Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s “The Story of Otomi and Yosaburo” (1885)
His working life spanned a period of cataclysmic change in Japanese culture. Japanese print maker Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) started out in the Edo Period before Commodore Perry opened his island nation to the Western world, and died during the Meiji Restoration, which saw Japan being increasingly influenced by American and European ways. Yoshitoshi himself was a traditionalist in a rapidly changing world.
The woodblock art form in which he worked was referred to as ukiyo-e, commonly translated as “pictures of the floating world.” According to John Fiorillo:
Yoshitoshi was arguably the finest ukiyo-e print designer of the late nineteenth century. His figures were vividly realized and invested with a realism that relied, not insignificantly, on superb drawing ability. As he broke away from stagnating convention, Yoshitoshi’s seemingly unfettered imagination found expression in many subjects: history, folklore, legend, warrior tales, women, daily life, and old and new customs. He was uniquely gifted as a visual artist and a connoisseur of stories about Japanese and Chinese history and legend. By bridging the transition from the feudal society of the Edo period to the enlightenment restoration of the Meiji period, he succeeded in revitalizing ukiyo-e in unexpected ways.
“A Young Woman from the Kansei Period Playing with Her Cat” (1888)
This print is from a series entitled Thirty-two types of Beauty in Daily Life (Fūzoku sanjūnisō).
This composition presents a combination of stories and references. The tale originates from chapter 21 of the 14th-century historical epic Chronicle of Great Peace (Taiheiki). Lord Ko Moronao (d. 1351), a chief retainer of the Shogun Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358), hears of a great beauty who happens to be the wife of another shogunal official, En’ya Takasada. Moronao arranges to see her after a bath and, even though she was without the feminine trappings of splendid robes and make-up, finds her irresistible. In an effort to take her for himself, he accuses En’ya of treason. But in a twist of fate, En’ya tries to flee and Moronao has the official and his family, including his wife, killed.
I decided to take a look at Yoshitoshi because he is not well known in the West, except to art specialists. His use of line and color in pursuit of traditional Japanese subjects during a period of transition makes him a great master in my book.
It all started with Edward Saidi (E.S.)Tingatinga of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania (1939-1972). He painted a series of animal paintings that became wildly popular. Then he started training a number of other fellow Tanzanians to paint in his style. For instance, the image above is by Abdul Amande Makura (b. 1954).
Below is an original by E.S. Tingatinga himself of a zebra with various African birds:
After E.S. Tingatinga died in 1972, six of his associates formed a group called the Tingatinga Partnership to perpetuate their founder’s style. It is thought that the style goes back much earlier than the 20th century, but it has become known as the Tingatinga painting style. According to the article on the style in Wikipedia:
Tingatinga is traditionally made on masonite, using several layers of bicycle paint, which makes for brilliant and highly saturated colours. Many elements of the style are related to the requirements of the tourist-oriented market; for example, the paintings are usually small so they can be easily transported, and subjects are intended to appeal to Europeans and Americans (e.g. the big five [African animals] and other wild fauna). In this sense, Tingatinga paintings can be considered a form of “airport painting.” The drawings themselves can be described as both naïve and caricatural; humour and sarcasm are often explicit.
This afternoon, I took the bus to UCLA and visited the Fowler Museum of global arts and cultures. What impressed me today were the African exhibitions, which included not only Tingatinga art but Fante Asato Flags from Southern Ghana and the work of Kwame Akoto of the Almighty God Art Works in Kumasi, Ghana.
The vigor and color of the African works moved me immeasurably more than anything I have seen by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, or Piet Mondrian. I feel that we have arrived at an impasse with our art scene in the West.
When we were in Honolulu, Martine and I paid a visit to the Hawaii State Art Museum across the street from the Iolani Palace. I was amused by art created by two Hawaiian brothers of Japanese ancestry—Richard Hamasaki and Mark Hamasaki—going under the collective name ’Elepaio Press.
