Books: The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee


The Art of Rivalry by art critic Sebastian Smee is a biography with a difference. Looking at four pairs of artists from the modern era, it explores how they influenced one other. There is a single essay devoted to each pair, presented in alphabetical rather than chronological order: Freud and Bacon; Manet and Degas; Matisse and Picasso; and Pollock and de Kooning.

I liked this concept because it seemed to offer a new take on these giants of the art world. The decision to limit your focus to the impact of one particular friendship (or rivalry) allows you to go deep without dragging on too long. For instance, Degas outlived Manet by over 30 years, but those decades fall outside the scope of the narrative. The friendship between Manet and Degas was most active between 1867 and 1869, allowing you to narrow the scope even further, and investigate those years most closely.

Despite this structure, I didn’t find the writing as focused as I expected. The essay on Manet and Degas felt too drawn out, with such a host of supporting actors that the central thread was lost. The essay on Pollock and de Kooning concentrated heavily on the early parts of their lives, the years when they hadn’t even met.

I preferred the essays on the Freud-Bacon and Matisse-Picasso relationships. In each case, the narrative felt more streamlined and the story more compelling. The outsize personality of Bacon dominates the former. In the latter, it is the classic tale of artists competing for patronage that draws you in: Matisse and Picasso were both favoured by the wealthy Stein households (Gertrude and Leo on the one hand, and Sarah and Michael on the other), but their standing waxed and waned.

Given the initial premise, I wasn’t too surprised that Smee dwells less on the art and more on the social lives of the artists – many of whom were lecherous and dissolute. There is some careful analysis of individual pictures, which I enjoyed, but it is not the main driver here, and the colour plates are ungenerous. The reader is expected to know the works or to google them.

I thought Smee could have done more to highlight the resonances between the four stories, perhaps by adding a conclusion as well as an introduction. I found myself noting the same dynamics cropping up again and again, but in the main you are left to make the connections for yourself.

The Art of Rivalry
Sebastian Smee, 2016.
Random House, 390 pages, $28.00 (hardcover).

Japanese ceramics in Sacramento


Writing my last post on The Sculptural Turn led me to reflect on another wonderful collection of contemporary Japanese ceramics, in the Crocker Art Museum of Sacramento. I visited in June 2016, and the ceramics gallery was a definite highlight, presenting a choice selection of very high quality pieces.

There are some eye-catching celadons, such as a sinuous ceramic sculpture by Kino Satoshi (b.1987). This was first formed as a cylinder on a potter’s wheel, then dissected and reassembled in a new configuration. It is from a series of porcelain sculptures called Oroshi (“strong downwind from the mountain”).

There are two celadon bowls by Kawase Shinobu (b.1950), whose work I featured in this post in 2015. The first bowl, with its 16 lobes, is a triumph of form; the second, with its delicate “kingfisher” glaze, is a triumph of colour. This multi-coloured glaze took up to eight kiln firings to achieve and the artist sees it as evoking the plumage of the kingfisher.

In contrast, a red clay bowl by Ogawa Machiko (b.1946) has a primitive, earthy quality. Her work features in The Sculptural Turn, bearing similar hallmarks – the broken, unfinished edges, the cracks and fissures.

The display includes celebrated artists from the Mingei movement (focused on traditional crafts) such as Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), whose work I featured in this post in 2012 and in this post in 2016. Another key figure in the movement was Sakuma Totaro (1900-1976), represented here by a square plate with a fruit motif, the colours subtle yet uplifting.

Overall, a small but enthralling selection of Japanese ceramics – definitely worth a stop if you are visiting Sacramento.

Crocker Art Museum
Sacramento, CA
Permanent collection

All photos: SF

Above: Kino Satoshi, Sculpture, 2014. Porcelain with pale bluish white celadon glaze. Crocker Art Museum.

Below: Kawase Shinobu, Bowl with 16 pinched edges, 2014. Porcellanous stoneware with celadon glaze. Crocker Art Museum.


Below: Kawase Shinobu, Teabowl, “Kingfisher”, 2013. Porcellanous stoneware with reddish-green celadon glaze. Crocker Art Museum.


Below: Ogawa Machiko, Vessel, no date. Red clay. Crocker Art Museum.


Below: Wada Morihiro, Tea bowl, ca. 1996. Porcellanous stoneware with black glaze and red and orange slip glaze patterning. Crocker Art Museum.


Below: Shoji Hamada, Covered box, no date. Stoneware. Crocker Art Museum.


Below: Shoji Hamada, Covered box, ca. 1968. Stoneware. Crocker Art Museum.


Below: Sakuma Totaro, Square plate, ca. 1970. Crocker Art Museum.


