Archive for the ‘Art Seen’ Category

Film Review: ANPO

March 9, 2011

It begins with a close-up of a painted image of a dog with an unnatural human-like mouth smeared with bright red lipstick.  The camera moves about the canvas, zooming in and out, revealing a little more.  Above the dog is a dark monster, red tongue hanging out, who holds the dog by the tail in one claw-like hand and by one ear in the other hand.  Tied around the dog’s neck is a white napkin with the words “Yellow Stool” scrawled across it.  The scene then changes abruptly to another painted image, that of Manhattan in flames, encircled by a fleet of Mitsubishi Zeroes.

 

The film is ANPO:  Art X War (2010), a documentary by the American filmmaker Linda Hoaglund.  The word anpo (a shortened form of anzen hoshou “security”) refers to the Japan-US Security Treaty. The film deals, however, not so much with the Security Treaty per se but with the responses of Japanese visual artists to various issues connected with it, including the 1960 mass protest against the signing of the revised Treaty, the continued presence of US bases on Japanese soil, especially in Okinawa, the ill treatment of Japanese women by GIs stationed at those bases, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, war guilt of the Japanese, and the fire bombings of Tokyo.  Because the film explores these issues through the eyes of the artists, it comes across more like an art exhibit than a documentary.  Some of the artists speak on screen so we have their words to mull over as well, but most of what we see is the art works themselves, and it is those works which speak most eloquently and appeal to viewers most forcefully.  Being works of art rather than reason, they do not argue what to do about the Security Treaty itself, but rather pose some troubling questions and leave the drawing of any conclusions up to viewers.

 

The scene of New York burning is from “Map of an Air Raid of New York” by Aida Makoto (1996).  It shows skyscrapers, many easily identifiable such as the Chrysler and Pan Am Buildings, engulfed in flames.  In the foreground a fleet of Zeroes forms a figure eight, the sign of infinity.  This scene, interspersed with shots of the artist being interviewed, is accompanied by a melancholy instrumental rendition of Takemitsu Toru’s anti-war song “All That the Man Left Behind When He Died.”

 

Mr. Aida:  “For the Japanese, whether or not we like America is a loaded question that isn’t easy to answer.  Whether or not you like France is a matter of personal taste.  But America is a more searing presence, with love and hate always flip-flopping.”

 

The rest of the film, and the artists and artworks featured in it, elaborate on this basic theme.  While many of the works depict the horrors of war, and some express anger not so much at the US military presence as at the Japanese politicians who allow it, the impression that comes through loudest and clearest is of a deep wellspring of unresolved and complicated anger toward America hidden beneath the quiet surface of Japanese society.  This unresolved anger and its implications is perhaps best expressed by the two paintings that open the film.

 

The Zeroes were, of course, designed as fighter jets, not bombers.  They were turned into bombers, however, in the latter years of the war when they were used for kamikaze suicide attacks on American ships.  Thus, “Map of an Air Raid” depicts New York being attacked by airplanes turned into bombs themselves.  The scene would be reminiscent of 9/11 were it not for the fact that it was painted five years before that event.

 

The “Yellow Stool” makes several reprise appearances, and eventually it becomes clear that the dog represents Japan, and the dark monster who holds it in his grip is the United States.  On another level, the dog represents the women who were hired by the Japanese government in the early days of the Allied Occupation to work as prostitutes serving the American GIs posted to Japan.  A bit of film footage shows a young white soldier with his arm slung casually around the shoulders of a pretty Japanese woman.  They are both smiling and looking happy, but the man keeps stroking the woman’s cheek with the hand that lies on her shoulder, and she keeps reaching up and pushing the hand away, even while she continues to smile, even while he keeps ignoring her signal and returning his hand to her cheek, while she continues to smile, like the dog in “Yellow Stool.”

 

Another painting:  “And Still They March” by Katsuragawa Hiroshi.  A man wrapped in bandages and barbed wire walks on crutches away from us down a long red-carpeted gray-walled corridor toward a black rectangle of a doorway at the further end.  One leg is in a brace and the other has been removed at the knee.  His bottom is unbandaged but also unclothed.  Around his head the bandages have been wrapped in such a way as to suggest the ziggurat-like dome of the Diet Building.