There it was, occupying its own gallery and lying on its side. A giant inflated pink and white bunny. We were at the Hawaii State Art Museum, right across the street from the Iolani Palace. Actually, we had come to eat at the museum’s much heralded cafe, Artizen by MW. Unaccountably, it was closed that day.
The museum itself is interesting. The budget for the State of Hawaii sets aside a percentage to be used for promoting the arts. One result is the Hawaii State Art Museum, which doesn’t charge admission. Included in its galleries were works of art protesting state projects such as the construction of the H3 limited access highway from west Honolulu to the windward side of O’ahu. I can just imagine the stink that public sponsorship of protest art would cause in California.
In any case, the giant bunny was friendly, and Martine looked happy to have her picture taken with him.
Although I saw this painting at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, it is actually on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Apparently Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691) painted several canvases of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre of the innocents born around Bethlehem. According to the Gospel of St. Matthew (2:16):
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
This painting appealed to me because it moves its subject into an obviously European setting—certainly as far removed from the Sinai Peninsula as it is possible to be. At the same time, the scene is as peaceful as a bucolic Poussin or Lorrain painting of the same period.
Cuyp was noted for his landscapes. According to the Wikipedia entry on him, “he is especially known for his large views of Dutch riverside scenes in a golden early morning or late afternoon light.”
I choose to translate the title of painting as “A Calm and Serene Time” (from the French “Un temps calme et serein”). Ever since I first ran into his paintings at the Cleveland Museum of Art as a high school student, I have loved the work of Nicolas Poussin and his near contemporary Claude Lorrain (about whom in a follow-up post).
The 17th century in France has always been a special interest of mine, and Lorrain, Poussin, and a handful of others have only engaged my interest the more in the intervening years.
According to the description on the Getty Center’s website”
In the late 1640s and early 1650s, at the height of his artistic maturity, Nicolas Poussin turned from historical narrative to landscape painting. Landscape with a Calm does not illustrate a story but rather evokes a mood. The ordered composition and clear, golden light contribute to A Calm’s utter tranquility, while glowing, gem-like colors and fluid paint strokes enliven this scene of benevolent nature. Poussin’s sketching campaigns in the Roman countryside with his friend and fellow landscape painter Claude Lorrain account, in part, for its fresh observation of cloud-scattered sky and grazing goats.
The peacefulness of this image and its subtle classical overtones makes me regard this as one of my favorite paintings at the Getty Center.
Yesterday at the Getty Center, I spent most of my time in the Medieval and Renaissance galleries, reacquainting myself with old friends. One painting that fascinated me was “The Story of Joseph” (circa 1485), attributed to the Florentine Biagio d’Antonio, which in foreground and background gives several early episodes of the tale of Joseph from the Old Testament. By focusing on different parts of the image, one saw different scenes from the story.
The following is the description of the painting from the Getty Center website:
Drawn from the Old Testament, a series of continuous narratives depicts episodes from the life of Joseph, the favorite son of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob. To make the story easier to follow, Biagio d’Antonio included inscriptions identifying the principal characters.
In the left-hand loggia, Jacob, seated on a throne, sends Joseph to his half-brothers tending sheep in the field. In the far left corner, the brothers, jealous of their father’s love for Joseph, strip him of his jacket and throw him into a pit. Passing merchants purchase the young boy from his brothers for twenty pieces of silver. In the background to the right, the merchants board the ship that will take them and their cargo to Egypt. In the right-hand loggia, the brothers show a blood-smeared coat to their father as evidence that Joseph is dead. With his head in his hand, Jacob mourns his son, whom he believes to be dead.
It’s almost as if this were a precursor to the cinema by telling a detailed story in a single still image. One of the things I love most about Medieval and Renaissance painting are the picturesque landscape backgrounds, which lend an aura of fantasy.
Many people (Martine among them) don’t care for the repetitive Biblical themes of the art of the period. What interests me is the almost endless variety within a familiar, given subject matter.