Shapes to conjure with: contemporary Japanese ceramics


This exhibition of Japanese ceramics is small but transformative, giving the visitor space to focus not on traditional ceramic forms but on what happens when those forms are set aside. Each of the artists represented here adopts a more experimental approach, creating works that have sculptural or abstract qualities. Many of the artists are female.

The show includes work by Nagae Shigekazu (b.1953), whose extraordinary razor-thin porcelain I featured in this post in 2014 and this post in 2015.

There are angular, geometric pieces: for instance, Box by Kondo Takahiro (b.1958), a glazed porcelain work that reminded me of China’s ceramic head pillows; and Noh-inspired Form with Colored Clay Inlays by Kishi Eiko (b.1948), its surface alight with iridescent colour.

There are many organic shapes that draw inspiration from the natural world: for instance, Shell Form by Koike Shoko (b.1943), Tentacled Sea Flower by Katsumata Chieko (b.1950) and Eggshell by Sakurai Yasuko (b.1969).

Other works seem to conjure images of damage or decay: an untitled work by Futamura Yoshimi (b.1959) resembles a huge fruit covered in mould; another by Ogawa Machiko (b.1946) suggests a fragile entity that has been smashed or torn open.

A varied and interesting exhibit, well worth a visit.

The Sculptural Turn
Contemporary Japanese Ceramics from the Kempner and Stein Collection
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
9 November 2016 to 4 June 2017

All photos: SF.

Above: Nagae Shigekazu, Moving Forms, 2015. Porcelain. Collection of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.

Below: Kondo Takahiro, Box, 2009. Porcelain with glaze. Asian Art Museum; gift of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.


Below: Kishi Eiko, Noh-inspired Form with Colored Clay Inlays, 2007. Stoneware with colored clay inlays. Collection of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.


Below: Koike Shoko, Shell Form, 2013. Stoneware with glaze. Collection of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.


Below: Sakurai Yasuko, Eggshell, 2008. Porcelain. Asian Art Museum; gift of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.


Below: Futamura Yoshimi, Untitled, 2012. Stoneware and porcelain. Collection of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.


Below: Ogawa Machiko, Untitled, 2009. Stoneware and porcelain with pooling glass. Collection of Dr Phyllis A Kempner and Dr David D Stein.


San Diego visit, part 3: Japanese Friendship Garden


I visited the Japanese Friendship Garden during the late afternoon – a quiet, mellow time of day when the visitors had thinned right out. It occupies a 12 acre site in Balboa Park, the cultural complex of San Diego, and scene of earlier visits to the Museum of Art and the Mingei International Museum.

The Japanese name for this garden is San-Kei-En, meaning “Three Scene Garden: Water, Pastoral and Mountain”. It is named after the San-Kei-En Garden in Yokohama, and it celebrates the link between San Diego and its sister city of Yokohama.

I was struck initially by the sheer size of the garden. It first opened in 1991 but was expanded in 1999 and again in 2015. It is set within a basin, so you experience the garden in different stages as you move down from the top to the bottom of the canyon. Although the heart of the garden is a central water channel with simple footbridges, you aren’t even aware of this section when you begin your walk down the hillside. In this way, it feels quite different from the San Mateo Japanese Garden, which in the main is more open and visible, and laid out around a single body of water.

The garden is designed using Japanese techniques, but adapted to suit the climate, landscape and plant life of southern California. Its many varied features include: a ceremonial gate, a karesansui or dry landscape garden, a bonsai collection, a koi pond, the dragon bridge – symbol of power, strength and good luck – and the dry waterfall. With the right timing, you could also enjoy the azalea, camellia and cherry tree plantations. I would love to go back.

Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park
San Diego, CA
Permanent attraction

All photos: JF

Above: the sloping hillsides are thickly planted, shading the pathways.

Below: dry waterfall made of rocks.


Below: waterfall , pool and pavilion.


Below: a duck enjoys the tranquil pool.


Below: water channel with tree-lined walkways on either side.


Below: a classic bamboo water feature.


Books: Kimono for modern times


This elegant history of kimono focuses on the 19th and 20th centuries – of which the cover photo is emblematic. It shows a woman’s summer kimono with a design of plovers in flight over stylised waves, the design radiating outward from the centre front of the kimono. Dating to the years 1900-1925, the design is based on a classic motif seen in the printed pattern books 100 years earlier, but recalibrated for the modern age.

This is exactly what drew me into this book – the quest to analyse different elements of that transition from old to new, in the Meiji era (1868-1915) and beyond.  Japan was opening up and so much was on the brink of change.

