'JAPANESE INK PAINTING'--A QUIET BLOCKBUSTER

The County Art Museum's big spring exhibition may not immediately attract long queues, but if L.A. is anywhere near its cosmopolitan pretentions, "Japanese Ink Painting" should become a whispering blockbuster.

Its 85 elegant scrolls and huge screens constitute a virtual pop-up textbook of a style inspired by Chinese Zen Buddhism, assimilated to the decorative Japanese sensibility and finally absorbed into modern Occidental art from Post-Impressionism to the inheritors of the Beat Generation.

Works are so cherished that many, loaned from more than 50 of Japan's leading collections, have never before left the country and have only been let go for this singular showing, which will not travel. The roster includes two masterpieces officially classified as National Treasures, 15 Important Cultural Properties and four Important Art Objects.

Delicate to the point of frailty, the venerable objects can only stand so much exposure, so the showing is divided in two parts. The first, including 38 works on view to April 7, hits high points in the development of sumi-e ink painting from the classically restrained and introverted late 15th-Century Ashikaga epoch, through the brilliant swashbuckling of the Momoyama era and the beginings of the long isolationist Tokugawa shogunate when Japan was, well, very Japanese.

Chapter Two, surveying the Edo period well into the 19th Century, will be seen April 16 through May 12. The catalogue is aristocratic and its essays by curators George Kuwayama, Miyajima Shin'ichi and Sato Yasuhiro are crisp and simple.

Anyone somehow unfamiliar with Japanese art may have to get past a few cultural hurdles on the way to appreciation. It is a trifle annoying to have to look at these works in glass vitrines. It is a tad disconcerting to contemplate a landscape that folds in and out. Some may find it a puzzlement that such physical span and brocade-frame sumptuousness of presentation is accorded works that may look to Westerners mainly like big black-and-white brush drawings.

Round-eyes are backward about drawings. They are raised to think that drawings are something that have to be filled in with colored paint in order to become adult artworks. Drawings in the Occidental culture are second-class citizens.

Well, anybody incapable of having his mind changed by these extraordinary things deserves to dwell in darkness. Each work seems to materialize instantly, as if executed in one sitting. One imagines the artist seated before his paper creating the work in a kind of terpsichorean trance--the artistic equivalent of a Samurai in a ceremonial sword fight. The strokes pile up, ax-chops, bamboo lines with cloud longing, tumultuous dabs that become gnarled trees transmigrated into turbulent water, fields of wash that link knobby mountains to serene sky.

When it is finally over, this incredibly stylized performance adds up to a perfectly convincing image of a landscape, dragon or Zen priest, even as the artificialized conventions of the No drama coalesce into images of life.

And no erasing folks, no going back to over-paint, no correction. It is either a great performance like the calculated virtuoso spontaneity of a concert pianist or its a fumbling bust. Paradoxically, about the only comparable form we produce is that of master comic-strip artists like Burne Hogarth ("Tarzan") or Milton Caniff ("Steve Canyon"), who are also artistically under-appreciated.

Even they are in the bush leagues compared to Japanese who trained for decades in monasteries before being allowed master status. The system eventually led to huge families of artists, which is why you have so many with the same last name like Kano Eitoku, Kano Shigenobu and Kano Motonobu. (In Japan, the surname comes first. Nicknames and noms de brosse are also common.) Speaking of the influential Kano clan, they introduced an interesting new wrinkle into the family dynasty structure. If none of the sons were sufficiently adept to inherit patriarchal status, the family simply adopted a gifted artist. Darned clever.

Artists basically learned by practicing strokes and copying existing prototypes. Thus there were battalions of adroit technicians who could fake a masterpiece at the clap of one hand. The resulting corpus of superb forgeries constitute a virtual artistic sub-category.

The real purpose of all that drill, however, was to finally set the artist free to extrapolate the essence of nature unfettered by procedural worries. This interlocked combination of discipline and spontaneity is the essence of Zen.

