All posts in “Japanese art”

Woman Selling Flowers (detail)

Object of the Week: Woman Selling Flowers

There’s something intimate about this hanging silk scroll by Japanese artist Ito Shōha. In the rural scene we see a young working woman, in layers of white and indigo-dyed clothing, carrying freshly cut flowers. These details help her appear specific, individual. Set against a hazy ochre background and soft green leaves, her unassuming beauty is echoed throughout the bucolic image. Modest in both style and composition, this unpretentious scene might appear banal to today’s viewers, but it is exactly this ordinariness that makes the work radical.

Woman Selling Flowers

Shōha—one of the leading artists of her day—painted Woman Selling Flowers in the mid-1920s. This work reflects many of the artistic changes that took place during the Taishō (1912–1926) and early Shōwa (1926–1989) periods in Japan. On the heels of the Meiji Restoration, the Taishō era in particular saw years of unprecedented cultural transformation. Many artists during this time were exposed to Western art, and their exposure resulted in a shift away from the conservative artistic traditions that defined previous generations.

This painting by Shōha is best categorized as bijinga, a traditional Japanese genre that takes up beautiful women as its subject. Bijinga most often depicts geishas and courtesans, and helped establish an ideal standard of female beauty in Japan. In Woman Selling Flowers, however, Shōha offers up a more modern take on the genre, naturalistically representing a middle-class woman from Shirakawa (a northeast suburb of Kyoto) conducting her daily business.1 Absent are the highly stylized elements that typify bijinga, such as hair, dress, and makeup. Rather than representing an idealized female form, the woman here appears beautifully ordinary.

Shōha’s brand of bijinga was met with critical acclaim for depicting the contemporary life of women without idealization.2 No doubt her own experiences as a woman informed the treatment of her subject in Woman Selling Flowers, and earned her a leading role as a bijinga artist. Shōha’s intimate—and authentic—focus on the daily life of women in Japan connects this scroll to the other works on view in Talents and Beauties: Art of Women in Japan, the newest installation on view in our Japanese galleries. A visit to Talents and Beauties offers an important and wide-ranging glimpse into the diverse ways women are represented in Japanese art, and many works, such as this one, carry larger social and political significance.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Woman Selling Flowers, late 1920’s, Ito Shōha, ink and colors on silk. 84 1/2 x 22 7/8 in., Gift of Griffith and Patricia Way, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2010.41.56
1 Michiyo Morioka and Paul Berry, Modern Masters of Kyoto: The Transformation of Japanese Painting Traditions (Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 1999), 268.
2 For more on the life and work of Ito Shōha, please see Morioka and Berry, 266-267.
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Object of the Week: Basket in the shape of a boat

Most days at SAM, this bamboo Basket in the shape of a boat draws attention only for its remarkable artistry and creativity. The maker shows an ability to see the life inside the bamboo, and then to channel it toward the creation of a symbol—the boat—and a form—the basket. The medium seems to effortlessly transform: In places it’s gnarled like wood, or frayed like raffia, or braided like rope, always contributing to the total picture of boat-ness. The piece was produced in Japan during a 20th century revival of interest in traditional Japanese craft, when bamboo baskets gained an elevated importance in the country’s artistic production. As fine an artistic example as it is, this week, it takes on another meaning as a reminder of a dark period in U.S. and world history.

Basket in the shape of a boat (detail)

The day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a now famous Declaration of War address (you can listen to it here):

Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.

Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time, the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday, the Japanese government also launched an attack against Malaya.

Last night, Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.

Last night, Japanese forces attacked Guam.

Last night, Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.

Last night, the Japanese attacked Wake Island.

And this morning, the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.

World War II brought about all kinds of terrible things, including racial conflict. Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt on February 14, 1942, authorized military authorities to exclude “any and all persons” from designated areas of the country as necessary for national defense. In practice, the government targeted only Japanese resident aliens and Japanese Americans. The U.S. government uprooted more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry from homes and placed them under armed guard for up to four years. Sixty-five percent of these people were American citizens (these statistics according to the Smithsonian Institute).