Milhaupt’s narrative covers both technical aspects and social history: the growing use of foreign materials and technologies in kimono manufacture; the rise of the big Japanese department stores; and new advertising techniques, such as posters, pamphlets and women’s magazines.

She also explores more conceptual trends such as the popularity of the kimono in Europe and North America and its connotations there; and a new nostalgia in contemporary Japan for the vintage kimono of olden times. These broader themes are complemented by a stand-alone chapter that presents the individual histories of a handful of specific kimono designers.

Technical terms from the Japanese are used throughout and, though explanations are given, I think a glossary at the back would have been beneficial. The illustrations are excellent and eye-opening – there were many items I had not seen elsewhere. A detailed and interesting read, recommended for those with a passion for costume and fashion.

Kimono: A Modern History
Terry Satsuki Milhaupt, 2014.
Reaktion Books Ltd, 312 pages, $29.00 (paperback).

This book was received as a gift from family.

Movies: Miss Hokusai


Screened during the Mill Valley Film Festival, this anime movie opens a window onto the household of Hokusai, the great 19th century Japanese artist, and in particular his daughter O-Ei. The film is based on the manga Sarusuberi and, as the introductory speaker noted, it is not by Studio Ghibli, whose output has tended to dominate western cultural channels of late.

O-Ei makes a fantastic central character for a movie. She is stubborn and feisty, exerting considerable sway over her eccentric father and his dubious hangers-on. She has inherited her father’s talent and is shown to be a gifted and ambitious artist, prepared to tackle all subjects, even the seamier material. She is also very sensitive to the needs of her blind younger sister: the relationship between these two is among the more tender and affecting parts of the movie.

I marvelled at the convincing recreation of the late Edo period (the year is 1814), and at the references to iconic artworks such as the woodblock print The Great Wave. However, the goal here is not the pure realism of a biopic: we see supernatural forces intrude on the action again and again.

I also warmed to the earthy, slightly irreverent tone of the piece, which made a change from the more earnest Studio Ghibli productions. The soundtrack is a delight – for instance, the playful juxtaposition of contemporary rock music with a classic 19th century panorama of the city. Recommended, especially for those with an interest in Edo-period Japan or the life of Hokusai.

Miss Hokusai (Sarusuberi) (2015)
Director Keiichi Hara
Running time 90 min

You can view the trailer below.

San Diego visit, part 2: Japanese art at the Mingei International

Continuing the San Diego theme from my last post on Brush and Ink, I want to highlight an exhibition I saw at the Mingei International Museum, showcasing folk art and craft objects from Japan. It was a rare opportunity to explore this field in depth, and I was blown away by the bold designs and exceptional quality of the pieces.

The selection covers different regions of Japan and different categories of object: fans, folk paintings, baskets, cabinets and so on. The textiles displayed on the walls have huge visual impact, be it an Ainu coat from Hokkaido, or a summer kimono in a wonderful gold colour, by Keisuke Serizawa (1895-1984).

Ceramics form the backbone of the exhibition, encompassing older traditional items – a sturdy plate with horse eye motif, such as you would find at a roadside inn – and later craft pieces from the ceramicists of the Mingei movement, started by Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961) to champion the beauty of ordinary, handmade objects.

They include works by Masu Minagawa (1872-1953), who liked to paint her teapots with landscape designs, and by Shoji Hamada (1894-1978) and his apprentice Tatsuzo Shimaoka (1919-2007), who used rope impressions and a salt glaze to create unique effects. All three worked at Mashiko in Japan.

A beautiful, balanced show, designed to give the visitor a strong and lasting sense of the riches of Japanese folk art.

Mingei of Japan
Mingei International Museum, San Diego, CA
2 April to 2 October 2016 (now closed)

Below: Ainu coat, unknown maker, late 19th c. Hokkaido, Japan. Cotton, indigo; hand-spun, handwoven, sewn, appliqued, embroidered. Mingei International Museum. All photos: SF.


Below: Keisuke Serizawa, summer kimono, mid 20th c. Japan. Banana fibre (bashofu); indigo; hand-spun, handwoven, stencil dyed (katazome).

Below: Plate with horse eye motif, unknown maker, early 19th c. Japan. Glazed stoneware with brushwork design. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Bowl, unknown maker, 20th c. Okinawa, Japan. Glazed stoneware. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Tea bowl, unknown maker. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Masu Minegawa, ceramic teapot, ca. 1900-1950. Mashiko, Japan. Mingei International Museum.


Below left: Lidded jar, unknown maker, late 20th c. Onta, Japan. Chatter-glazed (tobikanna) stoneware. Mingei International Museum.

