Author’s Note: As stated elsewhere, I am a regular volunteer at the Portland Art Museum (PAM).
On Saturday the 12th of October, 2018, the Portland Art Museum opened the doors onto its newest Featured Exhibit: Poetic Imagination in Japanese Art. The entire featured exhibit is brought to us from the collection of Mary and Cheney Cowles, purported to be one of the largest private collections of Japanese art in North America. But when building an exhibit from such a large collection, it pays off to stick with a specific theme, something I’ve espoused upon several times before. In the case of Poetic Imagination, that theme provides quite a strong through-line and the exhibit benefits for it.
In a nice change of pace from The Shape of Speed and the prior exhibit on film studio Laika, Poetic Imagination is (at least partially) a linear exhibition. Visitors start the exhibit by going through a pair of interconnected hallways on the left side of the museum atrium. From there, guests are allowed into the main gallery where they can wander about the rest of the exhibit. This is important because it gives the guests context for the bulk of the exhibition and it allows them to more fully comprehend the beauty of the works on display.
Our story begins in the Heian Period. The Heian Period is largely believed to have stretched from approximately the year 794 AD to 1185 and like many eras in Japanese history the name can be traced to the location of the capital. At the time, the Imperial Court was located in the city of Heian-Kyo, today known as Kyoto. The Heian Period is regarded as a Golden Age of Japanese culture and art. There’s a catch though, almost all of that artwork comes from the Imperial Court. A lot of that has to do with the courtly etiquette of the time. In the Imperial Court of Heian-Kyo, everything stood upon ceremony, bearing and demeanor. Members of the court were expected to hold themselves to the highest standards of poise and elegance. This often meant that publicly, members of the Court came off as quiet, cold, aloof and distant. Sufficed to say, to a modern audience the Imperial Court would’ve appeared to be an almost unbearably stifled and emotionally repressed placed.
The escape from this emotional repression was meant to be in the form of the arts. The Japanese nobles of the Heian Period were expected to master a variety of crafts ranging from archery to poetry and calligraphy. Poetry in particular gave the stifled courtiers a way to express everything from love and loss to the simple emotions of a cup of tea or cherry blossoms. But as in so many times and places, the bigger question isn’t necessarily what you’re saying but how you say it. Soon enough, the “penmanship” of these poems attracted as much attention as the actual content of the poems themselves. Soon enough, calligraphy was considered to be one of the highest arts of Heian Japan. It was a skill that required the utmost poise and dexterity. The beauty of calligraphy isn’t found just in the words that are written but how they’re written, down to the individual brush stroke. In this regard, calligraphy could be compared to something like the works of Jackson Pollack wherein in we become aware that all we’re looking at is ink on paper. But it’s in the application of that ink that we find beauty.
Running parallel to the exhibit’s displays of Heian artwork, is the gallery dedicated to what the artists of mainland Asia were accomplishing at the same time. This is important because the relationship between Japan and its mainland neighbors has always defined the country. And in the case of the exhibit our focus is split between the artwork of the Song Dynasty and the artwork of Zen Buddhism. Both of them are important because of how they influenced the artwork of Japan. In particular, the exhibit focuses on the works of the upper echelons of the Song Dynasty. The Song Dynasty was governed according to Confucian philosophy. According to that philosophy, the highest virtues that a man could strive for were intellect and bearing. As such, members of this Imperial Court were expected to not only be experts in their trade as bureaucrats, but also to excel in any discipline they approached. This led to many of the high-ranking courtiers of the Song Dynasty taking up painting among other artistic pursuits. This Literati artwork was unique because it didn’t actually follow the trends present in China’s more traditional artistic circles. The noblemen catered to their own interests, focusing on bold brushwork and more expressive designs over the more realistic and colorful works of their traditional peers. In fact, according to the exhibit, many Literati artists looked down on the more realistic works of the Chinese artist-class. After all, the artists were only artists while the Literati were well-rounded Confucian gentlemen. In time, these artistic trends would jump the Sea of Japan and Zen Buddhism would be the boat on which they traveled.
By the standards of comparative religion, Zen Buddhism is unique to say the least. Zen Buddhism is itself a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, a sect of the religion that actually resembles a more traditional religion in contrast to the original version of the faith (called Theravada Buddhism). Zen Buddhism is, at the risk of overly simplifying a complex faith that I am by no means an expert in, about living in the moment and experiencing the world as it is. There’s an old parable that when asked what the true meaning of Zen was, three Zen masters each gave a different response. One kicked a ball, the other held up their hand and another pointed to a flower on the ground. Zen Buddhism is largely based on Zazen meditation but it also allows for other practices that focus on being in the moment. And in this regard, Zen Buddhism took to the heavy brush strokes of Song artistry with aplomb. But where a Heian calligrapher might be praised for the product of his work, a Zen monk would focus on the *act* of holding the ink brush and the act of placing it upon the page. Many such monks would cross over the Sea of Japan to learn from the Chinese masters and in doing so, they brought back examples of Chinese artwork, among them the Literati brushwork that the Song nobles so fancied.
