Guest Post: Four Masterpieces Joined by the Spirit of Water

Water falls from above, and from below, falls
Four Masterpieces Joined by the Spirit of Water
By Susanna Brooks, Curator of Japanese Art

It is summer, and the rainy season is upon us at Morikami. Rain falls practically every afternoon. The sky becomes dark and the rain falls fast and heavy, culminating into torrential downpours that draw everyone to the windows to take in the stunning, mesmerizing view of water falling from the sky and cascading down the rain chains, nourishing the plants, and dislocating the pebbles in the once-neatly-raked dry garden.

Morikami summer rain

Morikami’s dry garden and rain chains during a summer storm.

Rain is universally revered for its ability to create and sustain life and respected for the power it has to wound and raze nature when it falls hard and long. This entry provides an abbreviated exploration of the element of water as a meaningful motif in Japanese philosophy and art, primarily as the main subject of two famous 19th-century woodblock prints, which, in turn, share an affinity with two 19th-century Western masterpieces.

Water sustains all life, made evident by the fact that both the Earth and human body are composed of 70 percent water. For many cultures water holds spiritual symbolic meaning, with the natural attributes of water – its flexibility and adaption to change and transformation – equated to ideal human emotions and actions.

A precept of Japanese Buddhism holds water ( sui, or mizu) second in importance to Earth in the cycle of the five elements of the universe (Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Nothingness). Representations of these five elements are present time and again in the design of Japanese architecture, stone lanterns, Buddhist temples and Zen-inspired gardens. In Shintō, the native religion of Japan, water is venerated and presided over by Susano-o, god of the sea and storms, Kuraokami (literally, “dark dragon, tutelary of water”), god of rain and snow, and Suijin, the benevolent deity of water itself. A goal of spiritual practice within Shintō is to become like the flow of water, blurring divisions and transcending boundaries. For that reason, many devotees practice purification rituals under waterfalls (taki shugyō).

As a meaningful element in Japanese art and architecture, water is a leitmotif of many Japanese woodblock prints. Katsushika Hokusai, the artist of The Great Wave off Kanagawa, one of the most recognized images in the world, believed that water was sacred and had the power to purify and restore life in accordance with the natural flow of divine awareness. To Hokusai, water represented the flowing of formlessness in the universe.

Katsushika Hokusai (ca. 1760 – 1849) Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji: The Great Wave off of Kanagawa Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper Edo Period, ca. 1829 – 1832 Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Katsushika Hokusai (ca. 1760 – 1849)
Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji: The Great Wave off of Kanagawa
Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper
Edo Period, ca. 1829 – 1832
Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hokusai and his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji inspired the great, woodblock print artist Utagawa (Andō) Hiroshige. Hiroshige was a plein aire artist who strived to depict nature faithfully. He sketched his landscape scenes out-of-doors and then had the images transferred to woodblocks.  Here, he captures a group of travelers caught in a rain storm. Hiroshige recorded this scene while traveling with an official delegation through Ise Province in Mie Prefecture.

Utagawa (Andō) Hiroshige (1797 – 1858) Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō: Shōno-juku Woodblock print, ink and color on paper Edo Period, 1833 – 1834 Gift of Brigitte and Joseph Lonner 1998.065.001

Utagawa (Andō) Hiroshige (1797 – 1858)
Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō: Shōno-juku
Woodblock print, ink and color on paper
Edo Period, 1833 – 1834
Gift of Brigitte and Joseph Lonner
1998.065.001

The image is part of the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō, a series of prints commemorating the Eastern Sea route from Edo (present-day Tokyo) to Kyoto. Considered Hiroshige’s most famous series, the Fifty-Three Stations was a pivotal watershed in ukiyo-e, for it greatly advanced the landscape as a key subject of this popular woodblock print genre. [1]

Hiroshige traveled the Tōkaidō in 1832 as part of an official delegation that was transporting horses, a gift from the Shogun to the Emperor as a symbol of his loyalty and as a way to pay his respects to the divine ruler of Japan. The landscape so impressed Hiroshige that he captured the journey in a series of sketches. When it was completed, the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō numbered fifty-five, with the extra two commemorating the start and end points. Shōno-juku is the forty-fifth of the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō.

