Object of the Week: Wintry Sky

Snow in Seattle on the winter solstice provides a fitting backdrop for this work by Japanese artist Higashibara Hosen. Titled Wintry Sky, it encapsulates the subtle contradictions of the season and serves as a timely reminder that winter is officially here.

In the seemingly desolate scene, an angular, near leafless tree trunk and its rhizomatic branches energetically frame an overcast sky (one all too familiar for us in the Pacific Northwest). Bathed in a diffuse gray-yellow light, the moment has all the qualities of early morning. And while much is indeed dormant at this time of year, the tree is enlivened by seven chickadees—so enlivened you can almost hear their song. In this way, the painting brings to mind a wonderful line from Rumi: “And don’t think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter. It’s quiet but the roots are down there riotous.”

Wintry Sky (detail)

Painted in the 1930s, Hosen used a “boneless” wash technique (mokkotsu), meaning that it was painted without the use of ink outlines. A detail offers a better look at his masterful use of ink, capturing both the delicate softness of feathers and gnarled age of bark. This painting technique was characteristic of his mentor, nihonga master Takeuchi Seiho, whose paintings of the natural world informed Hosen’s own approach to painting nature.

Though it may appear somber and subdued, Hosen’s painting also embodies much of what is important about the winter season. Though a fallow period, winter is a time for hibernation and repair, rest and rejuvenation. It is a time for turning inward and looking to the natural world for hope and techniques for survival.

As in the words of William Carlos Williams:

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

Image: Wintry Sky, 1930s, Higashibara Hosen, ink and light colors on silk, 70 7/8 x 40 5/16 in., Gift of Griffith and Patricia Way, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2010.41.72 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Mask for Tengu

These days, people are wearing masks everywhere you look. Bandanas, medical paper masks, fashionable masks with elaborate designs, face shields—there are many ways to wear our masks while expressing ourselves. Me, I love my mask with sharp teeth on the front, for an extra bit of Halloween in December. SAM, too, has its fair share of masks, and one of my favorites in the collection is the Mask for tengu, a Japanese festival mask depicting the maliciously grinning face of a tengu.

Tengu are one of the more famous youkai, or mythical creatures, in Japanese lore. Depicted as bird-men either with beaks or long noses, they are figures of dangerous cleverness that will either teach you magical secrets or abduct and torment you. They have an array of abilities including fire and wind manipulation, flight, and otherworldly swordsmanship. They are said to live deep within the mountains and forests of Japan, and many shrines that worship tengu are similarly placed. Interestingly, these are one of the few youkai to have come about with Buddhism, as they often tempted Buddhist priests and posed as mountain ascetics in old tales.

The tengu mask in SAM’s collection is one that would have been worn during festival processions. Festivals in Japan are often lively and bright affairs with elaborate costumes and parades, with dancers balanced on floats. It’s likely that someone in the past wore this mask as they pretended to be a fearsome tengu, playfully frightening the children watching. It’s equally likely that in Japan today, someone is wearing another tengu mask and doing the same. There are tengu festivals held all over Japan, from Tengu Matsuri on Mt. Tengu in Hokkaido, to the Shimokitazawa Tengu Festival in Tokyo. While the tengu Matsuri is a more traditional affair, the Shimokitazawa festival is a modern take on setsubun, where beans are thrown to ward away evil. People dressed as tengu take to the streets, visiting shops and homes to throw their beans of evil’s bane to bring good luck and fortune.

Although SAM and the Asian Art Museum are temporarily closed, when they reopen, head on over to see the Mask for tengu on view. It, and many other masks and youkai-depicting items will be on display! In the meantime, everybody continue to mask up, and stay safe.

– Kennedy Simpson, Former SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art

Image: Mask for tengu, 18th-19th century, Japanese, wood and brass, 10 1/8 x 7 1/2 x 13 1/2 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 45.104

Object of the Week: Untitled

In honor of Women’s History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated women artists in SAM’s permanent collection throughout the month of March.