 

When I first saw the title, I thought the painting depicted soldiers going to war, again and again and again, despite the futility of war, despite its horrors, despite the damage that it does to everyone and everything.  But listening to the interview with the artist, and looking more closely at the painting, I realized he meant to depict the Japanese parliament.  Despite the widespread protests against the Treaty, in which millions of citizens participated, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party led by Prime Minister Kishi effectively cut off all debate and shut out the opposition from the vote to approve the Treaty. “Parliament wasn’t functioning anymore so I wrapped it twice in bandages, but it’s Parliament hobbling along on crutches,” explains the artist.

 

“March” may also refer to the protest marches, and the determination of the people not to give up.  Parliament may not have been functioning, but ordinary citizens were filling the streets demanding that their voices be heard.  Artist Ikeda Tatsuo participated in that 1960 demonstration, and tells of a friend who marched with him.  Because he had had polio as a child, this friend walked with a crutch, dragging one leg behind him, “desperately chanting and zigzagging” for three kilometers.

 

ANPO includes scenes from a film made of that protest [Rage at ANPO (1960), Tomizawa Yukio, dir.], and in one of them, the march has arrived at the U.S. Embassy.  The camera zooms in on a white man standing on a balcony of an Embassy building watching the goings-on and smoking a cigarette. He flips his cigarette butt down at the crowd and exhales a cloud of smoke before turning away.

 

In the end, the protest failed to stop the signing of the revised Treaty.  One scene shows Mr. Katsuragawa’s painting being taken out of storage, perhaps on its way to be photographed for the film.  It had been stored not in a museum but in the attic of the garage of a kerosene salesman, a friend of the artist.  So too did the protest march end with everybody going home and putting their anger into storage, not to be shown in public.  As Mr. Ikeda asks at the end of the film:  “So what the hell is democracy?”

 

[To view a trailer of ANPO, visit <http://anpomovie.com/&gt;.  For an excellent critique of the film, see Ryan Holmberg, “Know Your Enemy:  ANPO,” Art in America, Jan. 1, 2011, at <http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/features/linda-hoaglund/&gt;.   Future screenings will be held at the Hong Kong Film Festival on March 24 and 27, at the Association of Asian Studies/ICAS Film Expo 2011 in Honolulu on April 2, and at the Harvard Film Archives in Cambridge, Massachusetts on April 11.]

 

Advertisements

Found Object: A Mad Tea Party

February 4, 2011

Here’s a Train Story from many years ago.  Sitting across from me on the Tozai subway line were an elderly couple who, judging from their rustic dress and sun-beaten complexions, were probably visiting Tokyo from the countryside.  The man was peering at a map of the Tokyo subway system.  I had one of those, too.  The complexity of the system for newcomers was bad enough, but even worse, the names of the stations, in tinily printed Chinese characters, even if you could understand them all, were nearly impossible to make out with the naked eye.

It was a warm summer day, and all the windows of the car were open because even though we were now underground, the Tozai line travels above ground at either end, and this must have been in the days before the trains were air-conditioned.  The man turned the map this way and that, mumbled something to his wife and then letting out a loud “humph!” tossed the map out of the window behind him.

So much for maps and directions in Tokyo.  And it’s not only the train system that can be so challenging.  Often while wandering the streets or the underground passageways of the subway stations, I’m reminded of a scene in Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland where Alice, coming upon a crossroad of sorts, is confronted with a profusion of conflicting arrows, pointing every which way—including up.

There’s a spot in the Shinjuku San-chome subway station that illustrates this analogy well.  Six passageways converge here, and signs point the way not only to the three subway lines that run through the station (the Shinjuku, the Fukutoshin, and the Marunouchi), but also to the numerous exits (30 of them from A1 to E10) and to the entrances to Isetan Department Store, which occupies the space just above this spot.

The other day when I passed through here, I was surprised to find something new:  a mural depicting the Mad Tea Party from (this time) Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

Close inspection revealed it to be an artwork by Yoko Yamamoto,  a mosaic constructed of tesserae of what looks like painted pottery.   The posting of the wall art is sponsored by Isetan Department Store, but there is no mention from either sponsor or artist of the relevance of the location to the theme of the art.  Is it possible that they did not notice the connection between the tea party scene and all the arrows around it, pointing every which way including up?

The artist’s message to those who view the mural says that she imagined traveling light years away to another dimension when she made this illustration of Carroll’s tea party, and she hopes we who view the mural imagine this, too.  But I don’t see any need for one’s imagination to go into warp speed; all one need do is turn around.