Just as Hiroshige is celebrated for his rural landscape scenes, so French Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte is best-known for capturing the daily nuances of life on the streets of Paris. In this larger than life-size scene, Paris Street; Rainy Day, Caillebotte brings us practically face to face with a fashionable flâneur (French man of leisure) and his lady strolling in the rain.[2] With its cropped, zoomed-in angles, sharp tilted ground, and flat color palette, Rainy Day has a grand photo-realistic presence and a sensibility reminiscent of 19th-century Japanese prints, which had become all the rage among the French Impressionists. Like Hiroshige, Caillbotte captured a precise moment in time. As the painting’s simple, straightforward title suggests, Rainy Day takes rain as its main subject and creates around it a snapshot of daily life, turning an otherwise ordinary scene into a timeless, monumental work of art.

Gustave Caillebotte (1848 – 1894) Paris Street, Rainy Day 1877 Oil on canvas Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Gustave Caillebotte (1848 – 1894)
Paris Street, Rainy Day
1877
Oil on canvas
Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Another timeless and iconic work of art that takes water as its theme is Fallingwater, one of the greatest architectural achievements of the 20th century. Designed in 1935 by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater is a 2855 square-foot house built out over a 30-foot waterfall. The home has strong Japanese elements, particularly the manner in which the structure blends in with its environment, harmoniously bridging nature and man. As Japanese architect Tadao Ando has observed, “…Wright learned the most important aspect of architecture, the treatment of space, from Japanese architecture. When I visited Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, I found that same sensibility of space. But there was the additional sound of nature that appealed to me.”[3] The “sound” that Ando referred to was the melodious song of falling water for which the house is named.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1859) Fallingwater 1936 – 1939 Photo courtesy of Fallingwater.org

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1859)
Fallingwater
1936 – 1939
Photo courtesy of Fallingwater.org

Of the 400 structures that Wright built in his lifetime, Fallingwater is considered his greatest masterpiece. The house embraces the essence of Wright’s aesthetic design philosophy, a concept he originated and called organic architecture, which espoused the construction of structures that were in harmony with humanity and the environment. Wright was also a prolific, and for a time, successful, dealer of ukiyo-e, such as those that Hokusai and Hiroshige made and Caillebotte collected.

As water is connected to humanity and the environment, so Frank Lloyd Wright is connected to Japan and Japanese woodblock prints. When Wright first traveled to Japan in 1905, he purchased hundreds of ukiyo-e, including Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji and Hiroshige’s Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō. The following year, he assisted the curators of the Art Institute of Chicago, where Caillebotte’s Rainy Day is prominently displayed, in organizing a retrospective exhibition of the work of Hiroshige, which featured all fifty-five of the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō. Perhaps the correlation between all four of these artists and their masterpieces is merely coincidental, but I like to think that the spirit of water, in all its glorious forms, serendipitously linked their flow.


[1] Ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the Floating World,” describes a genre of woodblock prints and paintings that depicted scenes from everyday life in and around the merchant’s quarters of Edo, primarily the districts they created for pleasure and entertainment. Themes of ukiyo-e include beautiful women (geisha and courtesans), kabuki theater, sumo, historical scenes, and landscapes. The term ukiyo is associated with the Buddhist concept of impermanence and the sorrows (uki) of life (yo), a notion that underscores the temporariness of life, youth, and human desire and pleasure.

[2] Rainy Day is a stately painting that measures 83.5” x 108.7” (approximately 6.9’ W x 9’ H).

[3] Tadao Ando, 1995 Laureate: Biography. The Hyatt Foundation. 1995.

