Thursday, November 8, 2012

Silver Wind's 'Waves' Roll Back To Japan

Detail of Hōitsu's Waves courtesy of the Seikadō Bunko Art Museum

The silver-leafed crown jewels of Japan Society’s critically acclaimed exhibition Silver Wind: The Arts of Sakai Hōitsu (1761-1828), Waves wave sayonara this weekend when they return to Japan after Sunday, November 11.

Due to their fragility, the pair of gorgeous 12-feet, six-panel screens, on loan from the Seikadō Bunko Art Museum for the first time ever to the U.S., was originally scheduled to return home on the 4th, after a five-week showcase, but are hanging around an extra week due to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

America’s upper East Coast experienced the terrible force of nature when the super storm tore through. Though it may be too soon to reflect or heal from the experience (one week later many people are still displaced from homes and hundreds of thousands are without electricity), disaster has a way of feeding art, and the creative process can help counter and transcend devastation.

With this in mind Waves takes on a new level of meaning. In Hōitsu’s deft hands, the samurai-turned-monk-turned-painter tames nature’s belligerent power. His enormous cresting, crashing, black-and-white-on-silver waves are rendered hypnotic and ghostly—phantasmagoric hands beckoning from the depths, a specter of disaster washing gray in memory with the passing of time.

Fundamentally, though, the screens are pure, timeless art. From his sumptuous catalogue for Silver Wind, curator Professor Matthew P. McKelway writes about the screens’ singular visual power:
Waves are a tour de force of vigorous commanding brushwork, compositional tension and balance and control of the unusual—and changing—effects of light and color on the screens’ surface. . .
McKelway also cites the complexity and technical challenges inherent in the work’s unique medium:
Although a specialty of Hōitsu’s, painting on silver leaf nevertheless posed challenges that a painter would not encounter with gold leaf. Silver leaf tarnishes over time, while gold leaf retains its warm tone without darkening. Like gold leaf, silver leaf cannot absorb ink and pigments, requiring the painter to take special measures to ensure that the image adheres to the resistant surface. Hōitsu brushed the waves in thick strokes of saturated ink that would better stick to the silvered finish. Throughout the screens, he applied diluted shell-powder pigment to highlight the waves’ crests and occasionally splattered it on the surface to depict their frothy spray.
In the Wall Street Journal’s  favorable review of Silver Wind, Lee Lawrence compares Hōitsu's Waves to its model/inspiration, Kōrin's Rough Waves (also on view at Japan Society’s exhibition as a loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art):
In both [works], a large wave rushes in from the upper right while another ripples up from the lower left. Kōrin's composition, however, fills a two-panel folding screen, while Hōitsu's spills across two six-panel screens. Kōrin's waves rise from a blue ocean to crest against a gold background; Hōitsu's are in black ink on a silver ground, and the artist echoes the general shape of Kōrin's top wave in his own lower one. The treatment of the metallic background also differs. In Kōrin's screen, the squares of gold leaf are applied unevenly, creating a fluid backdrop, while Hōitsu had his squares of silver leaf applied regularly to form a faint grid behind his swirling, tentacled waves. He probably also treated some leaves to retard their tarnishing, thereby creating a modulation reminiscent of a cloudy sky. . . "Waves" contains familiar Kōrin elements, but with a twist—in this case reversals—that reconfigure the composition to form something entirely new.
In his rave review of the exhibition for the New York Times, Holland Cotter delves further into the background and influences of Waves:
Hōitsu was of aristocratic samurai lineage but opted out of family politics by taking Buddhist vows. . . At some point in that past the Sakai family had commissioned work from Kōrin, so Hōitsu had some pictures on hand to study and made strenuous efforts to locate more, eventually publishing illustrations of 100 Kōrin paintings. The truest evidence of his respect, though, lay in his emulation of the master’s art, most spectacularly in the six-panel screen "Waves" (1815), a direct but utterly original response to Kōrin’s "Rough Waves."

Hōitsu began his picture with a distinctive feature. As if to establish an enveloping atmosphere of fogs and snow flurries, he painted directly on a silver-leaf ground. This tractionless surface let his inked brushes slide and glide around calligraphically, producing images of natural emanations more abstract than Kōrin’s but no less vivacious and threatening.

The result is a powerful example of a painting hand on the move—you can imagine Willem de Kooning looking on, lost in admiration—yet a physically fragile thing.
While this weekend marks the last chance to see Waves stateside, beginning November 13 they are replaced by the equally magnificent seasonal splendor of Maples and Cherry
(to be covered in a future post).

Silver Wind is America’s first comprehensive retrospective of the art and influence of Sakai Hōitsu, whose compositional daring revived the Rimpa tradition of art in Edo-period Japan. On view through January 6, 2013, at Japan Society Gallery, the exhibition features nearly 60 masterpieces, including folding screens, hanging scrolls, fans, as well as lacquer works and woodblock-printed books. The catalogue is available from the Yale University Press.

--Shannon Jowett


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