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to."

"I don't much care where..."

"Then it doesn't much matter which way you go."

"...so long as I get somewhere."

"Oh, you're sure to do that, if only you walk long enough."

Jimbocho (Part I)

October 15, 2010


The other day I attended a “Bean Book Carnival” held at the Tokyo Secondhand Book Hall.  “Bean book” is a literal translation of a word that actually means “miniature book.”  The venue was located in a part of Tokyo called Jimbocho, an area with a high concentration of secondhand book shops.

I didn’t know what to expect, but from the little I already knew about miniature books in Japan, I had built up an image of high school girls or college-age women both as readers and creators of these tiny highly artistic and ultimately “cute” works.  When I descended the stairs to the basement room where the “carnival” was being held, I found it mobbed, but not just with the very young.  There were plenty of thirty-and-forty-somethings and plenty of men, too, both as makers of the books and as admirers milling about in the crowd.

The so-called “carnival” was actually an exhibition by 28 miniature book artists, as well as a few workshops held at the back of the room on how to make your own miniature book.  The way it was set up was interesting and reminded me of the lay-out of a traditional Japanese garden.  The room was not that large, but there were 28 exhibits on view.  If it had been me in charge of the layout, I probably would have set everyone up side by side around the edges of the room.  Maybe you would have done it that way, too.  But only numbers 1 through 4 and 21 through 28 were at the edges of the room.  The other 16 booths were in the center of the room, in four sets of four.

In each set of four, each booth was side-by-side with one booth, and back-to-back with another one.  And the numbers in each set of four, rather than proceeding 5, 6, 7, 8, as you might have expected, were instead 5, 6, 9, and 10; 7, 8, 11, 12; 13, 14, 17, 18; 15, 16, 19, 20.  This arrangement created an interesting flow pattern, because if you wanted to view each booth in numerical order, you had to move from one booth, not to the booth immediately next to it since that was not the next number, but to the booth immediately behind it.

Although this was confusing at first, it had the interesting effect of making the distinction between each side-by-side booth much stronger.  Because of the limited space, these booths were very narrow, with only room for three or four shelves about one foot wide and a few inches deep, a small table holding a change box and leaflets, and a stool for the exhibitor to sit on next to the table.  So it would have been easy to confuse the two side-by-side exhibits with each other had it not been for this interesting order of viewing.

The overall effect was of a much larger room than it actually was, a sensation I have experienced before when wandering the pathways of a Japanese garden, whose twists and turns within a small area created the impression of a much larger space.

In each of these narrow booths the world of the tiny was on show.  Each exhibit was different from the others, both stylistically and in some cases in the wares on offer.  Most dealt with miniature books, but many also showed other miniature items, such as tiny carved animals, a basket of miniature mandarin oranges, or thumb-sized books attached to phone straps.  At one booth, a young girl–the daughter, it turned out, of the woman who had made the books–offered me a basket and the chance to have my fortune told.  I pulled out a slip of paper, and she opened it up to reveal that my fortune was “Small Good Luck.”

“Ring, ring, ring.  Try getting in touch with a close friend–there might be good news,” the fortune slip said.

I wanted to take a picture of the room, but when I asked a young woman standing at the doorway wearing a yellow armband if I could use my camera, she informed me that I had to ask the exhibitor for her or his permission first.  “What about a shot of the whole room?” I asked.  “In that case too…,” she replied with a smile.  As I wasn’t in the mood to go around asking 28 people if I could photograph the whole room–what if numbers 1 through 27 all said OK, and number 28 said no?–there are no pictures here of the carnival itself.  But I did purchase a miniature book, and brought it home and photographed it.  The book measures 2 by 2 and a half inches.

Its title:  Sky:  A Collection of One Line Poems.  The poet and creator of the book itself is Rukawa Tohmei, which I suspect might be a pen name since it means something like “crystal running river.”  The Tree translation staff found three poems it especially liked, to share with you, and rendered them in one line like the originals.

From a journey in search of myself, my self did not come home.

 

From a journey in search of myself, my self did not come home.

 

* * *

 

Evening:  inside the silent computer there is no one.

 

Evening:  inside the silent computer there is no one.

 

* * *

 

God:  Is it that you are forgetful, or are you just not there?