A local connection to that dark time exists, too: Exclusion Order Number 1, issued on March 24, 1942, dictated that all Japanese resident aliens and Americans of Japanese ancestry on Bainbridge Island be removed under military guard. Herded into one of 10 camps in geographic isolation, these and other Japanese Americans endured the war in terrible conditions until the mass imprisonment came to an end in December of 1944. The formal ceremony that communicated Japan’s surrender took place on September 2, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

There was a lot of healing to be done, to say the very least, and in the years following the war, SAM played its role in bringing about a rapprochement between the Japanese American community and the many other people groups that make up our nation.

Already by the fall of 1949, SAM assistant director Sherman Lee was in communication with the Osaka-based Fujikawa Gallery about acquiring historical Japanese art. The gallery certainly had in mind that brokering art deals would contribute to a development of mutual understanding between Japan and the U.S.:

“As you know, we Japanese are now making great efforts with renewed stamina to rehabilitate our post-war country as a genuinely cultural one, having it always in view to contribute towards the establishment of world peace. It is our sincere wish, above all, to have you fully understand and appreciate our Japanese fine arts, thereby to promote our international relationship of goodwill and the interchange of cultures on both sides.”

Letter from Sherman Lee to Fujikawa

Fujikawa’s response is below.

Response from Fujikawa to Sherman Lee

Response from Fujikawa to Sherman Lee

For Lee’s and SAM’s part, engaging with Fujikawa at least demonstrates a lack of the xenophobic fear that inspired war-time decisions like the internment camps.

In the summer of 1951, SAM hosted its first post-war exhibition of Japanese art. From May 9 through June 3 of that year, visitors to the Volunteer Park museum could enjoy Paintings by Japanese Children, a show organized by the Japan-American Society of the Younger Generation in Japan. Two years later, an exhibition that was quite a bit more ambitious came to Seattle.

Dr. Fuller with Consul Saito of Japan at the opening of the 1953 exhibition

The Official Japanese Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, on view July 9 through August 9, 1953, marked a very important moment for the museum, as it became the site of a highly publicized international exhibition. In its 20 years, SAM had previously hosted one such international show—on the art of India, in 1944—but the 1953 Japanese exhibition became its most important display yet. The museum was open seven days a week for the running of the show, bringing in paid attendance of over 57,000 and a total attendance of more than 73,000. In order “to help defray the heavy expense of this exceptional exhibition,” director Dr. Richard Fuller imposed a stiff charge of an additional 50 cents for entry. Below, you can see Dr. Fuller with his wife Betti (they were married in 1951) and visiting dignitaries, accompanying a truck full of the Japanese artworks and, in a darn questionable move, drawing all kinds of attention to their cumulative value.

Japanese exhibition mobile ad

More important than its effect of raising the museum’s visibility on the local and international stages, the 1953 exhibition communicated a sense of solidarity. At a time when racist thinking toward Japanese Americans definitely lingered, the show offered a peace branch, encouraging people from diverse backgrounds to engage and enjoy Japan’s fascinating art culture.

From my perspective, that remains the hope for SAM today: to be a meeting place for people where, through thoughtfully and artfully made objects, we can learn to appreciate each other better.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Basket in the shape of a boat, 20th century, Japanese, bamboo, 13 3/4 x 23 1/2 x 12 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Esther Rose Fallick. Basket in the shape of a boat (detail). Letter from Sherman Lee to Fujikawa. Response from Fujikawa to Sherman Lee. Dr. Fuller with Consul Saito of Japan at the opening of the 1953 exhibition. Japanese exhibition mobile ad.
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Grant brings new books to the McCaw Foundation Library

The McCaw Foundation Library at the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park is open to all museum staff, docents, volunteers, members, and the general public. As one of SAM’s three libraries, the McCaw Foundation Library specializes in research materials supporting the museum’s Asian collection and exhibitions that occur at the Asian Art Museum. Anyone with an interest in the visual arts of Asia will appreciate the outstanding collection.