Broad black strokes cut across paper, precise sweeps of motion that hold bold strength. Ink trails downward in sharp ribbons dissolving into mist, which run down into watery pools. The shape is abstract, yet gives a sense of dynamism and flow that fully utilizes the monochromatic black that it’s painted in. This piece, left untitled by abstract artist and calligrapher Toko Shinoda, is not intended to have specific form. Instead it seeks to capture a feeling, although what that feeling may be, we’ll never know for certain. Each piece of art she makes is a piece of herself, and each is made meticulously to reflect the “her” that painted it.

At around 107 years old, Shinoda has had a lot of “her” to paint. The daughter of a calligrapher herself, Shinoda has been using a brush and sumi ink since she was six, and has not stopped using them since. For the first 40 years of her life, she focused on calligraphy; an art form traditional to Japanese women, as well as one of few career paths initially open to them. She was extremely successful and exhibited her works all over Japan. The more Shinoda created, the more abstract her pieces became. This resulted in a shift toward Abstract Expressionist art after an exhibition in New York in 1953. Having spent so much of her career trying to strictly copy the work of master calligraphers, she was impressed by the formal freedom of American artists. Abstract Expressionism, she felt, was what she really wanted to achieve with her ink.

Since then, Shinoda has gained international acclaim for her prolific melding of traditional and modern approaches. However, despite her fame, she denies all awards and recognition. Time magazine might write about her, museums may acquire her work and display them in a place of high regard, but she will not take any titles or cash gifts for her accomplishments. The only honor she has accepted is a set of stamps: hers are the first artworks by a living artist to be featured on official Japanese stamps.

Even now, Shinoda paints every day to keep her art, and herself, alive. It is said that all artists go through a process called 守破離 (shu-ha-ri) in their lifetimes. The “shu” being adherence to art form and tradition, the “ha” being a departure from it. Shinoda embodies the final step, “ri”: transcendence through focus and mastery that allows for creative freedom. Still, even though Shinoda is free in her creation, she refuses to be satisfied by the style she developed, and strives to master delicacy in her work. Discontented with safety in art, she will always paint things that require precise balance, capturing that fleeting moment of experience and self.

– Kennedy Simpson, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art

Image: Untitled, 1965, Toko Shinoda, lithograph, 25 3/4 x 19 7/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 66.11 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Rat water dropper

Made from ceramic, bronze, copper, or even jade, water droppers are small vessels used in calligraphy and brush painting. Designed with two small holes, one for adding water and one for dispensing water, only a few drops fall out at a time—a crucial feature when preparing liquid ink, which involves grinding a stick of ink against an inkstone with water.

Though an unassuming instrument, water droppers have a long history. The earliest known examples of Chinese water droppers can be dated to the 5th and 6th centuries, while Japanese water droppers date to the 8th century. Centuries later, during the Edo period (1603-1868) and into the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan saw the emergence of more complicated water droppers in various shapes and sizes, ranging from plants and deities to animals and fruits.

Such decorative droppers became popular accessories for the nobility and literati, and were often inscribed or made in auspicious forms. The zodiac animals are a set of calendar symbols that came to Japan from ancient China, and their representation served to invoke good luck and prosperity. This 19th-century dropper in SAM’s collection, modeled in the shape of an undeniably expressive and charming rat (the first animal in the zodiac), was likely intended to symbolize success, creativity, and intelligence.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Image: Water dropper modeled as a rat, 19th century, Japanese, bronze, 1 5/8 x 3 1/2 x 1 7/8 in., Gift of Frank D. Stout, 92.47.119

Exceptional & Ordinary / Tsutakawa & Mingei

The Japanese art gallery at SAM’s downtown location was recently reinstalled with a focus on the Mingei movement in Exceptionally Ordinary: Mingei 1920–2020, on view through Novemeber 8, 2020. Initiated in the 1920s by the Japanese collector and connoisseur Yanagi Soetsu (1889–1961), Mingei elevated functional, everyday crafts to art objects. Since its foundation, Mingei’s broad applications range from mid-century decorative arts to contemporary designs, ceramics, textiles, sculptures, and prints, examples of which are hanging in our gallery. Prominently featured, are works by the late Seattle-based artist George Tsutakawa on loan from the George Tsutakwa Art Legacy. The Tsutakawa family share below about George’s inspiration and how his furniture fits in the installation at SAM!

