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Going Japanese 

It was long ago and far away. Japan in the Edo period was another time and place entirely. A casual glance at the work in the New Orleans Museum of Art's (NOMA) new Enduring Vision show summons no immediate sense of familiarity with anything American, but there are some subtle threads of connection underlying all those elegant lines and calligraphic flourishes. In fact, many American artists and intellectuals have been fascinated with Japan ever since it first opened to the West in the latter 19th century (a fascination fueled in part by the writings of Lafcadio Hearn, the New Orleans journalist who moved there and became the foremost interpreter of Japanese culture to the English-speaking world).

In art, the influence of Japanese painting was first seen in the work of the impressionists, especially the French impressionists, but the most obvious period of Japanese influence on American culture occurred, ironically enough, in the years following World War II. That was when Zen became a significant inspiration not only to beat generation writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac (whose biography of the Buddha was published posthumously), but also to abstract expressionist painters such as Franz Kline, Mark Tobey and Jackson Pollock whose slashing brushstrokes and splatters were intended to reflect a Zen-like quality of spontaneity.

But such connections can only be inferred in this NOMA show, an insightful survey of Japanese painting from 1615 to the latter 19th century. Curated by art historian and Edo-period specialist Dr. Tadashi Kobayashi, the 140 painted scrolls, screens and fans are all part of the New Orleans-based collection of Dr. Kurt Gitter and Alice Rae Yellen. Although NOMA has hosted numerous exhibitions of Japanese art, this one is noteworthy for its quality and for its cohesion as a survey of the major schools of Japanese painting in general, and of the rinpa, nanga, ukiyo-e and zenga schools in particular.

Of them, the 17th century rinpa school is especially pleasing to Western eyes for its sheer decorousness, a quality epitomized in Watanabe Shiko's Spring and Summer Flowers. Here a serpentine wisteria languorously arcs over a blank beige landscape punctuated mainly by a large, luxuriantly blooming peony in the lower left. A few somnambulistic iris blossoms arise out of nowhere, and a couple of other species make cameo appearances, but it's the blankness of the background that throws the main subjects into high relief such that their subtle shades of olive, cream and peach seem epiphanous, harmonizing into inevitability what might otherwise seem unbalanced or unfinished. Look closely, and its snaky composition and subtle colors flash hints of European art nouveau, not to mention the pattern and decoration school of 1970s America.

The nanga, or literary style, had its roots in China but, like so many Chinese influences, became essentially Japanese over time. Nanga's literalism is typified in Tachihara Kyosho's Poet Painting, in which a poet appears busily painting. But why is he painting and not writing poetry? That was apparently a common switcheroo, as noteworthy poets -- Buson, for instance -- sometimes became painters later in life. Here Kyosho celebrates that phenomenon in a brisk, sketchy piece that has little in common with the flashier literary painting of the West. Another totally distinct approach is ukiyo-e, or "floating world," which originally referred to Buddhist notions of worldly impermanence, but which eventually came to mean something more like what the French call the demimonde. In other words, hookers, actors and bohemians were typical subjects. Like France's Toulouse-Lautrec, ukiyo-e artists such as Utagawa Kunisada romanticized them rather colorfully in their elegantly idealized images.

And then there is the zenga style, which became known for its austere yet spontaneous simplicity, and which its adherents regard as a meditation practice rather than the creation of art objects per se. An unintended legacy of Bodhidharma, the 6th century monk who brought Zen to Japan, zenga lives on today, having influenced American abstract expressionists along the way. Here Hakuin Ekaku's Giant Daruma immortalizes in a flurry of flashing brushstrokes the craggy faced Bodhidharma. Above him reads his famous quote: "Pointing directly to a man's heart, see one's own nature and become Buddha." Although Ginsberg and Kerouac dutifully took a stab at it, no one knows for sure whether Franz Kline, Mark Tobey or Jackson Pollock ever tried to take the old sage up on his advice.

click to enlarge Tachihara Kyosho's Poet Painting typifies the nanga, or literary, style of Japanese painting that has its roots in China.
  • Tachihara Kyosho's Poet Painting typifies the nanga, or literary, style of Japanese painting that has its roots in China.
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Speaking of Through Oct. 27, Enduring Vision: 17th To 20th Century Japanese Painting

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