New Book at McCaw Library

The SAM Libraries’ holdings number nearly 60,000 items, with more than a third of those being available at the McCaw Foundation Library. These materials include: books, exhibition catalogues, auction catalogues, serials, videos, and electronic publications, many of which are in Asian languages. These materials support research on objects in the permanent collection, research for special exhibitions, assist in docent-led tour preparation, and provide general information about the history of art in Asia.

The Museum’s general operating funds are the primary source of financial support for the McCaw Foundation Library. When the need for additional funding arises, the museum staff collaborates in sourcing the necessary funds.

Histories of Modern and Contemporary Japan through Art: Institutions, Discourse, Practice

Associate Librarian for Asian Art, Yueh-Lin Chen, recognized the need for additional resources in the library’s reference collection, specifically in the areas of Japanese and Korean art. With guidance from Xiaojin Wu, Curator of Japanese and Korean Art, and assistance from Librarian Traci Timmons, Ms. Chen applied for a grant from The Metropolitan Center for Eastern Art Studies. Founded under the auspices of the Harry G. C. Packard Collection Charitable Trust, and based at Hosomi Museum in Kyoto, Japan, the Center provides grants for advanced scholarship in the arts of East Asia.

The museum staff’s collaborative effort was successful and the library received a generous grant from the Center, allowing purchase of important resources on Japanese and Korean art. These books will significantly enhance the collection and are available for use in the McCaw Foundation Library. Examples of materials purchased with this grant money are shown below. Visit us to see others and discover the many other exceptional resources the McCaw Foundation Library has to offer.

Kate Nack, Library Volunteer, McCaw Foundation Library for Asian Art

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Object of the Week: The Poem of Ariwara no Narihira (Ariwara no Narihira Ason)

Unheard of
even in the legendary age
of the awesome gods:
Tatsuta River in scarlet
and the water flowing under it.

(Poem by 9th-century poet Ariwara no Narihira; translation by Joshua Mostow, from Pictures of the Heart: The Hyakuni Isshu, in Word and Image).

We’re welcoming the first week of fall here in Seattle. The Autumnal Equinox—when night and day are nearly the same in length, and summer officially gives way to fall—took place Wednesday, September 23. Most people won’t be checking their calendars for that date, but instead will know the change by the fresh chill in the air and the striking color contrasts we start to see in nature. It’s my favorite season for the beauty and the change visible all around us.

There are plenty of reasons to celebrate fall. Long before the term “fall” was coined, and also before the French-derived “autumn” entered the vernacular, the same season was known simply as “harvest.” It meant a time of reaping, gathering, enjoying abundance, and cozying up for winter.

The collection at Seattle Art Museum includes a memorable homage to fall: a print work by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). One of the most important producers of ukiyo-e, a grouping of woodblock prints from Japan’s Edo period (1615-1868), Hokusai is represented by 27 works at SAM, including prints and ink drawings on paper and silk. Through the aesthetic in his work, Hokusai became an important influence on the European Impressionists. Seattleites and our visitors will have the opportunity to see many of the best of the Impressionists in the upcoming exhibition, Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art, opening October 1.

Hokusai’s tribute to fall, The Poem of Ariwara no Narihira (Ariwara no Narihira Ason), gives visual form to the poem at the top of this post. There’s a lot happening in the print. Blue-green hills set a backdrop in the distance while auburn leaves rise above them. The color contrasts that we identify with fall are beautifully visualized here. Closer to us, several pairs of figures are bustling about—active, but also joyful in their work. Beaming smiles match the visual warmth of the scene. A flowing river cuts across the landscape with an infectious life and energy, carrying a bunch of colorful maple leaves with it. Both the print and the poem that inspired it capture the sense of mystery and magic surrounding the cycle of the seasons. It’s a phenomenon beyond our control that informs everything—how we work, play, dress, and live.

Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

To learn more about this artwork and other treasures in SAM’s collection, visit our website.