 

God:  Is it that you are forgetful, or are you just not there?

 

* * *

 

 

[The Tokyo Secondhand Book Hall (東京古書会館) will be the site of a Foreign Books Bargain Fair on Friday, October 22, from 10 AM to 6 PM, and Saturday, October 23, from 10AM to 5 PM.  Address:  3-22 Kanda Ogawamachi, Chiyoda-ku.  Ph.:  (03) 3291-5209.]

 

Off the Beaten Path: Sawai to Mitake

September 24, 2010

Tokyo is more than a city; it is one of Japan’s 47 prefectures, consisting not only of a densely populated urban area clustered around Tokyo Bay in the east, but also of a mountainous, heavily forested and sparsely populated area to the west.  Anyone residing in the eastern part, as I do, and feeling the lack of fresh air and greenery can easily replenish their supply by boarding a train on the JR Chuo Line and heading west.

The other day a friend introduced me to a walking route along the Tama River.  The weather was fine but hot, as the long record-breaking heat of the summer still lingered on.  We caught a train bound for Ome at Kokubunji Station, and at Ome transferred to the Ome Line, a four-car train where you had to push a button to open the door if you wanted to get on or off.  Although it was Tuesday, the day after Respect for the Aged Day, there were plenty of fellow travellers heading in the same direction, including many recently-respected-aged folks, and at one end of our car a group of noisy college-age kids, who looked like they were skipping classes for a barbecue on the riverbank.

After fifteen minutes of passing through sleepy little stations where no one got on or off, we came to Sawai, our stop.  We were the only ones to get off.  At the back of the platform rose a steep, thickly wooded hill.  The sun-heated air smelt faintly of what turned out to be sake.  We crossed the tracks, exited the station, and kept going down the hill, following a steep winding slope past a sake brewery. We had come to a main drag of sorts, and a traffic light whose main purpose seemed to be to give us a chance to cross the street without being run over by passing vehicles.

A few yards to the left we came to a short flight of stairs that took us down toward the river, past the garden terrace of a restaurant closed on Tuesdays.  We could see people sitting at tables on the terrace anyway, so we walked in among the trees and found a table next to the river where we could eat our sandwiches before starting on our walk up the river to the next station, Mitake, from which we planned to catch a train back to town.  My companion, who had been there before, explained that when the restaurant was open, you could sign up inside for a tour of the sake brewery, reached through a tunnel under the road, followed by a sake-tasting opportunity back here in the garden terrace.  I was okay with skipping the sake tour, though, because the sun was still quite high over the yardarm, and we had an hour or so of hiking yet ahead of us.

The terrace was a delightful place.  The restrooms were open, and the vending machines well-stocked with water and soft drinks for the road.  No doubt because it was a weekday and the restaurant was closed, it was not at all crowded, and in our spot by the river and under the trees, the air turned cool and refreshing.  A cloud of dragonflies flitted above the swirling jade-green water of the river, their wings reflecting the sunlight.

Between the edge of the terrace and the river bed below it, we found two footpaths, each running in opposite directions.  The one to the left, according to a sign, followed the river bed back to Ikusabata, the station before Sawai, while the one to the right led to Mitake Station by a route somewhat above and overlooking the river.  We kept to our original plan and took the path to the right.

The path was paved in a haphazard kind of way; you had to keep your eye out for potholes and spots where the asphalt buckled up, as well as for the occasional footbridge over rivulets trickling down the hillside into the water below.  Not to mention wildlife:  At one point a small black snake slithered across our path, on its way down to the river for a swim perhaps.  On the left was always the river, which changed as we walked, sometimes flowing freely, sometimes forming rapids among large boulders in the river bed.  On its opposite bank rose the hillsides densely packed with cedar trees.

Although neither the path nor the river was crowded that day, we were not alone, and here and there as we walked along we caught sight of people fishing, kayaking or sitting among the rocks at the river’s edge chatting over tea.  When we passed an area of white water, a raft of helmeted young women came downstream in our direction, waved at us, and then made it through the rapids without capsizing.

Between the river and the edge of the paved path grasses, trees and flowers grew abundantly, drooping a little as if worn out from the effort of going to seed.  Large green banana plants loomed over the path, while the more lowly but more vivid higan-bana (literally “equinox flower” but called “cluster amaryllis” in English according to our translation staff) bloomed amid the overgrown grass.

