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Japanese literati paintings come into focus at the USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena

Art shows don't have to be sprawling, multiroom surveys to provide a selection of items that illuminate the work of an artist or impart a feeling for a style. We've often seen how small exhibitions can nevertheless be meaningful assemblages of work. So it is with the modest grouping now at the USC Pacific Asia Museum, "The View From a Scholar's Studio: Japanese Literati Paintings From the Tiezudingzhai Collection."

The 13 paintings from the 19th and early 20th centuries at the Pasadena museum focus on a select group of gifted amateur artists working in the literati style. They were often prosperous merchants and/or their offspring, who attained certain proficiency with ink-and-brush. These "gentlemen scholars" often added their original verse to the scroll images that they created.

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Bucolic landscapes, usually void of human images, are what this genre is all about. One can imagine the cares of the workday world sliding by as a facile dilettante contemplates illustrating a familiar outdoor terrain.

The Buddhist monks of China innovated the Asian brush-and-scroll procedure. The goal is to apply the most expressive stroke with the most clarity and the least effort. Contemplation and concentration are essential to this process. It was standard practice for a monk to stare at a scroll for 15 or 20 minutes, anticipating one brush movement, all the while lathering his brush on a moist ink block.

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Most of the pieces at the Pacific Asia are on scrolls, though a glass case houses a couple of small, flat paintings. Araki Kamp¿ (1831-1915), a major figure in literati circles, gives a remarkable array of graded black-and-white values in his hillside scene — with a colored rainbow slash. Hashimoto Kanetsu (1883-1945) uses ink on silk to signify a rushing waterfall, in what looks like a study for an abstract totem. The versatile Kanetsu changes lanes and works in the style of Chinese master Shi Tao (1642-1707) for "Mountain Hermits Gazing at a Waterfall." "Morning Light" by Fuji Tatsukichi (1881-1964) is embellished by gold applique, and is remarkable for the freedom of its brush strokes.

The literati ideal surfaced in 11th Century China and spread throughout East Asia. As Confucian values spread to Japan and Korea, so did the notion of refined personal expression. Japan closed itself off from foreign influence during the Heian period (794-1185), and the country looked inward to produce a golden age of culture. Architecture, lacquer ware, poetry, calligraphy and painting flourished, and the world's first novel (Lady Murasaki Shikibu's "Genji Monogatari") saw the light of day. A national consensus of style developed in both the secular and religious realms.

Beginning in the late 12th Century, provincial warlords assumed the power the imperial courts had formerly held. The cultural shift in patronage and taste lasted for the following 400 years. Japan reconnected with continental Asia and the Chinese Zen influence introduced serene practices like the rock garden and ink-block painting. The Edo period (1603-1868) saw rule by the warrior class but wealthy urban patrons dictated cultural tastes. They bought printed books and woodblock prints and patronized Kabuki theatre.

As Japan industrialized and militarized in the early 20th Century, literati painting must have seemed a quaint pastime from a bygone era. Matsubayashi Keigetsu's "Mist and Rain Over Summer Mountains" shows an admirable facility with ink wash techniques, but the fact that he lived until 1963 is perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the artist.

At the close of this exhibition, the USC Pacific Asia Museum will shut its doors for a much-needed seismic retrofitting. Until the projected May 2017 reopening, this little sampling of Japanese literati paintings provides a welcome respite of quiet and contemplation just a stone's throw from the noise of Colorado Boulevard.

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What: "The View From a Scholar's Studio: Japanese Literati Paintings from the Tiezudingzhai Collection"

Where: USC Pacific Asia Museum, 48 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena

When: Through June 26, 2016. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Contact: (626) 449-2742, http://www.pacificasiamuseum.org/

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KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.

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