Kyoto's 18th-Century Visionaries

By DAVID LITTLEJOHN  Wall Street Journal  Jan. 25, 2006

San Francisco

Despite a disastrous fire in 1788, and the inevitable incursions of modernity, Kyoto remains the most beautiful city in Japan, largely because of its 2,000 temples and shrines, its palaces and castle and its exquisite temple gardens, all of which escaped destruction during World War II. For more than a thousand years Kyoto was Japan's imperial, religious and cultural capital. When it was overtaken as a power center by Edo (now Tokyo) in the 17th century, many of Kyoto's official, academic artists followed their military masters to the new capital-to-be.

A beneficial result of this migration was the liberation of the artists who remained in Kyoto to experiment in new, tradition-defying styles, supported by open-minded patrons from the newly prosperous merchant class. This historic exhibition, "Traditions Unbound" at this city's Asian Art Museum, curated by Matthew McKelway, offers 61 paintings by eight independent-minded Kyoto artists, who produced a body of works unlike anything else in art history.

[Traditions Unbound]
'Traditions Unbound' offers work from eight Japanese painters who produced work unlike anything else in art history. Maruyama Okyo stands out in the exhibit. His 'Tiger and Dragon' take up a relatively small part of a long set of screens.

The show is dominated by 17 twin sets of six-panel paintings on silk screens, averaging five feet high and 24 feet wide. These add up to about 400 running feet of wall (not counting their borders and glass cases), which so taxed the museum's available space that the exhibition was divided in two. Half the works were shown in the first five weeks, half in the next seven. This schedule was also dictated by their fragility. Works in ink and mineral tints on silk or paper should be exposed very sparingly to light. Rotation II, on display until Feb. 26, contains most of the wilder and more visionary works.

There are delicately painted sets of sliding door panels (fusama) and hand scrolls or fold-out books in which calligraphic texts alternate with painted pages. One of my favorite hand scrolls, a 38-foot-long joint creation by the painter Ito Jakuchu and the priest/poet Daiken (only about a quarter of its length is unrolled), evokes in Daiken's short poems written atop Jakuchu's minimalist ink-rubbing prints everything that caught these friends' fancy on a one-day riverboat trip they took from near Kyoto to Osaka in 1767. You can buy a fine fold-out facsimile of the scroll in the museum bookstore for $45.

The 12-panel screens that make up so much of this show cover a wide range of subjects and styles. Two of the most interesting in Rotation II are by Goshun, the pen name of Matsumura Gekkai, and by Maruyama Okyo, who wins my vote for the prize painter of the eight. Goshun's "Vanquishing Demons at Mount Oe" tells the ghoulish story, in eight cartoon-like images reading from right to left (and wrapped in moody landscapes), of a heroic band of warriors who set off over high misty mountains to capture, kill, and bring home the head of a demon who kidnapped young virgins and ground them into sushi. Okyo's compelling "Tiger and Dragon" take up a relatively small portion of the long set of screens out of which they emerge; the rest is a wash of fog. A crafty-looking, hunchbacked tiger sits on a rock at the left; little more than the monstrous head of a flying dragon glowers at us from the right.

[Traditions Unbound]When people inhabit the landscapes painted on single hanging scrolls they are usually tiny creatures on narrow paths lost at the bottom of overhanging cliffs, with looming sugarloaf mountains, cascading waterfalls and valleys of fog in the distance. The most gripping of these is Yosa Buson's "Landscape With a Solitary Traveler," in which a hardy, minuscule hiker stands on a rickety, unrailed wooden bridge at the bottom of a vertical ink painting on silk. Above him we can trace the journey he has ahead, as it climbs for miles up impossibly steep, snowy slopes toward a half-dome mountain between itchily drawn trees.

But it is Okyo who has created the most timeless, overwhelming paintings on a landscape theme. His five-foot-tall "Waterfall" of 1772 is a version of one twice its size in a monastery in Kyoto. But it is hard to imagine the larger version having any greater impact than this idealized image of a white wall of water falling between rocks and trees, only to lapse into stylized, sensual waves and bursts of white spray that look like intricately carved stone.

After the great fire of 1788, Okyo fled to his native village west of the city and painted for its temple 32 fusuma panels, which have since been rehung as single scrolls. The eight paintings here depict, continuously, an ocean in turmoil, with a large white crane flying above panel two. The violent waves are re-created as stylized and striated long tubes, around a couple of rocks and clawlike crests of breakaway spray.

Three of these eight painters have been singled out by traditional art historians as being freakish, individualist, eccentric and therefore possibly mad. (The Japanese word ki can imply all of these things.) Ito Jakuchu has become most famous for his oversized, brilliantly quick and minimal images of the inner essence of vegetables. Soga Shohaku went so far over all established lines, in broadly brushed cartoons of sages and densely busy living landscapes in which real people are trapped, that many contemporaries and art historians have written him off as crazy. Nagasawa Rosetsu's crooked, creepy, near-abstract old plum tree and his melancholy monkey on a green rock staring into golden space put him far ahead of anything being done in Europe at the time, with the possible exception of Goya and Blake.

Except for the forerunner Watanabe Shiko (1683-1755), these painters were all born between 1716 and 1754 -- a remarkably short period for such an explosion of artistic imagination to have taken place within one city. Because of its fragility, the exhibition will not travel. In fact, few of its treasures are likely to be visible on this continent again during our lifetimes.