What is it about the holiday season that rekindles a taste for the exotic? It is, after all, the most traditional of times. We think muzzy thoughts of friends, family and bygone days, but soon the mind dreams of treasures from Rangoon to Mandalay.
This leaning to the fanciful probably comes from the remembered imprint of the first Christmas tree that found the focus of infant eyes with its delicate glass ornaments and flamboyant lights. Magic is, after all, magic.
Then again it is true that my exotic is somebody else's traditional. Anyway, that urge to the remote and marvelous comes with the season and four new books feed the craving.
The most spectacular is Masterpieces of Japanese Screen Painting (George Braziller: $150). The introductory text by Miyeko Murase is as flat as a blackboard but factually informative. It reminds us that screens were an integral part of traditional Japanese architecture. Structures tended to be short on interior walls. Screens served the function, first as small free-standing panels called \o7 tsuitate\f7 , then as sliding semi-permanent fixtures. This \o7 fusuma \f7 type served for both doors and space dividers. Finally there were the \o7 byobu \f7 folding screens which provided temporary interior space-definition and ceremonial backdrops. They were also hauled outdoors to give temporary enclosure for unspecified activities. The holiday mind hopes there was dalliance within.
It was on these folding screens that artists attained the aesthetic pinnacle of the form. The 16th-Century warlords of the Momoyama era built formidable dark fortresses after the Portuguese made killing more efficient with firearms. To trumpet their power and status--and offset the gloom of their imprisoning palaces--the tyrants commissioned dazzling screens painted on gold leaf, developing such legendary artists as Kano Eitoku and eventually producing panoramic scenes on double screens encompassing 12 panels.
This brilliant state of affairs persisted through styles and ages until the Japanese were silly enough to fall in love with western furniture and architecture. Luckily, some Americans had meantime fallen for Japanese screens, causing some of the best of them to wind up in U.S. collections and thence in this book. It is quite the most sumptuous thing of its kind.
The CinemaScope character of the screens is reproduced on 18 sets of double facing pages that unfold to over 4 feet wide. Ogata Korin's "Irises and Bridge" may remind some viewers of Vincent Van Gogh on account of subject and recent Japanese passion for his flowers, but a closer look brings a contemporary L.A. artist to mind. Korin (1658-1710) was among the most stylized artists in an already frankly artificial tradition, resulting in an art that appears, modern, witty and remarkably predictive of the spirit of David Hockney.
There is an epic quality to the anonymous Momoyama "Tales of the Hogen and Heiji Insurrections" that brings Arika Kurosawa's "Ran" to mind, but not all the screens are ornate. The sobering influence of Chinese landscape lingers in a 17th-Century pastoral, "A Cherry Blossom Viewing Picnic." Eccentric Zen ink painting lives into the 19th Century in Shibata Zeshin's freewheeling "Ibaraki."
Where the Braziller book takes on the character of a free-standing experience, the others are catalogues of a museum collection and two exhibitions. Such publications by definition make you want to see the real thing. Happily both shows are coming to California and the collection belongs to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. All three deal with crossroads cultures where numerous influences have been absorbed into the native style. That tends to result in complex art that often both beguiles and baffles western eyes.
Art of Tibet (LACMA/Abrams: $60; 328 pp.) is an expansion of his original catalogue by Pratapaditya Pal, LACMA's erudite senior curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art. One of the best writers among scholarly curators, Pal intertwines history, myth, connoisseurship and cultural observation often creating lasting epiphanies.
One of the most telling here is simply that Tibet, magisterially remote and ferociously isolated, produces an art--all religious--that manages to combine terror and tranquillity. For western viewers part of the angst must come from trying to untangle the elements of Indian, Nepalese, Mongol and Chinese art that have fused with the native pre-Buddhist shamanism.
Something decidedly unrefined and absolute comes from this art, recalling the European early middle ages. An illustrated pair of butter lamps look like medieval chalices. The paintings love opposing red and blue and have a flat assertiveness whose complexity outstrips that of primitive manuscript illumination. At a minimum, this book should enlighten anyone who thinks Tibetian monks are a lot of wispy dreamers.