at The National Art Center, Tokyo
in the Roppongi, Nogizaka area
This event has ended - (2008-01-23 - 2008-03-03)
There is a common mistake when studying English that sees students using the verb “watch” with the noun “painting”. Any caretaker of the English language will promptly correct them to use “see” or “look” but perhaps there is some truth in that misuse. Can we watch paintings? It is not that often that you have the opportunity to see a painting and the full extent of its audience but that’s exactly what the Taikan Yokoyama retrospective on National Foundation Day was. Of course, this meant some queuing to enter the exhibition and penguin shuffling around it; and for 30 minutes, this writer did his best to wait patiently in line like everyone else. Yet inevitably the pull of seats proved too strong. Sitting there, I found myself doing that which fascinates photographers Martin Parr and Thomas Struth so emphatically: watching.
So what was I watching? Let’s start by considering the background of the scene: the paintings of Taikan Yokoyama. Once thought of as a “dangerous devil”1 he was among the first graduating year of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (now Tokyo University of Arts), a position one could say validated his practice in some circles. He matured in a period of time where contradictions raged between feudal and modern attitudes, which created tensions within the practice of art itself. His works then were the embodiment of Tenshin Okakura’s teachings, in which the discipline of Oriental techniques underpinned a new Japanese style of art that could compete with the dominant Western style. This new style, however, was almost reliant on Western painting, as Yokoyama himself suggested in a letter whilst travelling, believing that Japanese artists needed to “discipline themselves in Oriental thought” in order to “compare this with Western thought”.2 His works were traditional in that they reacted against a Western influence.
With this background set, let us look at the foreground: Yokoyama’s audience. Yokoyama maintained that Japanese painting was superior to that of the West and his nationalistic tendencies were no secret. Perhaps then, a number of people queuing on this occasion were visiting the exhibition out of respect, paying homage to an icon. Given this possibility, the sheer volume and variety of visitors allowed one to see an unusual contextual twist to Yokoyama’s works. Yokoyama himself was always seen in traditional kimono, and seeing the odd visitor dressed equally so gave the scene an air of honour and respect. Yet seeing the majority of his visitors clad in the common variety of global Western brands and designs, the presence of this majority seemed intrusively ironic. The Lois Vutton bags, sharp suits, baggy jeans, oversize logos and all the other familiar hallmarks of Western influences may be found everywhere throughout Japan but here in this retrospective, this ‘modern’ foreground was almost cruelly contradicting Yokoyama’s traditional background. Or was it?
Tenshin Okakura believed Japan to be a “repository of the trust of Asiatic thought and culture” , an indication of the nation’s ability to appropriate. However, about a hundred and forty years have passed and one could argue that the nation’s continuing ability to appropriate has led to Japan being a repository of the trust of “global” thought and culture. Many have spoken of the West’s intrusion in Japanese matters since the day Yokoyama was born, but few see Japan as actually consciously adding to the repository that consisted previously only of Asian culture. Our foreground then shows not a contradiction to our background, but a continuation of it. Okakura’s and Yokoyama’s spirit is still very much alive.
“Watching” paintings may well be naturally incorrect yet in watching this retrospective of Taikan Yokoyama on National Foundation Day, one was privy to a view of the past and its relative present. Perhaps this was the only day on which this could happen. Maybe so, but the fact remains that “watching” a painting can show more than merely looking at it. If only there were more seats and less queuing in these museums.
1 Yoshizawa, C. (1962) Taikan: Modern Master of Oriental-style Painting, 1868-1958. Kodansha, Publishers, Tokyo. p9.
2 ibid., p15.