George Tsutakawa began to build bronze fountain sculptures in 1961 with the installation of his first fountain at the Seattle Public Library. He eventually created 75 fountain sculptures in the United States, Canada, and Japan. The fountains reflect his intense interest in the cyclical flow of water from the heavens to earth, creating rivers and oceans that nourish life. His basis of humanity in the Shinto religion indicated reverence for life in all forms made by nature, such as trees and rocks. 

Tsutakawa’s professional art career spanned 60 years. He was a professor of art at the University of Washington for 37 years. In his personal statement from The Pacific Northwest Artists and Japan in 1982, he expressed that sometime in the 1960s his travels and studies of traditional Japanese arts allowed him to reaffirm his “conviction in the Oriental view of nature school which sees Man as one part of nature, a part that must live in harmony with the rest of nature.” 

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Thus Tsutakawa’s furniture from the 1940s and 1950s reveals this conviction to nature within his art and serves as the starting point for his later artistic forms. Although he was a modernist, even in his furniture forms, his work relates to the Japanese Mingei movement, which is largely based on traditional and folk art.

Tsutakawa’s early furniture is functional and evokes a connection to nature through fluid organic shapes and materials. 

The Tsutakawa family is currently reorganizing the artist’s collection with the hope of preserving his work and making it more open to the public as well. You can visit SAM to see Tsutakawa’s artwork in Exceptionally Ordinary: Mingei 1920–2020, on view through November 8, 2020.

– Mayumi Tsutakawa & Chyenne Andrews

Images: Installation view Exceptionally Ordinary: Mingei 1920–2020, Seattle Art Museum 2019, photos: Nina Dubinsky. Kizamu Tsutakawa 

Object of the Week: Time-(B)

Two identical, white clocks sit on a scale. One—reading 12:15—appears the heavier of the two, sitting ever so slightly below its counterpart at 12:04. Of course, the minute discrepancy (pun intended) between the weights of the two clocks—correlating with their respective times—is impossible, but the power of the photographic image lies in its ability to convince us otherwise.

Ever a master of the conceptual punchline, photographer Kenji Nakahashi plays with our interpretation of time and its assumed objectivity. His longstanding interest in the documentary value and, again, assumed objectivity of photography—a time-based medium—is also at play, and clearly inextricable. In his characteristically understated way, Nakahashi tackles the subjectivity of both time and photography in one fell swoop.

Born in present-day Ibigawa, Japan, Nakahashi moved to New York City in 1973, where he lived until his death in 2017. His time in Japan was formative, but living and working in the United States is where Nakahashi developed a robust studio practice centered on everyday objects and materials. This is when he began turning the mundane—such as two clocks and a scale—into a source of poetic beauty, conceptual rigor, and humor. For Nakahashi, such small observations and actions became an important activity that allowed him to render the world anew.

Elisabeth Smith, Collection and Provenance Associate

Time-(B), 1980, Kenji Nakahashi, ektacolor print, sheet: 11 x 14 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Kazuo Kondo, 95.35 ©Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Tsuba

A tsuba is a hand guard of a Japanese sword, mounted between the handgrip and the blade, to protect the user’s hand. Either carved or molded, they also help balance the sword, which is comprised of a number of complicated—but equally important—components.

While highly practical in its purpose, there is, as with all things, room for ornamentation and embellishment. This 19th-century example in SAM’s collection, made of copper alloy with gold and silver inlay, depicts an elegant nighttime landscape. Under the arc of the crescent moon, the spray of gold plants and flowers appear to be basking in the moonlight, also gold.

Prior to the 17th century, the functionality of a tsuba was more important than its decoration. From the 17th century onward, tsuba became more elaborate, with carving and molding techniques more sophisticated. Designs on tsuba—such as this one—often draw their subject matter from Japanese folklore and nature, and importantly signal the status of the sword’s owner.