This year the Getty Center in Los Angeles is celebrating its silver anniversary. I took the MTA 761 bus to the museum (neatly avoiding the $20 parking fee) and spent several hours looking at the new exhibits and reacquainting myself with the Medieval, Renaissance, and 19th century artworks in the permanent collection.
The Cy Twombly (1928-2011) special exhibit left me speechless. Who slipped up? The man’s work left me shaking my head: Nothing in the gallery spoke to me except to say, “Just pass on through, Bud—the quicker the better.” There was another exhibit on “Conserving de Kooning,” but as I didn’t give a hang for Willem de Kooning’s work, I passed up on it.
Curiously, for the first time, I began to have my doubts about French Impressionism. There was a huge crowd around a Van Gogh still life which was nice, but not spectacular. I disliked some of the Claude Monets: There were some haystacks and a study of the Cathedral of Rouen, but I thought they were merely experiments in the quality of sunlight at different times of the day.
The Monet that grabbed my attention was a painting titled “Sunrise.” According to the Getty:
In the muted palette of the emerging dawn, Claude Monet portrayed the industrial port of Le Havre on the northern coast of France. The brilliant orange of the rising sun glimmers amid the damp air and dances on the gentle rippling water, lighting up its iridescent blues and greens. Barely discernible through a cool haze, pack boats on the left billow smoke from their stacks. Painted during the spring of 1873 as the country struggled to rebuild following the Franco-Prussian war, this Sunrise might also metaphorically suggest a new day dawning in France.
What struck me about the painting was its hovering on the edge of abstractness while still being clearly representational. I love the sun trying to break through the early morning fog and clouds.
In the days to come, I will discuss some other paintings and photographs that favorably impressed me. My visits to the Getty Center and the Getty Villa always energize me. I have long since given up regularly visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as it is expensive ($16 for Seniors) and they are perennially suffering attacks of constructionitis. They are replacing their perfectly adequate main building with a more jazzy building with less exhibition space.
Yesterday, I took the bus to the Getty Villa rather than pay the $20 parking fee. The museum had several exhibits about the civilizations of ancient Persia. The above gypsum relief is typical of the art of the Palace of Ashurbanipal in Assyrian Nineveh.
I have always been interested in ancient Persia. It’s not a subject typically taught to American students. The impression I came away with is that virtually all the art is in glorification of the existing monarchy. Comparing it to the literature and art of ancient Greece, I find that in the latter there is more in it for the people. I will always remember the philosophical dialogues of Plato, the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides, and Greek statuary.
As for ancient Persia, I am reminded of these lines from Rudyard Kipling’s “Recessional”:
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
When nothing is left of an ancient civilization is the dusty memory of its regal pomp, there is not much for succeeding generations to hold on to. Still, I plan to learn more about the Assyrians and the Persians that followed in their wake. Greece and Rome spent centuries fighting the Persian menace; and today we are only endangering ourselves when we fail to understand other civilizations.
The Almighty God Art Works in Kumasi, Ghana, is run by Kwame Akoto, an artist whose primitive but powerful work has garnered attention far from his native land. Akoto, who styles himself as “Almighty God,” is a convert to a Pentecostal Christian sect whose teachings have become the subject of much of his work. In one of his paintings, the following free verse appears:
The Supernatural eyes of God the Father
Sees all things.
So we must be extra careful.
When you go under the sea, the great eyes have seen you.
I am afraid of the eyes of God
If you hide under a mortar God have seen you
God saw you be careful
On Sunday afternoon, Akoto’s work impressed me when I visited the Fowler Museum at UCLA. His work, as well as the patterned textiles produced by the Aborigines of Northern Australia, convinced me that the art of Western Civilization is not the only game in town.
The Almighty God Art Works is not only in the art business: Akoto paints signs for local merchants, signs that are every bit as good as his other work.
I suspect that our world is tired of works by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and others of that ilk, of art that speaks only to the artist.