Chinese and Japanese art: masters for the West

It was off to the V&A Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700 – 1900 (ends 19 January 2014)  and to the Fitzwilliam, Cambridge for The night of longing: Love and desire in Japanese prints (12 January, 2014). Yes, I was stupid enough to miss the Japanese Shunga show in the British Museum’s Rooms 90/91, the very place which set me off on this quest…

Beyond the Chinese prancing horse images which many post-war households had on their walls, I was catapulted into renewed admiration by seeing The Printed Image in China: from the 8th to the 21st Centuries (BM, Rooms 90/91, 6 May – 5 September 2010). I am almost sure (without checking) that much or most of the show went to New York as a show of the same title at  the Metropolitan Museum of Art ( 5 May – 29 July 2012). The latter has done us the huge favour of posting online 145 images of the works. These in part confirm all one’s prejudices against oriental art: that it is unrealistic, mystical, and often both wishy-washy and hysterical. The problem, I suppose, being an excess of the refined and the grotesque. But they also show how much of it is punchy, recognisable, vivid, and generally highly satisfactory to a modern (a modernist) western gaze. They seem to say that the Chinese, dead and alive, know a huge amount about making graphic art even if they don’t seem to have a painterly tradition of the kind we Europeans think so important.

All of that sort of set me up quite well for the V & A show, in which there seemed to be acres of pretty dull things. But there were plenty of images which make a big impact. I am thinking of some very bold brush and nib caricatures and portraits (for instance, Portrait of Gao Yongzhi as Calligrapher-Beggar, 1887) which fairly leap of the page. And then there was an entire genre which I hadn’t (in my ignorance) come across: scroll panoramas which one wanders along, as one might the Bayeux Tapestry. One or two (such as Prosperous Suzhou, 1759) had one nose-down, hovering over and hovering up the extraordinary detail of a riverside market and pleasure garden, yard upon yard of it, portrayed with an accuracy now commonplace in digital high resolution images, but I imagine never achieved outside China with nib on paper, and all coloured in as though in a movie. So we had the broadest, boldest minimalism and we had its exquisite opposite.

In Cambridge, I was struck by the great beauty of many of the supposedly erotic Japanese images, but one had the impression that the artists had a shorthand for, rather than a particular affection for, the faces of their subjects. It is a fascinating shorthand, and carries a fair amount of individuality and meaning, but only so much. The genitalia in the pictures were large, unalluring and – so far as I could see – completely generic. On the whole, the less erotic the purpose of the drawing, the more one was able to relish the ravishing design, the sheer shapeliness, of the images. And the frocks! I have no idea whether the Japanese aesthete liked fabric design more than paintings of it, or indeed whether the artists brought something to their portrayal of fabrics which was more gorgeous than the original, but either way, one can easily see why Matisse became such a master of this sort of painting.

The Japanese, by their own reckoning, are an odd lot. They are, in peacetime at least, good fun to be amongst, with their appetite for vulgarity and a slightly wild hedonism all tangled up with their “unbearable immanence of being” riffs. I have been intrigued to read The Ideals of the East with special reference to the art of Japan by Kakuzo Okakura, a slim volume by a well-travelled and wide-referenced cultural historian. In a passage about the glory of being Japanese (it is no patriotic than an anglophile might give us about Britishness) he adds:

“But our curious isolation and long-standing lack of foreign intercourse had deprived us of all occasion for self-recognition…”

That’s beautiful, I think. It reminds us that the peculiar specialness which draws the westerner to the East is both a source of pride and danger to the object of our interest. But it also emboldens the Westerner to realise that one of the things we have going for us is the sheer absorbancy of our cultures. Whether as imperialists or hosts to immigrants, to a surprising degree Westerners – and especially the Anglosphere – soaks up influences. It may well be the case that such influences are seldom a big problem for us, whereas for the Oriental, they can present something of a crisis, even if an exciting one. (Isn’t that what Lost in Translation, not to say Madam Butterfly, is all about?)

My favourite new book is The Art of the Japanese Postcard: Masterpieces from the Leonard A Lauder Collection (2004). These are images, mostly from the early part of the last century, which show what appealed to the Japanese eye, tutored and not, and with a good nod to the mass market. They show the Japanese artist being true to ancient traditions (as so much modern Chinese painting and drawing still is), but often being thoroughly, vigorously fresh about it. And they show all the reasons why British graphic art feels such envy toward Japanese art, especially in its boldness of design, but also its subject matters of lovers’ swooning fabrics, and warriors’ caparisoned armour.

In particular, I am struck by how similar the art of the Japanese patriotic military postcard is to my own grandfather’s work of the same type and period. More generally, I feel how well the Chinese  and Japanese art, whatever the century and format, answers so many of the questions I have recently been posing myself about illustration.



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Publication date

03 January 2014


Mind & body; On art