The Seven Masters Exhibit at the Mia

October 23, 2015


Above: Detail of Hashiguchi Goyō’s woodblock print, Rain at Yabakei, from 1918 as seen on the Mia's website. Click on the image or the website line to view an enlargement.

So what is it that you see when you look at the above detail from Hashiguchi Goyō’s woodblock print, Rain at Yabakei, from 1918?

It’s a testament to my ill-spent youth (growing up watching endless samurai movies and television shows, and growing up with Japanese art all around me), that when I looked at the original at the Minnesota Institute of Art in their “Seven Masters” exhibit, my eye instantly went down that road to the distant pedestrian.

I turned to my friend and said with glee I could hardly contain (you know, the type that gets you glared at by the guard who then profiles you as a “suspicious” person), “How cool is this?! It’s like a movie, and that person coming in the far, far distance…by the time he gets here, [I drew a road line in the air, the requisite 12 inches from the art, and pointed to the bridge] he’ll pull a sword and there will be a great battle.”

I’m partial. I think that Japanese art is the most cinematic, next to comics, which of course have so much in common with Japanese art…

I think Japanese pictorial art turns life into one rich, ever evolving storyboard. It moves me in ways that perhaps only first loves can. It allows me to create great fictions in my mind, or see the stories the artists want to tell. Like film, time is a component of Japanese art.

My friend laughed that indulgent laugh he always has ready for these situations. He knows well my fixation on ninja and my obsession with samurai.

I then gushed over the fabulous way in which the artist captured the relentless rain (standing in puddles, already having saturated the ground, causing the cart to leave great muddy ruts, which have already filled with water, so slow is the cart's progress). You can see the horse stretching his back, bending forward and pushing into his stride, in an effort to gain purchase and maintain traction at the same time.)

Don’t get me started on the atmospheric use of color in the original.

Then suddenly, as if seeing things clearly for once, I looked around at all the images of rain hanging in the gallery, rain falling on pagodas, rain in street scenes, rain, rain, rain. I realized, this is why I love rain so much. I grew up with these images, my parents collected them, their friends had them hanging in their houses. This is visual comfort food for me.

All those rainy days I stood in fields and forests with the girls just before we started a track, I was always scanning the horizon, always enjoying the angled fall of the rain which gave me wind direction information, and always, keeping an eye out for ninjas.

You don’t have to be life-long fan of Japanese woodblock printing to learn a lot and have an enjoyable time at the “Seven Masters” show at Mia (Minneapolis Institute of Art—and yes, according to my same friend they are now using lowercase letters and want to be called "Mia" not M.I.A.).

In fact, I would go so far as to say that you can learn pretty much anything you ever needed to know about composition by spending a couple hours in this exhibit.

It’s not just that negative space never featured so clearly, or that focal points are clearly defined. There is great rule breaking going on in these images as well. You look at something and pause and think, “Hey I never would have done that.” Then you think fast, though all the options you would have considered, and realize, “Hey, it’s exactly right this way.”

There’s a print of a woman swatting at fireflies (so she can stun them and put them in a little lantern box) and the firefly in question is right up and almost out of the picture area. You think “Whoa, now that’s not good.” But then immediately your BODY senses the reach and stretch of the woman and suddenly you aren’t just looking at a still image, you know what’s going to happen and everything is positioned just right there is harmony in space as well as time. That’s amazing.

Walking through the several rooms that contained artwork from Hashiguchi Goyō (1880–1921), Itō Shinsui (1898–1972), Yamakawa Shūhō (1898–1944), Torii Kotondo (1900–1976), Yamamura Toyonari/Kōka (1886–1942), Natori Shunsen (1886–1960), and Kawase Hasui (1883–1957) I kept having aha moments.

The greatest aha moment came when I turned to face a wall of Natori Shunsen’s portraits of actors of his day. They are full-frame, closely cropped, and startling in their theatrical make-up. Each is displayed with a photograph of the actor so that you can see these are realistic portraits, not caracitures as the make up might lead you to infer. Seeing all these stunning portraits on the wall, I recognized the childhood influence that was always pushing me to work with my brush pen and play with my TV portraits. I’ll never capture facial features with that precision, economy of line, and emotion, but I recognize the master who made me think it was worth spending the time trying.

My friend and I went to the Mia to see the Delacroix exhibit. The blue wall of the exhibit’s archway beckons you from down the hall (is it just me, but don’t you think Delacroix would have preferred a rich, warm red or dark, menacing green?), but as you near, you get a clear view of the “Seven Masters” gallery—and a blow up of one of the beauty portraits on that gallery's entrance wall. I don’t think we were the only Mia visitors to be distracted in this way.

We spent so much time with the woodblock prints that we didn’t have time to see all of the Delacroix and will have to return. 

Back in the gift shop I picked up the book that accompanies “Seven Masters.” It’s stunning, and the reproductions are good (if not always as large as I would like to see them printed!). I recommend it if you can’t get to the exhibit. You could get it through the museum shop online.

The one “issue” I have with the book is that some pencil sketches that appear in the exhibit are not reproduced larger in the book.

In life the pencil sketches are over 18 inches tall and the detail of the pencil work defines shading and form delicately, yet with great precision and force. It seems amazing to me that such detailed sketches were executed for an artform that exists through the simplification of line. But it’s evident that in those pencil renderings, the understanding of form is so precisely grasped, that the exact line needed to tell the story is recognized by the artist. I’m sorry you can’t see these actual size, unless you go to the exhibit.

So what are you waiting for? Have you started to move toward the door? You’re going aren’t you? The exhibit is open until March 13, 2016; but if you go today you can go again next week, and the next, and the next. You get the idea.

And on one of those days you might even squeeze in some time for Delacroix (which is totally worth seeing as well, and I’ll write about it another day).

Oh, and if you wondered, as I did, after a lifetime of just taking it in stride, how the Japanese can make the most wonderful paper umbrellas and use them even when it's raining, check out this link about the paper umbrellas. I came home and looked it up.

NOTE: I forgot one thing—after viewing the exhibits we had enough time to get a quick bite at the Agra Culture restaurant in Mia. I have been to their restaurant on France Ave. and enjoyed it. Well,they had macaroons—with a crusty outside and a moist coconut-ty inside. My friend had one too. If you go to Mia, it's worth going into the restaurant to see if they have any of these on offer. I am still thinking about them. I want one right now!

  1. Reply

    I love this, Roz! I had that childhood fascination with all things Asian, myself, and I still see it in my life and work at times. My collection of yatates, some of which I actually use to sketch with, my chop marks, love of brushwork…

    And the BEST art class I ever took was on Japanese watercolor at KCAI, taught by Mr. Furuhashi…so thank you! This was a delight to read.

  2. Reply

    I can see it in your work too Kate, And I have always loved your work. And your collection of yatates, which is where I first learned of them. I knew friends of my folks who had these, but there was never a moment to ask what they were so I never found out until much later.

    I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I wish you could see the exhibit. I think you would love the landscapes and the style changes.

  3. Reply

    Kim, I totally get this Al Hirschfield’s drawings ofcelebrities are full of energy and movement. One he did of Zero Mostell (Sp?) is engraved in my mind’s eye. (and I love looking for the Ninas)

    Some people have styles which distill essence and energy into a visual vocabulary of lines! Thanks for writing in.

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