Going around a bend in the river we came upon a rustic tea hut, a perfect setting as my companion pointed out for writing a Tree article while looking out over the river and enjoying the autumn foliage.

Perhaps I'll come back in a month or two when it is cooler and those maple leaves have turned red.

There was an odd sensation here of being in two places at once.  On the left was wilderness, the river and the grasses going to seed.  On the right side of the path, however, were the back yards of homes that lined the road running parallel to the river above us.  These homes were built on the sides of the hill and could be reached by long steep pathways or stone stairways.  As we passed by these narrow passageways, we could look up and catch a glimpse of the road above.

The view on the right side of the path was quite different from the view on the left.  Here were the back yards of the homes, overflowing with flowers and bushes and assorted garden decor and gardening tools.  At another bend in the path, about halfway between Sawai and Mitake, we came upon a conveniently located public restroom.

I bought some myoga (Japanese ginger) and dokudami tea leaves here at this wayside vegetable stand.  The leaves of the dokudami (translated in our office dictionary as “a foul-smelling perennial plant of the family Saururaceae”) make a mild-tasting herbal tea with detox properties.  Also on offer was some plum vinegar, but I passed on that.

A bit further on we found signs advertising a restaurant and a coffee shop.  We followed the signs up a steep stone staircase toward the street in search of coffee.  We passed through a patio-like area set out with chairs strung in brightly colored strings, as if a large spider had attempted to spin her web here.

This turned out to be part of the "Ome Art Jam."

Moving onward and upward, we came to a hut with its doors wide-open to the public.  A helpful young woman at the entrance explained that the restaurant at the top of the stairs served traditional Japanese fare, probably not coffee, so we abandoned our climb, and instead accepted her invitation to view the art on exhibit inside.  We removed our shoes at the entrance, ascended onto the tatami floor, and in our sock feet walked around admiring the several paintings in the room.  These too were part of “Ome Art Jam,” an exhibition sponsored by the Ome Art Museum at various locations in the Ome and Mitake area, featuring the work of local artists, and promoting the idea that the area with its abundant water and greenery is especially conducive to the production of art works.  [This exhibit lasts until October 11.  For more information, visit http://www.npo-enza.com (only in Japanese).]

We descended again to the footpath where immediately next door we found Twinkle Refreshment Parlor.  In front of an old gate signs advertised everything from beer and soba to coffee and shaved ice.  We passed through the navy blue noren and entered a compound of elderly buildings of faded beauty set in a garden full of artefacts:  large blue and white porcelain hibachi, gaudy guardian lion-dogs, statuary both European and Buddhist.  All the buildings appeared to be open for inspection, but we chose the pavilion just past the gate with its open windows overlooking the river, and ordered our coffee.

another type of hibachi

[Twinkle is open from March through November, 11 AM to 4 PM; closed on Wednesdays and in inclement weather.]

Continuing our walk, we eventually came to another public restroom, near a bridge spanning the river. The wide stone staircase beside it led back up to the road.  When we reached the top, huffing and puffing, we walked down the road to the left and found Mitake Station on our right.

Mitake Station ticket gates

For anyone looking for something more ambitious than this riverside stroll, you can take a bus from the station part-way up Mt. Mitake and hike up to the summit.  But for those who prefer a more leisurely route offering both the wonders of nature and cultural amenities like art exhibits, coffee houses and restrooms, the walk from Sawai to Mitake is highly recommended.

Nishiogi Noh

June 7, 2010

Vol. 3, no. 6, June 7, 2010.

Kore wa nani?


What could this be?  The answer is revealed below.  Hint:  Something is being recycled here.

NISHIOGI NOH. On Saturday, May 8, I went to the Igusa Hachiman Shrine to see its annual performance of Nishiogi Takigi Noh or “Noh by Firelight.”  Takigi Noh is performed outdoors at night.  While the covered stage at Igusa Hachiman used conventional theatre lighting, the house, being open to the night air, was in darkness, except for two metal baskets of ignited firewood set in front of either side of the stage.  The seats quickly filled while a cool May wind contributed sound effects and atmospherics by sighing through the tops of the tall trees that surrounded the theatre and blowing up gusts of aromatic spark-filled smoke from the fires.  As if on cue, a large crow flew across the house at 7 o’clock, and then the show began.