Currently, on view in SAM’s third-floor galleries, this tsuba is part of the exhibition Gentleman Warrior: Art of the Samurai, which explores lesser-known aspects of samurai culture, including patronage of the arts. From the tea ceremony to Noh theater, the samurai class helped advance various artistic practices in the service of showcasing both their military might and cultural prowess.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Image: Tsuba: Plants in Landscape and Moon in Inlay, 19th century, Japanese, copper alloy with gold and silver inlay, 2 5/8 x 2 1/2 x 3/16 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 34.95. Photo: Elizabeth Mann

Object of the Week: Crow

In 2016, the Seattle Asian Art Museum invited acclaimed Japanese artist Tabaimo to study the museum’s collection and curate an exhibition. The resulting presentation, Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi, was based on the concept of utsushi, which literally means “copying or paying homage to a master’s work.” Tabaimo selected several historical objects from SAM’s Asian art collection to present alongside her own work, some of which she produced specifically for the show. The last gallery of the exhibition featured the museum’s beloved pair of 17th-century Crows screens and Tabaimo’s response, a video installation that imagines new possibilities for the screens’ depicted action.

The subject of the Crows screens is a murder[1] of black-feathered birds set against squares of gold leaf. Descending en masse from the top left-hand corner of each screen, the crows wind their way down to a rocky crag along the bottom edge. In photographs of the screens, the birds appear as silhouettes, though an in-person viewing reveals the unique texture of each creature’s feathers, eyes, beak, and claws. The dynamism of the scene is created through the movements of the individual crows. In some places, they fly towards each other, suggesting an impending clash; in the upper right-hand corner, two birds take part in a midair tussle; and even those grounded crows spread their wings, look about, and caw. 

In Tabaimo’s video utsushi of Crows, the birds are flattened into black silhouettes floating against a background of gold squares. Here, the squares take part in the action too. One by one, they sink into the pictorial space revealing rectangular hollows into which the feathered-beasts fly. An exhibition text explains:

In Japanese culture, it is a custom to tidy things up at the end of an event. Crows are often associated with untidiness because they look for food among garbage and create litter. Tabaimo does not intend for us to leave the gallery with a clear understanding of the exhibition, but rather, she would like to invite lively discussions by ending it in an ambiguous way, just as the crow brings untidy debris.[2]

– Murphy Crain, Asian Art and Gardner Center Coordinator

[1] Not a killing! A group of crows is called a murder.
[2] Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi exhibition brochure
Images: Crow, 2016, Tabaimo, single-channel video installation, 4 min. 10 sec., Asian Art Acquisition Fund, 2017.5 ©Artist or Artist’s Estate. Crows, early 17th century, Japanese, pair of six panel screens; ink and gold on paper, 61 9/16 x 139 5/16 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 36.21.1.

Conserving SAM’s Asian Art Collection

Thanks to funding from Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project, a pair of important 17th-century Japanese screens, Scenes in and around the Capital, are currently being restored by specialists at Studio Sogendo, a private studio in California. The screens, likely created by a machi-eshi, or “town painter,” present a panoramic view of Kyoto during the Edo period. They show both Kyoto’s center and its periphery, and give insight into the daily lives of different social classes, in addition to representing seasonal festivals.

When the screens first arrived at SAM in 1975, they were already in fragile condition and by the time this conservation work began in 2017, extensive repairs were desperately needed. Painted using ink, color, and gold, and mounted on wooden frames, the screens are being restored using traditional Japanese methods and materials. I was able to visit Studio Sogendo while one of the panels had been stripped of its backings and laid on a light table, allowing a rare perspective of the materials and quality of the painting. The conservation treatment has been invaluable, not just in terms of preserving the paintings, but also in offering opportunities for examination and study. The internal frames must be replaced and expert craftsmen in Japan made new custom frames for the work. The incredibly precise joinery of the new frames can be seen in these images. The conservation phase of the project is nearing completion and the reassembly of the structure, replacement of the mount fabrics, and retouching of the areas of loss is underway.

 

This crucial project would not be possible without Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project, one of few programs dedicated to preserving historically or culturally significant artworks. We look forward to the return of Scenes in and around the Capital, which will be on view among SAM’s extensive Asian art collection when the Seattle Asian Art Museum reopens in late 2019!

– Nicholas Dorman, SAM Chief Conservator