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Art Review : Energized, Rebellious Japanese Work In Ink

April 22, 1985|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

Y'all remember the Japanese--politic, cautious and meticulous. Their manufactured-goods label, "Made in Japan" meant slipshod and celluloid. Always bowing and sipping tea.

The great thing about stereotypes is that holding them guarantees a life full of energizing contradictions. The purgative anti-stereo-body of the moment is embodied in the second half of the County Museum of Art's exhibition "Japanese Ink Painting" on view to May 12 and not to be missed by any mildly serious art devotee or anyone who doubts that the Japanese are anything less than fully 3-dimensional persons.

The exhibition was divided because its venerable contents are so delicate that they can only stay briefly in the light. The first half surveyed sumi-e painting, starting in the 15th Century. The second installment consists of some 46 monochromatic screens and scrolls made by about 30 artists of the late Edo period during the century following 1716. The works are superb-landscapes emerge foggily from ink washes, fields of dots and blank paper. Lions and disreputable holy men erupt energetically from slashing brush strokes and lines that look like somebody was painting with their fingers because they were. However, the main bemusing anecdotal circumstance surrounding this art is that much of it was made when the artists were in their cups. Not their teacups, their sake cups. These guys painted potted, created crocked, designed drunk.

According to a concise catalogue essay by Sato Yasuhiro, it all came about when the Tokugawa regime switched from a militaristic policy to a pacific stance based on the ethical teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. Chinese-style painting, always influential in Japan, took on new luster, especially the literati style, an amateur manner practiced as an end in itself among cultivated poets, philosophers and gentlemen scholars.

The Japanese version of all this was called Nanga or Bunjinga art and boiled down to a prototype for the American Beat Generation and the dropouts of the '60s. Nanga artists were often willfully eccentric and rootless, making art for their circle of bibulous buddies while high on life and whatever else. They very often lacked regular patronage and led lives that were merrily marginal or miserable.

Hayashi Jikko was an outlandish and rebellious fellow who squandered his patrimony and went right on painting in a manner as lean and concise as haiku verse. Watanabe Kazan was put under political house arrest for his progressive views and killed himself in 1841. Meantime his poignant painting of a seedy mongrel dog seemed to reflect his own plight.

Tanomura Chikuden was a school headmaster who dropped out after losing a battle to get better conditions for rebellious peasants. And on and on.

The epoch's emphasis on personal idiosyncrasy sounds very modern, and indeed the spirit of the work constantly puts one in mind of the French Impressionists and Post Impressionists.

The museum has a wonderful comparison on hand in its exhibition of Belle Epoch posters. European artists were more directly influenced by the patterning of Japanese prints than the more refined sumi-e painting, but the spirit of spontaneity, wry wit and aesthetic economy are shared.

What seems to have happened to the Japanese artists was that their hell-raising gave just enough looseness to one of the world's most technically disciplined art traditions to let essential poetry burst through. You never look at the work and think, "This guy must have been loaded." You think, "Boy, he really got down to it."

Ike No Taiga's "Bamboo and Rock" is as delicate and empathic as any Pissaro. Bonnard never created a wittier surface pattern or more affectionate satire than Ito Jakuchu's "Parinirvana of a Radish." In it, the death of the Buddha is enacted by mourning vegetables. In a nutty way, it is reverent.

These guys may have been wastrels, but their art has a poetry one only finds here occasionally in student work that is full of vitality and utterly devoid of any ambition but whistling the tunes of Youth and Spring.

If that sounds like the Japanese were amateurish, it just ain't so. The tradition grew wan in the hands of Okamoto Toyohiko, but Nagasawa Rosetsu brought traditional graphic power a new animation in "Playful Monkeys on a Rocky Cliff."

In the present art climate, however, it is really Soga Shohaku's "Chinese Lions" that sticks in the mind's eye. It's crazier than any Dubuffet and controlled as a Lautrec. It is so like present Neo-Expressionism that it makes one want to offer an admonition to the weakness of the contemporary form.

For pleasure, one would like to say, "Have a drink fellas."

For real it looks like the advice should be, "Practice your lion stroke 10,000 times."

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