This year’s drama was “Lady Aoi,” by Zeami, the great Japanese playwright, who lived in the 13th and 14th centuries.  Aoi is the wife of Prince Genji, a fictional character in an 11th century novel.  She has been possessed by an apparition and become ill.  Her family has called in a medium to try to identify the apparition.  Throughout the play, Lady Aoi appears only in the form of a kimono laid out on the stage floor.

In the opening scenes, the medium enters with the family and seats herself in the far right corner of the stage.  She wears a white robe with wide sleeves, and while she intones the incantation that will help her identify the apparition, the wind plays with her sleeves, making them billow out and swirl in a way probably not called for in the script.

The apparition appears.  It is Genji’s former mistress, Lady Rokujo, or rather not her, but her vengeful spirit, or “double.”  She tells her tale of woe.  She has not been treated with respect, despite her noble status, because the Prince has lost interest in her; and preference has been shown to Lady Aoi, whom Rokujo now hates as a result.

“People envied me for falling in love with radiantly beautiful Genji.  My days were always full of joy and glamourous.  But once his love toward me faded away and I was in the wane, my fragile life became like living in shadow….I come here all the way to avenge my bitterness….My bitterness will never fade.”*

And she proceeds to beat Lady Aoi.  (This being Noh the beating is expressed by vigorous but stylized movements of the arm up and down in the general direction of the prone kimono.)  As she beats her, the Greek Chorus chants:

“No matter how deep my grudge against you, and no matter how much you scream, you can be with the beautiful Genji or make love with him as long as you live.”*

A priest is sent for to exorcise the apparition from Lady Aoi.  He arrives and starts to pray, shaking his rosary beads violently in the air.  The vengeful spirit reappears, this time in the form of an ogre, wearing a mask with tortured expression and two horns protruding from its forehead.

A battle commences between the praying priest and the attacking ogre.  The ogre menaces and threatens; the priest dodges the blows and keeps up his praying.  Drums beat, flutes shriek.

Greek Chorus:  “One who listens to my preaching will acquire the wisdom of Buddha, and the one who understands my heart will immediately be enlightened and become Buddha.”*

Finally, the priest succeeds in overcoming the vengeful spirit.

Ogre:  “Alas, how horrible the voice of mantra! How horrible! This is it.  I will never come back again.”*

The commotion on stage ends almost as suddenly as it began.  The music and chanting stop, the ogre turns and walks in slow silence down the aisle leading back stage, followed shortly after by the other performers.  One by one the musicians and chorus smooth their garments, pick up their instruments and retire from the stage through a low sliding door at the back.    The play is over.

*translations courtesy of http://www.the-noh.com

Ono Chikkyo: Artist of the Non-Spectacular

May 12, 2010

ART SEEN. At one end of the ticket is printed a copy of a painting.  In the right foreground is a luminous green willow tree, and beyond it stretch rows of evenly spaced rice seedlings.  The water in the paddy reflects white cumuli floating upside down in a calm blue heaven.  There is no human figure in the picture.

The artist is Ono Chikkyo (1889-1979), whose works, more than 170 of them, were on display this past March and April at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.  The picture on the ticket is an illustration of a poem by the haiku poet Basho, which reads in English:  “They planted/an entire paddy/ere I moved from the willow tree.”

I could say the same about this exhibit.  Usually when I visit an art museum, I wander around looking for three or four works that I find especially appealing and focus on them alone rather than trying to take in everything.  But the Ono works seemed to demand that you look at all of them in order to understand just one of them even better.  Many of them held me at the spot in front of them, exerting a quiet magnetic force from which it was hard to break away.

Ono Chikkyo was a nihonga artist, which means he painted in the traditional Japanese style, using special techniques, materials and subject matter.  I am not an expert on the techniques or how they differ from those used in so-called “western art,” but it is clear that the subject matter is the natural world and the daily living of humans that is woven into and part of that natural world.  In Ono’s paintings trees and mountains and water abound, as well as light and color, which shift, deepen, or fade with the changing seasons.  The human presence is small, and sometimes hard to detect at first, a tiny figure in a vast rural  landscape:  a man bent over tilling his vegetable patch with a hoe, a woman standing and gazing at a view, someone tending to farm animals.  It is not the individual features of the people which are important but their stances and locations within the wider natural scene.