IMAGE: The Poem of Ariwara no Narihira (Ariwara no Narihira Ason), ca. 1838, Katsushika Hokusai, Japanese, 1760-1849, woodblock print: ink and color on paper, 10 1/4 x 14 3/4 in., Gift of Mary and Allan Kollar, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2010.47.5.
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Mr.’s Caterpillar (or: The Importance of Living On)

When we arrive at the Asian Art Museum, the Tateuchi Galleries are filled with cardboard boxes. Each room has a low tower built up in the middle, away from the walls. You can see flashes of a panda sticker on many of them, the logo of a moving company. Some of Mr.’s paintings are already hung, and a few are leaning against the walls. In a couple of places, an 8.5×11 piece of paper with a picture of a painting is taped to the wall with masking tape, giving us a clue of what will be going there.

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The paintings are huge—much larger than we would have guessed—the size of entire gallery walls. We watch as four art preparators carefully lift and place one panel of three, sliding it along a rail toward the other two until you can just barely discern the seam.

Mr. is sitting at a folding table, working on a laptop. He’s surrounded by printouts of his paintings, plans that show how to build the installation in front of him, and photographs he’s taken. He wears a striped hoodie and glasses and jeans, and he seems perfectly happy to take a break and talk about what he’s working on. He doesn’t speak much English, and I speak no Japanese, so we chat with the aid of SAM’s Curator of Japanese and Korean Art, Xiaojin Wu, and Mr.’s assistant, Kozue, who’s also based here in Seattle. The necessary triplicate of the interview means we move through the galleries slowly, standing amidst the cardboard boxes and the sounds of drills nearby. Everyone is so patient it’s hard to tell how much time is passing.

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The installation he’s stationed in front of is the centerpiece of the exhibition, a tribute to the March 11, 2011 Tōhoku tsunami and ensuing earthquake. Most recently, it was shown at the Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York. When it’s finished, it’s about the size of a train car, made up of what Mr. calls “stuff.”

Right now, it’s just a skeleton made from pipes and plywood. It looks something like an erector set, and Mr. refers to it affectionately as the “caterpillar.” The art preparators working in this gallery say that it’s like putting together a puzzle. They have sketches to follow, but they’re not exact, and they’re figuring it out with Mr. as they go. It will be a massive structure, made up of hundreds of everyday objects of Japanese life that Mr. spent three months collecting. Some crates were shipped from New York City, where they were stored after the Lehmann Maupin show. Some crates were shipped from Japan. Mr.’s translator points out a box of curry, emphasizing that all of these are real things used every day in Japan. I ask if the installation changes every time he constructs it, and he says it’s hard to keep it the same, so by nature it varies. Mr. is creating new paintings with which to surround the installation. And this is the first time that Mr.’s photographs of the aftermath of the tsunami will be on display.

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During the tsunami, Mr. was living in Saitama, Japan, just outside of Tokyo. One hundred days after the tsunami hit, Mr. went to the site and took hundreds of photographs. He pulls his laptop off the table to show me some of the pictures and brings it with us as we look at the wall where they’ll be plastered in a collage from bottom to top.

“I went,” Mr. says, which sound a bit like a pronouncement because in the midst of all the Japanese, he says it in English. Which—this one is. He went there. He saw it in person. He witnessed.

A hundred days after the tsunami, he explains, means it was almost summer. There was a factory nearby that had been making canned fish, and it smelled terrible. While Mr. looks through his photos to find what he wants to show me, I ask Xiaojin why she thinks it’s important that Seattle see the artwork.

“I think at the beginning we were attracted to Mr.’s work because of the tsunami installation. The tsunami was such a huge event that impacted so many Japanese people’s lives that you can look around and almost all the Japanese contemporary artists, in some way, have responded to it. But Mr.’s response is quite unique. He uses the daily items he collected. But he also went to the place and documented the aftermath, so I think it’s very meaningful for us to show that. And somehow, even though his main body of works is made up of paintings, some of the works he made even earlier tie into that idea of disaster and how we respond to it. We think it will be very interesting for the Seattle audience to see a different perspective of Japanese Pop art. Even though the paintings look like anime/manga, they are not just about this—even they have more to them, a little bit deeper meanings. You can get a bit deeper, see beyond the surface…beyond those big eyes, those smiles.” Xiaojin laughs suddenly as she references the happy-go-lucky anime faces, like there’s something bubbly just in talking about it.