Vlogs With Veljko: Growing the Morikami Collections

From art to armor and everything in between, our collections are full of amazing pieces of both historical and cultural significance. But – have you ever wondered how these pieces come to be part of our 9000-piece collection? In this episode of Vlogs with Veljko, you’ll find out how we keep our collections growing – giving you the opportunity to experience Japan’s amazing culture right here in South Florida.

Q&A with the Curator: Who’s Genji?

Our current exhibit Genji’s World Through Japanese Woodblock Prints is open and ready for your visit, but some of you may be wondering – Who is Genji? We sat down with Curator of Collections, Veljko Dujin, to answer just that, and some of those other burning questions you might want answers to before visiting us. Here’s what we learned:

Who is/was Genji?

 Prince Genji, also known as Hikaru Genji, or the Shining Prince Genji,  was the fictitious son of an Emperor and his favorite concubine. Ever since Murasaki Shikibu wrote the novel The Tale of Genji, he’s been a popular figure in Japanese literature, theater and art.

 Why is Genji, and the Tale of Genji, such an important part of Japanese culture?

 Over time the popularity of Genji broadened from the Imperial court to the broader public. Parts of the novel originally appeared around the year 1008, and by Murasaki Shikibu’s  death (around the year 1025) the work was made into its final form of about 54 chapters.  The novel’s influence has long out-lived its author who was cruicial in developing Japanese as a written language. In fact, The Tale of Genji became required reading for court poets as early as the 12th century, and she has been highly regarded as a classical writer ever since. Murasaki had a lasting impact on Japanese literature, culture and art that hinged on this novel.

 What can guests expect to see in our Genji exhibit?

Woodblock prints. There are many great prints in this exhibit from some of the best known 19th century artists. By the 19th century Genji monogatari (or Genji epics) were tremendously popular in Japan, and while in the centuries prior many fine pieces of art were produced with scenes from the tale, most were one-of-a-kind paintings, either in the form of hand-scrolls, screens, accordion albums or scrolls. With woodblock prints, they were made available to the masses.

In the 1820’s a parody, originally published as a serial (several of the booklets are on display) called A Rustic Genji by Fradulent Murasaki, generated so much interest in Genji monogatari, that well over 1000 different prints were produced in the following decades. These prints depict scenes from both the original Genji and Ryutai Tanehiko’s 1820’s parody.

 Is there anything our guests should look for specifically (i.e. certain symbolism, images, or deeper meanings) in these prints?

 There are layers of symbolism in the Genji prints, so one has to be very familiar with the novels to be able to understand some of the subtle implications in some of the prints. In a few prints, however, viewers can see Genji-mon or Genji crests, which are rectilinear groupings of 5 vertical lines and one or two horizontal lines at the top. These were developed to correspond to each of the 54 chapters in the original novel, and are often placed on prints. They were commonly used in shell matching games where players try to match the two halves of a shell. One half  of the shell would have a Genji mon (like the ones on the prints) and the other half would have either a verse or an image from the corresponding chapter in The Tale of Genji.

 Which is your favorite piece in this exhibit and why?

 That would be two prints depicting the winter pastimes of  some ladies in waiting at the court. They are making a snow-rabbit in one and snow-frog in the other. I really like this particular print because it alludes to fun tradition that goes along with making these snow-creatures in the winter. Generally bets were placed on how long before the snow sculpture defrosted, or if they made two, like in this print, which one would last longer. 

 Anything else?

 Please come and see the exhibit, it is a great collection, seldom seen! We’ll also be hosting a lecture as part of our Speaker Series with Sarah Thompson of MFA, Boston. She’ll be speaking specifically about how Genji was translated to art and the Kabuki stage on April 17th. Don’t forget to check out Keeping in Touch: Culture of letter-writing in Japan, the other exhibit we have on display now, for some interesting artifacts, letters and more. 

Kunisada Woodblock Print, Genji's World Through Japanese Woodblock Prints at Morikami

 

Arts & Crafts Takes on a Whole New Meaning in Our Newest Exhibit

Fall is a busy time at Morikami. From gearing up for Lantern Fest to preparing for the new season of educational programs there are lots of changes happening during the “cooler” months coming up. One of those changes is happening as we speak – our galleries are being transformed from a haven for some awe-inspiring Kokeshi dolls, into a space for outrageous fashion and amazing works of Kōgei  art.