“The nature which I take as my subject is not that of a special place, but an innocent-looking water surface or field, and the clouds and trees that one looks up to,” Ono wrote.  He found much of his subject matter in his native Okayama Prefecture, located in western Japan on the coast of the Seto Inland Sea.  The prefecture is heavily forested, mountainous in the north, with rivers running to the sea, all providing suitable material for Ono’s concentration on the “non-special.”  (He was born in the city of Kasaoka, which maintains the Kasaoka Ono Chikkyo Art Museum, where most of the works on display at the Tokyo venue can be seen when not on tour.)

In an early work, “A Day in Late Winter” (1910), a path winds through a field surrounded by soft hills scattered here and there with trees.  On each side of the path an evergreen tree rises up over everything else.  In the distance the hills culminate in a snow-capped peak.  Blending into the landscape like one of the smaller trees, and making its way toward you between the two taller trees, is a human figure carrying a heavy load on his back.  The entire scene is rendered in dark shades of brown and green, with the exception of the white snow on the distant mountain and the splash of yellow on the human figure’s back.  The human is dwarfed by the height of the trees and the distant peak, yet is very much of the scene, not walking through it but in it.

In another work, “Winter Day Album” (1928), a white hut sits in the middle of withered fields under a gray sky.  Greenish blue evergreens form a shelter behind it, and the fields themselves are a jumble of soft, undulating shapes and colors:  green, pink, brown, gray.  A small white path winds in and out of the fields and past the hut.  A woman in an orange coat stands on this path, with one hand in a pocket of the coat and the other held at her mouth.  She is too small to see what she is doing.  Is she eating something?  Did she set out on a walk to the village and then suddenly realize she had forgotten to bring her wallet?  Possibly she just has a bag slung over one shoulder.  She looks lost in thought, unaware of the important role she plays in bringing a spark of warmth to the landscape that is just beginning to stir and stretch itself out of its winter sleep.

Nihonga uses different paints from western-style oil-painting or even watercolor, though nihonga paints are water-based.  The pigments are for the most part made from natural ingredients like rocks, shells, coral and semi-precious stones, which are ground into powders.  The resulting palette is different from that found in western paintings.  In Ono’s works the colors are muted and matte, yet rich in depth and variation. [See this issue’s Found Object section.]

Ono also wrote that “if you become open-minded, nature comes closer.”  His later works seem to reflect this idea as his palette becomes deeper, more vibrant, and he begins to focus on smaller things, framing a more limited and close-up view:  the vertical lines of tree trunks standing in snow, the pattern of white-capped waves rolling into an inlet, the reflection of sunset light on water surfaces.

My favorites are a series of trees which Ono began in the mid-60s and continued into the last decade of his life; views of a field, a river, clouds or sky at sunset, or so you think at first until you realize you are looking at the field or sky through the branches of a foregrounded tree.  These trees are painted with intricate care and detail, as if the artist were determined not to leave out even the most minute ramification of a branch.  The background is no less important now—-indeed, many of them are rendered in vivid pinks and oranges—-but you begin to wonder about all the other scenes in your life that you may have looked at, while failing to see what was immediately in front of you, framing them.

Ono Chikkyo teaches you to look at the “non-spectacular” natural world around you with new eyes.  And then, when you pause on the way home from work or in the middle of an arduous outdoor task to take a closer look at your surroundings, you might be startled to find yourself standing in the middle of one of his paintings.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FOUND OBJECTS: Earlier this year I went with some friends to Nihonbashi, Tokyo’s financial district, where we visited a small art gallery.  Wandering through the side streets, we came upon a shop selling nihonga supplies.  Nearly one whole wall consisted of glass cabinets full of paint powders.

Yubendo sells not only nihonga paints, but also brushes (including a natural bristle cosmetic brush for $60) and attractive little souvenirs made from Japanese paper, as well as the paper itself.  For 400 yen you can also buy a “dream bag” full of colorful remnants of paper used to make the souvenirs. [Yubendo, 1-6-6 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo]


PHOTO GALLERY: Our Tree photographer was so impressed with the postcard reproductions I brought home with me from the Ono exhibit that she tried paying more attention to tree branches in the foreground as well as the small-scale presence of humans in the midst of nature in the photos she took of the recent cherry blossom bash at Zenpukuji Pond.