Art review: Japanese art revival restores the peace

The flurry of traditional Japanese arts and crafts in Southern California this month is not in Los Angeles proper. L.A. County Art Museum's majestic Pavilion for Japanese Art remains the West Coast's greatest showcase, but three unrelated Pasadena events form a fascinating cultural convergence. They signify a quietly strong century of Japanese-American history in the area.

After a $6.8-million upgrade, the Huntington Library in San Marino has just reopened its historic Japanese Garden. Previous visitors will recall the familiar crescent bridge, rock garden, teahouse and waterfall. The picturesque grounds have been something of a touchstone to Japanese Americans. New to the site is an actual Kyoto teahouse — Seifu-An (“Arbor of Pure Breeze”) — that had been removed and faithfully reassembled at the Pasadena Buddhist Temple in 1964.

Architect Kelly Sutherland McLeod has supervised the rehabilitation of an earlier transplant, the Japanese House. It's been the Garden's longtime centerpiece, reconstructed by master carpenter Toichiro Kawai for Henry Huntington. A Japanese national, his granddaughter Leslie Kim Kawai, was the 1981 Rose Queen. A dull coat of brown paint has been stripped off the building, revealing a warm wood grain.

The tranquil garden was a favorite stop for tough-guy poet Charles Bukowski after a day at Santa Anita. The ability to soothe that savage beast is proof positive of the site's calming and restorative powers.

The Pacific Asia Museum has a small but captivating display of 20th Century kimonos. A gift from collector June Tsukamoto-Lyon enhances the Museum's permanent collection. Mostly from the 1950s, they utilize and transform some Western decorative motifs in elegant ways that typify Japanese design. Kimono (translated as “thing to wear”) designs and craft signify class, aesthetics and dignity. The offerings on display reveal techniques as varied as loom work, hand-stitching, resist dyeing, hand-painting and plain-weave silk.

A fine tomesode-type silk garment depicts birds perched in branches. The black background mists into a gradation so fine it looks airbrushed onto the fabric. An exquisite amber obi dome pin under glass reflects art nouveau's influence.

A silk crepe haori (jacket) has a rich orange-gold ground with a spray of umber peacock feathers, splashing asymmetrically across the body. Art deco asserts itself discreetly into two robes: white birds hover around slender white branches on the indigo background of a full-length kimono. On another, celestial swirls of raspberry and gold randomly pattern.

The arms-akimbo displays reveal the full designs on these pieces. The patterns become all the more complex when they're wrapped and tied onto the body. Japanese painters of old depicted those visually clashing folds of design in intriguing ways.

Marking the centennial of Japan's friendship gift of cherry blossom trees to Washington D.C., the Norton Simon Museum will unveil a show of Japanese woodblock prints.

Assistant curator Melody Rod-ari spoke about it recently: “These prints are from the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 18th century. The Japanese economy was good and a burgeoning middle class had more time to enjoy the pleasures of life. Publishers thought that landscape scenes would sell, so they commissioned artists to depict them.”

“Prints required four people,” she continues. “A publisher, an artist, a woodblock cutter and a printer. For every color on a print, a separate block had to be cut. Some required as many as 20 blocks.”

The perfect registration of colors on Japanese prints is a marvel of craft, making the April 20 opening something to watch for.

KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.

“Kimono in the 20th Century,” Pacific Asia Museum, 46 North Los Robles Avenue, Pasadena; through March 10, 2013. Open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Info: (626) 449-2742,

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