You probably already know a little about our upcoming Japanese Street Fashion exhibit, but you may be unfamiliar with Kōgei , as it is sometimes difficult to explain exactly what it is to our non-Japanese  followers. Never fear – we’re here to help.

What is Kōgei ?

Kōgei  is an art that couples form and function, bringing beauty to everyday objects. As one Japan Times article explains it “Kōgei has often been translated into English as ‘crafts,’ and such works don’t fit exactly into the category of fine arts in the West. Against this backdrop, they have been perceived as occupying a lower station than “art.”But in Japan they form a class of their own, as an applied art, with some masters honored by the government as living national treasures. Such handicrafts include ceramics, fine “urushi” lacquer designs, silk fabrics and more.”

In short Kōgei  artists are craftsmen of the highest level who create works of art that also happen to be very common objects such as tea bowls or lacquer ware.

What will the exhibit be like?

This exhibit, Contemporary Kōgei Styles in Japan,  brings together approximately 90 Kōgei-style artworks including ceramics, textiles, dolls, and works of metal, lacquer, wood, bamboo, and glass created by over 40 of Japan’s most influential and leading Kōgei artists of international renown. The exhibit is organized by Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, Ministry of  Foreign Affairs, Consulate General of Japan in Miami and Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens with special collaboration from the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art, All Nippon Airways Co., LTD., and Stella M. Holmes. We’re also proud to announce that after careful consideration, the Japanese government chose us as the only museum in the country to host this exhibit, so you won’t get to see these pieces anywhere else in the U.S.

These works are by very influential artists including some living national treasures. The exhibit runs from October 8, 2013 through February 18, 2014 and some of the objects will be rotated out for new ones half way through, so you’ll have something new to see each time you visit us.  The video below gives a wonderful overview of the art form and exhibit from the perspective of some of the featured artists as well as some of the exhibit’s organizers.

What’s a Living National Treasure?

Based on Japan’s 1950 Law for Protection of Cultural Properties, some individuals, small groups and preservation groups can be designated Living National Treasures. This mark of distinction means the individual or group has reached mastery in a certain area including drama, music, art, and other intangible cultural artifacts of high value in terms of Japanese history or art.  Today there are over 100 men and women on the list of Living National Treasures in the category of crafts. Though there is no real equivalent to this distinction in our culture, you might compare it to MacArthur Genius Grant recipients or Nobel Prize winners, though these designees may be recognized in a diverse range of fields and Japan’s Living National Treasures are recognized for their skill and commitment in keeping traditional Japanese cultural aspects alive and thriving.

Will I be able to hear from any of the artists?

We’re glad you asked – yes!  Not only will you be able to view work from some of these Living National Treasures, you’ll also be able to hear from one, as well as another featured artist. We’ll be hosting a lecture with speakers Murose Kazumi and Men’ya Shōho on October 9, 2013. You’ll find details and ticket information here.

We hope you’ll join us for this exciting opportunity to see and hear from some of Japan’s top Kōgei artists!

Introducing Vlogs With Veljko!

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to go behind the scenes at Morikami, our Curator of Collections, Veljko Dujin, is here to tell you. In our new series Vlogs With Veljko, you’ll get the inside scoop on all things collections (the 7,000+ pieces of artwork that belong to and are stored in the museum.) From our new acquisitions to Veljko’s favorite pieces, this new video series aims to give you insider intel on what it’s like to take a walk through the collections vault.

This month we’re kicking off with a look at some our new acquisitions – an intricate lacquer cosmetic box and a famous ikebana vase. Check out the video below, or on our YouTube channel, and don’t forget to leave any comments or questions you might have about these pieces or collections in general. Who knows – your question might be featured in the next installment of Vlogs With Veljko. Enjoy!