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"japanese masters of the brush" philadelphia fyi

updated tue 22 may 07


Frank Gaydos on mon 21 may 07

18th-century couple's works are on view at the Art Museum.

Japanese art might be puzzling or difficult for some people, but in the =
relatively few American museums that collect and exhibit it effectively, =
it's always a welcome change of pace in the special exhibition =
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of those institutions; since 2000, =
it has organized detailed explorations of three specific and largely =
unfamiliar chapters in Japanese art history.

"Japanese Masters of the Brush" is the latest effort, and perhaps the =
most important in terms of exposing Americans to work that is both top =
quality and significant to the way Japanese art has evolved over the =
last two centuries.

It features ink paintings and calligraphy by Ike Taiga and Tokuyama =
Gyokuran, husband and wife, who were famous in their country during the =
mid-to-late 18th century. Taiga remains a major figure in Japan, but his =
wife, once the most admired female artist in that country, has long =
since slipped into obscurity.

This show of more than 200 works, including 125 from Japanese =
collections, is formally distinguished in several ways. It's the first =
exhibition in the United States devoted to Taiga, and the first for =
Gyokuran anywhere. The Japanese loans include two designated as National =
Treasures - a pair of six-fold screens - that are being shown outside =
Japan for the first time. The loans also include 10 Important Cultural =
Properties, the category below National Treasure.

These distinctions are impressive, and important to the museum's =
promotion of this singular event, but they don't substantially influence =
one's perception or enjoyment of the work. Rather than focusing on such =
superlatives, the viewer needs to concentrate on becoming attuned to the =
formats and stylistic conventions particular to Japanese art in general.

Roughly three-quarters of the art - you can think of them either as =
paintings or drawings - belongs to Taiga, who is the more virtuosic and =
versatile of the two. Gyokuran's work isn't segregated from his, so it =
doesn't stand apart as a distinct body.

Given that this show represents her first exposure in a major museum, it =
seems odd that the Art Museum chose this arrangement. However, one can =
usually identify her paintings by their style, which is a bit more =
delicate, detailed and refined than her husband's.

Taiga and Gyokuran, who was also celebrated in her time as a poet, =
shared a small studio in Kyoto, but they weren't collaborators in the =
purest sense. The exhibition contains two exhibits, each a pair of =
landscape scrolls, to which both contributed an image. Otherwise, it's =
his and hers.

The couple made their living from art, painting fans - Taiga began his =
career in his mid-teens as a fan painter - hand scrolls and hanging =
scrolls, and small album paintings, all in ink on paper or silk. Many =
works incorporate poems, which are translated on the object labels.

"Masters of the Brush" is a challenging show to navigate. Aside from the =
language, the subject matter and the equally unfamiliar stylistic =
conventions, viewers must contend with a mazelike installation scheme =
and low light levels, needed to prevent fading of the fragile paper and =
silk and sensitive inks. The works are hung in tall wall cases behind =
Plexiglas panels. This makes for less-than-ideal viewing conditions, but =
that's usually the case with works on paper, especially old ones.

I mention these details mainly to indicate that this exhibition demands =
a bit more commitment, patience and time than you might expend on one of =
impressionist still lifes. Yet that's part of the change of pace that =
makes it both refreshing and enlightening.

There are six thematic sections, comprising early and late works, =
Chinese themes and Chinese landscapes - a lot of Taiga's work is based =
on Chinese models - calligraphy and Japanese themes. These divisions =
don't matter all that much in terms of appreciating Taiga's impressive =
range, his innovations and particularly the animated spirit of his =

The key quality, which defines "change of pace" for me, is fluidity and =
economy of expression. Whether one is looking at a landscape, an extreme =
close-up of bamboo or a calligraphy, the strokes seem to flow =
effortlessly from the artist's brush.

It's as if the mark-making were controlled subconsciously, like a =
reflex. The viewer senses both the intense concentration needed to do =
this and then the release. The process becomes liberating not only for =
the artist but for his or her audience.

Unless we're talking about abstract expressionism, this isn't what we're =
used to in the European-American painting tradition, which looks and =
feels much more calculated. Add to that the fact that the landscapes in =
particular are more suggestive than descriptive, more idealized than =
empirical. Even Taiga's calligraphy is energetic in a way that suggests =
impulse and improvisation rather than conforming to a traditional =

Another obvious quality of Taiga's work is its stylistic eclecticism. =
There's so much variety, one could be excused for thinking that a =
half-dozen artists had contributed to the show, rather than only two. =
Taiga's experimentation gave subsequent generations of Japanese artists =
license to move away from more rigid formulas of the past.

Taiga was a prodigy who began to study calligraphy at age 6. His =
technique in the various works ranges from a controlled precision =
similar to that used by his wife to a startling pointillist approach =
that turns up in the section devoted to Chinese landscapes.

This is probably the show's most enchanting section, so once you find =
it, spend some time with it. Taiga also became renowned for a =
sophisticated finger-painting style that will not remind you in the =
least of anything you or your children produced in first grade. Four =
large finger-painted scrolls will surprise and dazzle you.

"Japanese Masters of the Brush" will be substantially reconfigured after =
its first six weeks, on June 11. Because the works are susceptible to =
light damage, all the Japanese loans on view now - about 60 percent of =
the checklist - will be replaced then with equivalent works. So at least =
two visits really are recommended before the show closes July 22.

If the exhibition proves to be too much to absorb even in several =
visits, the museum has produced a voluminous, beautifully illustrated =
catalog that permits more leisurely contemplation. It's $45 in paper; =
the hardcover edition, published with Yale University Press, is $75.


Art | Japanese Masters
"Ike Taiga and Tokuyama Gyokuran: Japanese Masters of the Brush" =
continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the =
Parkway, through July 22. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through =
Sundays and to 8:45 p.m. Fridays. Admission is $12 general, $9 for =
visitors 62 and older, and $8 for students with ID and visitors 13 to =
18. Pay what you wish Sundays. Information: 215-763-8100, 215-684-7500 =