Mr. draws my attention to his laptop and shows me the photos of collapsed buildings, tipped cars, downed power lines. Everything looks askew, and gray, covered in silt and dust. In some photos, Mr. is wearing a mask.

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“When you first went to the tsunami site, did you experience it more as an artist, looking to make artwork, or were you just there to see and experience it as a citizen, as a civilian who’d been part of this disaster?” I ask.

Both Xiaojin as she listens to my question in English, and then Mr. as she translates it into Japanese, nod solemnly. Mr. talks for a long time.

“He was saying the tsunami just impacted everybody in Japan, everyone in the entirety of Japan,” Xiaojin starts. “So he never thought, I’ll go in there as an artist. He just wanted to go and see and experience, but after this experience, his thoughts have just changed so much, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster was also, after…it’s still going on.”

Mr. starts speaking again as Xiaojin slow down. She murmurs in agreement as he talks, a thoughtful sound.

“He says there are two types of people that the tsunami had an impact on. One is directly those people who lived there, lost their home, and really, they probably had the worst damage. But the second kind is just like him, who didn’t really directly experience the tsunami but they lost power, or water, or the supermarket didn’t have enough supplies, so they experienced it indirectly. But just on different levels, everybody was involved.”

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The next week, when I go back to the Asian Art Museum, the installation is nearly complete. Above the screen that blocks gallery access, I can see a mattress, folded into a u shape over the top of the structure. The installation crams so many pieces of life together that it seems impossible it will hold, in the way an over packed suitcase may burst open at any moment. It’s about trauma, but also about the possibilities of what will come next.

The title of the installation? Give Me Your Wings – think different. No wonder Mr. has nicknamed the skeletal structure the caterpillar.

Live On: Mr.’s Japanese Neo-Pop is now on view at the Asian Art Museum.

Words: Maggie Hess, Copywriter
Photos: Natali Wiseman & Stephanie Fink

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SAMart: Quick! Before it’s too late!

A Fuller view of China, Japan and Korea, the museum’s celebration of our Asian art collection closes this weekend. See the Hell of Shrieking Sounds, Deer Scroll, Crows Screen, and other favorites before they disappear from our galleries. Before they go, make sure you see the stunning Hell of Shrieking Sounds scroll, which relates a Buddhist sutra on the different representations of hell. The inscription on the SAM scroll reads, in part:

“…there is a place called the Shrieking Sound Hell. The inmates of this place are those who in the past, while human beings, …[failed] to conduct themselves properly and having no kindness in their hearts, they beat and tortured beasts.”

(Translation by Mr. K. Tomita for the Seattle Art Museum)

Segment of the Hell Scroll: Hell of Shrieking Sounds, ca. 1200, Japanese, Heian period (794 – 1185), handscroll; ink and color on paper, 10 3/8 x 25 3/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 48.172. On view until Sunday, 13 April, at the Asian Art Museum.
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Bamboo and Poppies, early 17th century, Kanō Shigenobu (Japanese, active ca. 1616-1644), pair of six-panel screens; ink, color and gold on paper, 62 1/8 x 140 1/4 in., Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 61.79.1-2. Currently on view in LUMINOUS: The Art of Asia, special exhibition galleries, fourth floor, SAM downtown.

SAMart: Golden Screens of the Kanō School

Hattie Branch, Blakemore Intern, returns to SAMart with an entry on the golden screens of the Kanō School.

During the Momoyama Period (1573-1603), drastic change came to Japanese art from an unusual source: Western firearms. As warlords vied for control of the country, Portuguese traders introduced Western guns and cannons to Japan.

For centuries, Japanese palaces had been built as sprawling, single-story complexes, with wooden floors and roofs, and paper walls. Sliding doors allowed rooms to open easily to the surrounding gardens, and even when shut, light permeated the thin paper. With the advent of firearms, by necessity, the Japanese rapidly designed towering fortress palaces. Walls thick enough to withstand cannon fire suddenly plunged the world of the elites into darkness.

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