instead of religion or nature, theatre and fashion became popular themes during this period.
The influence of Japanese art and design on Europe in the 1800s started out as a fad. This type of idealized admiration gave rise to the French term “Japonisme”. Japanese art was omnipresent in French shops by the late 1800s, and Japanese aesthetics were popular enough with Europeans of the time to influence fashion and design in many areas. It would be tempting to dismiss this cultural impact as warped or patronizing. It’s true that some Europeans dressed up in kimonos for fun, waved fans fashionably, and had little idea of the true customs and religious beliefs of the East. But as far as modern art was concerned, the influence was genuine and lasting. For example: at the time, the unknown, poor, and addled Van Gogh simply copied famous Japanese artists because he deeply admired their work. Van Gogh only profited from the Japanese influence after his death. Some of the flat, abstract, lyrical, and expressionist paintings you will see at this exhibit were the originators of most of the abstract art you will see even today. From the mountains of Japan in the 1600s to the walls of Minneapolis art studios today, the same artistic thoughts and expressions have trickled all the way down.
In my opinion, the best pieces in the exhibition were Yamaguchi Soken’s works from the early 1800’s. Entitled “Set of 5 Classes of Beauties”, they are five large paintings on paper. Colorful, flat, and well-composed, they were ahead of their time and still look vital today. Contemporary Japanese art is also included in a few rooms of this exhibit. You will see a mobile from the 1940s, minimalist sculptures from 2005, and a modern version of a traditional folding screen from 2008.