And here we see an example of the unique relationship that Japan has maintained with the outside world for most of its history. Japan has always been an isolated nation and has always kept foreigners at arms’ length. What culture it does bring in from the outside isn’t so much introduced into Japan as it is integrated. You can see this across history, such as the adaptation of American Westerns into the Samurai Yojimbo flicks. In the case of the Literati paintings, the effect was similar. In China, the practitioners of the art form were the highest ranked officials in the court. In contrast, by the time the art style had made it to the Japanese public, the most likely to take it up weren’t the Imperial Court but rather the lower-ranking members of the Samurai caste. While our popular imaginings of “samurai,” usually portray them as sword-wielding warriors, it’s worth remembering that the samurai weren’t just warriors, but an entire middle-class social caste in Japan. One could be a Samurai and also be a painter, or a poet or some other form of craftsmen. Such work was actually encouraged and as such, many samurai of lower birth became wandering artists in order to sell the art that they created. This is what the main gallery of the exhibit is dedicated to. The artwork of these journeymen Literati would go on to inspire and influence Japanese artwork for centuries to come.
And when I say artwork, I want to emphasize that the artwork on display isn’t limited to paintings. While paintings certainly make the majority of the work in Poetic Imagination, there’s also a wide variety of sculptures and pottery. In particular are the works of pottery that are involved in the preparation and serving of tea. One of the exhibit’s featured elements is a small tea house that PAM built in the main atrium of the museum’s main building. The charming little structure welcomes guests outside of the exhibit proper. In addition to the tea house, several pieces include a teapot named “Ha-Ha,” (naming pieces of pottery is apparently the mark of a master) and a tea set that is meant to coincide with the Chinese myth of Seven Coins. It’s worth remembering that these piece weren’t high art, necessarily. This style of painting was commissioned to adorn sake factories and roadside inns. Even more interesting though is to watch how the Literati brushwork would go on to inspire works in Japan’s future. The main gallery contains all sorts of pieces from across Japan’s history include works from the 1800s, through the modern era. I especially appreciated these paintings because they help to illustrate a period in Japan’s culture that is so often overlooked. Popular histories of Japan, at least here in America, tend to setup Japanese history as: Samurai…Commodore Perry…World War 2. So to me personally, as an amateur historian it’s always welcome to be reminded of periods that are overlooked. The artwork Japan was producing in the 1920s is quite beautiful, sitting at a pivot point between tradition and modernity, reflecting the country that bore it.
And yet, the centerpieces of the main gallery are arguably a pair of modern paintings that act as a sort of logical endpoint for the history displayed. Each one consists of a massive, single Kanji drawn with extremely broad and almost erratic brush strokes. These pieces, especially Shout by Inoue Yūichi, call attention to the ink and brush strokes. But unlike the dexterous delicacy of the Heian masters, Yūichi’s work is almost aggressive and blunt. Yūichi was born in 1916 and lived through World War 2, Shout was produced in 1961. It’s a complicated piece, into which the artist has poured his own conflicted emotions regarding the state of his country. Which feels like a fitting endpoint for the museum. The story begins with a era of closely guarded emotions where poetry was a release. We begin with artwork that is controlled, elegant and full of poise. We then see this artwork progress through almost five centuries of influences from within and without. By the time we conclude, we do so with a piece of highly emotional artwork that is chaotic and unruly, a literal shout of frustration and emotion. It’s a fitting conclusion for the exhibit.
Poetic Imagination in Japanese Artwork is a great exhibit because it helps to educate about history, society and a variety of other things through the artwork on display. Tangential Learning is a term sometimes used in pedagogical circles to describe the process where by people self-educate themselves on a subject by learning about a different one. Any good art exhibit is like a self-sustaining engine of tangential learning. By visiting the exhibit a visitor will learn about Japanese poetry and in doing so learn more about the society that created it. They’ll learn about Literati Brushwork and in doing so get a glimpse into Song China, Zen Buddhism and the lives of poor samurai. When I was in college, I didn’t really understand why someone would study Art History. But Art History is the history of people, and the societies we build. Poetic Imagination in Japanese Art is the first feature exhibit at PAM that I’ve visited, to focus on traditional artwork. Prior to this, the museum hosted a collection of antique, luxury cars, a beautiful display of the sets and props used by Laika Studios, and a celebration on a famous, local architect. All of those featured exhibits were interesting and inspiring in their own right, but this one made me say “I get it,” in a way. Every featured exhibit at PAM has inspired me in its own way. One inspired me to apply to Architecture School (that didn’t go well), the next inspired me to volunteer at the museum, and a third inspired me to finally get off my butt and write. Poetic Imagination inspired me to learn more about art. That’s high praise, I think.
Poetic Imagination in Japanese Art is in display at the Portland Art Museum through January 2019.