Ike Taiga

Image of A Mountain Painted by Ike TaigaFor the past month or so, Allium and I have been traveling regularly to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to re-visit the Ike Taiga exhibit. Taiga and his wife, Tokuyama Gyokuran, lived allegedly “bohemian” lives as artists in 18th century Japan. A single visit was not enough; the gallery is huge, and the sheer quantity of the surviving works of these two is overwhelming.

Because all of these works — done mostly on paper, and mounted on silk — are extremely fragile, they are rotated in and out of the exhibition. Subsequent visits have taken on the nature of a treasure hunt while we identify the new items and recall those removed.

Allium has lived in Japan, and has more than a passing acquaintance with the culture of the country, but my own formal cultural education (such as it is) has been largely euro-centric, and my own inclinations are far more literary than art-driven. I’ve been astonished and delighted by this extensive exposure to a world where ‘words’ are themselves visual — where text is a crucial part of the visual experience. Kanji — the ‘text’ — is completely integrated with representational paintings here, and sometimes is, entirely, the ‘painting’.

Image of the Moon and a Cottage Painted by Ike TaigaAllium interprets some kanji, but I can only experience these disciplined and graceful figures visually. I’ve been intrigued to see how much more this kind of exhibit demands of me; really seeing requires attending more precisely than I must when viewing the types of art I more typically observe. I’ve had to slow my pace considerably in order to fully appreciate these works. Seeing, in this case, has not been intuitive.

As was common, both Taiga and Gyokuran painted in response to Chinese texts. My favorite piece is an album of minuscule paintings inspired by the Chinese poet Li Yu (1611-1680). One scene depicts a pavilion, a flowing river, and crosshatching paths down a hillside. The relevant poem is translated as:

My mountain window show[s] all four sides
with perfect clarity
Green fields and verdant paddies
all fall right
before my view
Elbow on desk I supervise the
farmers to the utmost!
And never does it interfere with
the job of reading books.

(“Middle-management” Allium remarked, amused.) (Not so much the last two lines, though, I think.) We are, as ever, at the mercy of the translator here, but you get the gist. No translator is necessary to enter Taiga’s illustration, which is at once sparing and detailed — and wholly evocative.

Unless you take the tour, or are an inveterate reader of the curator’s notes, you may not realize that Taiga sometimes painted using only his fingers. Using the interior curve of an overgrown fingernail as an inkwell, Taiga dipped the fingers of his other hand into the ink and drew using only his digit. To call this ‘finger-painting’ is terribly wrong, conjuring, as it does, the slop and chaos of the modern kindergarten; what Taiga does is nothing short of astonishing, and involves subtleties that are difficult to imagine without actually seeing them.

On a recent visit, a set of screens covered with Taiga’s journal notes was newly installed. Pages of Taiga’s kanji were mounted on the screen — calligraphic scribbles and quick sketches. Allium thought he saw something odd, and pointed out a early page that appeared to be a primitive sketch for a larger painting of Mount Asuma, done much later, in a different display on another wall. That’s treasure-hunting!

Inevitably, we noted some universal human experiences recorded among the more esoteric explorations. On a farm many years ago, Allium and I would hear a whippoorwill calling through the night. Allium understood the underlying message and immortalized it ever after in the cry “My tree! My tree!”. Apparently, neither Chinese poets nor Japanese artists have escaped the territorial expressions of our avian friends. Taiga includes this selection, by Jin Changxu, in his Book of Tang Poetry in Five Calligraphic Styles:

‘Poem of Spring Sadness’

Please, stir up the yellow warblers
So they won’t keep warbling in the trees!
So many times they wake my from my dreams,
Preventing me from traveling to Liaoxi!

A few parts of the exhibit seem surprisingly contemporary to me. A set of screens, filled only with enormous kanji, for instance, that lack, in every way, the subtlety and creativity of most of Taiga’s work. “Hmmm,” I thought. “An eighteenth-century version of a lazy modernist effort.” Perhaps it was just another (and mercifully brief) avant garde moment for Taiga — or does that prove my point?

Image of an Orchid Painted by Tokuyama GyokuranGyokuran’s work is not without interest, but it is less complex. It’s noteworthy that few women were artists, and undoubtedly her inclusion has to do with this, as well as with her association with Taiga. She seems less experimental, and her work more predictable, but some of her orchids are lovely and capture the essence of the plant in just a few well-described lines.

Unfortunately, none of the illustrations shown here (taken from the PMA website) suggest the enormous variation in style and theme demonstrated by Taiga throughout the installation. It’s open only through July 22, 2007, at which point everything goes back to Japan. Go, if you can possibly manage it.