Fine, but what are all those lines of calligraphic squiggles and seals, cartouches and stuff?

I was just getting to that. The signs are signatures of artists or owners. The squiggles are dedications or poems or both. Sumi-e painting was wedded to poetry and both have the same goal, using formal structure to distill spiritual experience.

There is one terrific example in Shokado Shojo's scroll "Rooster Below a Grapevine." An appended poem by Gyoshushitsu Sohaku reads:

One crow of the rooster on a dark night

And bright light floods his being

In former years we studied together

but you alone attained fame

for penetrating the barrier.

The combination makes us know that Shojo's strident rooster is more than just a bird. Picture and words set up mutual echoes of wryness, envy, regret and admiration.

As originally practiced in China, ink painting was primarily a landscape art reflective of a life of philosophical contemplation on man's insignificance in the magnificence of nature. The Japanese got that down in works like Sesson Shukei's "Summer Landscape and Winter Landscape," but they could not resist adapting it to their own love of narrative and theatrical depiction of human personality.

One look at Soga Jasoku's scroll, "Portrait of Priest Linji," and there is no need to read a catalogue entry telling us he was a votary of a violent form of Chan Buddhism who routinely beat and upbraided his disciples.

Speaking of theatricality, one is hard-pressed to recall a style of greater sumptuous drama than that of the Momoyama period. In 1573, a new bunch took over Japan. They come off the history pages like a dynasty of militaristic thugs who built dark, bellicose fortresses and decorated them with gold-ground screens partly to reflect a little light and partly because they were vulgar arrivistes.

We should have such nouveaux riches in Beverly Hills. Evidence finds a people with a taste for tempered energetic luxury that the European Baroque is hard-pressed to match. Kano Eitoku's "Birds and Flowers in the Four Seasons" is one of the National Treasures on hand and a masterpiece by the most grandiose measure. Its main motif, a gnarled red plum tree, roars up out of a lower corner with the force of a single stroke by Franz Kline and continues its pile driver path across four panels and 25 feet without losing an ounce of energy. Unlike a Kline, it picks up all the little intimate details en route--ducks, delicate blossoms and all.

Naturally not everything fares so well. Hasegawa Tohaku's near abstract "Waves" is fine but makes us wish for an even more robust polychromed work by him. Kaiho Yusho looks a bit nervous and mannered. Onkoku Togan veers between poignant crows and rather stiffly naive horses. Soga Nichokuan gets so fascinated with the pattern of falcons' feathers that his space goes flat and deoxygenated.

Basically, however, the entertainment never flags. The Momoyama Mafioso evidently had humor to match their energy. (You keep imagining everybody played by Oriental Orson Welleses.)

Soga Chokuan's "Dragon and Tiger" screens are not only robust and impressive, they are funny. Garfield the Cat never looked so haughtily dismayed as Chokuan's testy tiger. When Kano Sansetu sets out to depict "The Daoist Immortals Tekkai and Gamma," his falling-down delight at his own pyrotechnical bravura is infectious.

Established styles never die in Japan, they evolve. But as the Momoyama gives way to the early Edo period there is a marked turn from ballooning effusion to delicacy, wit, anecdote and refinement. Tawaraya Sotatsu's "Water Birds on a Lotus Pond" is so exquisite it is nearly wistful. Hanabusa Itcho is so pointed and wryly economical one suspects Pierre Bonnard must have known of him.

All comparisons are odoriferous, but when Japanese art sets the context we forget about the West's genius for invention and Japan's inclination to slip into graphic decor and cleverness. We wonder at its capacity to employ simple means to uncork such resonant, lyrical overtones while Western art labors to do one heavy-footed thing at a time. Mondrian could construct as interesting a sequence of verticals as Ogata Korin, but Korin can do it while playing the flute and tossing off a haiku to his beloved.

Oh well, at least Western automobiles are getting better.

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