Bewitching, Alluring, and Downright Disturbing: Unconventional Views of Beauty in Japanese Art


I thought about adjectives a lot before starting this preview of an upcoming exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, first and foremost because the exhibition’s English title – “Ayashii: Decadent and Grotesque Images of Beauty in Modern Japanese Art ”- begins with an untranslated Japanese descriptor. “Ayashii“” Is a fairly common word in Japan, used in conversation to mean “suspicious” or “shady,” but by no stretch of the imagination it has not become in international usage. Why, then, I asked curator Reiko Nakamura, did the museum choose to use it in the English title?

“Even in Japanese, ‘ayashii’ is hard to pin down,” she admits. “There are so many nuances to that single word, depending on the context or how you write it. If you use a character, it can mean “attractive”. With another, it looks more like “mystical”. In the end, we decided that it was impossible to sum it up with just one English word, and instead invited visitors to draw their own conclusions while viewing the works.

Shoen Uemura, ‘Flame’ (1918), Tokyo National Museum, on display until April 4

The exhibition, which opens on March 23 in Tokyo and travels to Osaka this summer, features around 160 paintings, prints and illustrations that pushed the boundaries of how beauty was portrayed. Most date from the Meiji and Taisho eras (1868 to 1926), a time when many artists in Japan, shaken by rapid social changes and influenced by new ideas from the West, sought to transcend superficial beauty and probe the human heart. Leafing through the exhibition catalog, I compiled a list of adjectives I found there: kikai (weird), yōen (singing), taihaiteki (decadent), seisan (horrible), erochikku (erotic) and gurotesuku (grotesque). Together, they provide an overview of what “ayashii” means in the context of this show and what you can expect to see.

A “prologue” to the art of the Edo period (1603-1868) sets the scene. The last decades of this age have been turbulent times when people have sought to ease anxiety through ever more stimulating and new distractions. Painters and woodblock printers are bound to have sensational subjects, as seen in a gruesome hell scene by Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-89) and bloody and bloody prints by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-92) and Ochiai Yoshiiku (1833-1904). One of the most curious exhibits is a iki-ningyō (realistic doll), made around 1895 by Yasumoto Kamehachi (1826-1900). Such life-size and incredibly detailed mannequins have been used in attractions at festivals and fairs, often arranged in shocking scenarios of extreme realism.

It is worth taking your time in this section as it provides an overview of the values ​​and experiences of the artists who follow. In some cases, you can see direct influences. Take, for example, the large painting of a standing woman by eighteenth-century eccentric Soga Shohaku (1730-81). Entitled “Beauty”, the subject nevertheless appears completely disturbed. The hem of her kimono came undone, revealing oddly oversized underwear and bare feet. Between her teeth, she squeezes the remains of an almost shredded letter, telling us that she was rejected by her lover. This famous image, much studied over the years, was the direct inspiration for another work in the exhibition, “Flame” (1918), by the woman painter Shoen Uemura (1875-1949). (Soga’s “Beauty” will only be visible on the Tokyo site.)

While almost all of the “beauties” featured are girls and women – sometimes with a pretty boy or a mermaid – only three of the artists depicted are women. This is not due to bias or oversight on the part of the museum, but rather reflects the few women at this time capable of working as professional artists. Of the three, it can be said that only Uemura was successful at the level of his male peers, with his paintings selling well even during his lifetime. She was one of the few women appointed artist in the Imperial Household and in 1948 she became the first woman to receive the Order of Culture for her contribution to Japanese art. Uemura’s “Flame”, which portrays Lady Rokujo from “The Tale of Genji” after being rejected by Prince Genji, was the artist’s response to critics that his pretty portraits of women lacked emotional depth. Uemura, always meticulous in his research, would have visited institutions for the mentally ill in order to better understand madness. She may also have drawn on her personal experience, having recently been disappointed with a love affair.

Sayume Tachibana, 'Anchin and Kiyohime' (1926), Yayoi Museum
Sayume Tachibana, ‘Anchin and Kiyohime’ (1926), Yayoi Museum

On the other hand, the woman painter Seien Shima (1892-1970) fought against the prejudices against women artists. In her remarkable work “Untitled” (1918), a woman in a black kimono sits on the floor with disheveled hair, looking directly at the viewer. Under one eye there is a nasty bruise, as if it had just been struck. Rather than using a model, Shima studied her own face in a mirror when she worked on this painting. The bruise, she said, was symbolic of the many abuses regularly inflicted on women by men. The third female artist in the exhibition is Hisako Kajiwara (1896-1988), a nihonga painter who, not wanting to be limited to the usual subjects of beautiful ladies and famous women in history, drew attention to the fate of the poor by painting women from the lowest rungs of society.

Not all of the artists are known, and with over 30 artists represented, this exhibition is a welcome opportunity to get acquainted with the work of artists you may never have met before. Luckily for those who can’t read Japanese, most of the explanatory material is provided in English as well as Japanese, and headphones with an English audio guide can be rented for a fee.

For me, a discovery was Sayume Tachibana (1892-1970), a creative talent whose work is rarely included in big shows as he worked primarily as an illustrator. Sick from childhood and obsessed with themes of death and the supernatural, Tachibana worked in a Western style inspired by the foreign artists he admired, but his subjects are drawn primarily from Japanese folklore and legends.

One of the most haunting images in the exhibition is “Anchin and Kiyohime,” which Tachibana drew in pen and ink around 1926. Taken in a style similar to Aubrey Beardsley’s, the monochrome composition depicts a tragic story of unrequited love. A young woman named Kiyohime falls in love with Anchin, a priest who has taken a vow of chastity and must therefore reject his affections. Transformed by jealousy into a vengeful serpent, Kiyohime wraps her body around a temple bell in which Anchin has been hiding, and using the demonic heat of his body, burns him to death. The strength of this work is the contrast between the horror of the moment and the beauty with which it is rendered.

Equally fascinating is the “Water Nymph” of Tachibana, in which a limp, naked woman sinks into a deep pool of water. Hanging on to your body is a kappa, a river goblin said to draw people to the rivers in order to drown them. Printing was banned by authorities in 1932, not only for nudity but also to glorify death. As Tachibana and his contemporaries sought to expose feelings and desires that had previously remained repressed, they sometimes went beyond what even a changing society would accept within the confines of “ayashii”.

“Ayashii: Decadent and Grotesque Images of Beauty in Modern Japanese Art” runs through May 16 at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo and July 3 through August 15 at the Osaka History Museum. For more information, visit Ticket Offer: We have five pairs of tickets for “Ayashii: Decadent and Grotesque Images of Beauty in Modern Japanese Art” at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo to offer to readers. To apply, visit Deadline: March 29.

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