Below right: Tatsuzo Shimaoka, bowl, 2004. Mashiko, Japan. Salt-glazed and rope-impressed stoneware with inlaid slip. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Tatsuzo Shimaoka, tea bowl, ca. 1971. Salt-glazed and rope-impressed stoneware with inlaid slip. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Shoji Hamada, plate, 20th c. Glazed stoneware. Mingei International Museum.


Below: Shoji Hamada, cup, 20th c. Glazed stoneware. Mingei International Museum.


San Diego visit, part 1: Brush and Ink


I visited San Diego over the summer and saw two exhibitions of Asian art in the Balboa Park complex. First up was Brush and Ink at the San Diego Museum of Art, an inspiring selection of Chinese paintings chosen by contemporary artist Pan Gongkai (b. 1947), and hung with his own work.

Pan Gongkai is himself a practitioner of traditional ink painting.  The works he has chosen here represent different periods and genres, yet he conveys a strong sense of the tradition that unifies them.

Early works include a small painting on silk from the 15th century, Scholar Under a Pine, and two fan paintings by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), Landscape with Lake and Three Boats and Landscape with Lake, Bridge, and Fisherman (the second on gold paper).

The art theorist Dong Qichang (1555-1636) is represented with a fan painting too: Orchids, Fungus, and Rock. There is a breath-taking snow scene by Huang Shen (1687-1773), Traveling in the Snow Mountains. There are several 20th century works, including Shrimp by Qi Baishi (1863-1957) – I do enjoy pictures of crustaceans.

For me, this was an interesting complement to the 2015 show Exquisite Nature at the Asian Art Museum, another display of Chinese paintings from across the centuries.  However, the San Diego exhibit is twice the size (40 works as opposed to 20) and the space afforded by these huge galleries is immensely helpful, giving the works more room to breathe and enhancing the journey from artistic past to present.

Brush and Ink: Chinese Paintings from the San Diego Museum of Art
The San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA
29 April to 5 September 2016 (now closed)

Above: Scholar under a Pine, 15th century. Ink and colour on silk. 25.4 x 25.72cm. The San Diego Museum of Art. Image at

Ten days left to see Chinese treasures from Taiwan

The jewel of the 2016 schedule at the Asian Art Museum has been the show Emperors’ Treasures, which presents choice artworks on loan from the National Palace Museum, Taipei. This show is now in its last ten days and is absolutely worth a visit.

The exhibition includes Chinese art from the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, a period of about 800 years in total. There are paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, jades and other types of art as well, including the celebrated “meat-shaped stone” – a piece of jasper made over to look exactly like a piece of fatty pork.

I was especially taken with the ceramics: a black tea bowl with a tree leaf design embedded in the glaze (Southern Song); a wine cup and saucer in the rarest cobalt blue (Yuan); a famous blue-and-white globe vase with a flying dragon design (Ming, reign of Emperor Yongle).

The paintings are also exceptional, though I found the presentation less compelling. The exhibition followed a clear chronological format, which relies on separating the material out into discrete parcels. This structured approach works well for ceramics, less so for paintings. You lose that sense of the gradual evolution of the medium, of the constant, layered references back to earlier painters. Still, a show that is not to be missed.

Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
17 June to 18 September 2016

Above: bowl with tree leaf design. Jizhou kiln, Jiangxi province. Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). High-fired ceramic with black glaze. Height 5.1cm; diameter at mouth 14.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at

Below: cup and saucer with gilt decorations. Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Porcelain with cobalt blue glaze and gilt decoration. Cup height 3.4cm, diameter at mouth 8.5cm; saucer diameter 15.5cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at


Below: vase with a flying dragon amid flowers. Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Ming dynasty (1368-1644), reign of Emperor Yongle (1403-24). Porcelain with underglaze cobalt blue decoration. Height 42.2cm, diameter at base 16.2cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at


Below: meat-shaped stone. Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Jasper, gold stand. Height 5.73cm; length 5.3cm; width 6.6cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image at


Recharging in the San Mateo Japanese garden


I was hoping to visit the Japanese garden in San Mateo Central Park after reading about it in the book Quiet Beauty: The Japanese gardens of North America. Happily, I managed to make that visit earlier this summer, the same day we saw the digital art exhibit at PACE. So if you do plan a trip to this part of Silicon Valley, consider experiencing two different aspects of Japanese culture in the same day and see both together.

The garden opened in 1965, following the signing of a sister city agreement between San Mateo and Toyonaka in 1963. It was designed by Nagao Sakurai, who had created several other American Japanese gardens, including the dry garden in the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park (1952). It is a stroll garden built around a central pond that is fed by a waterfall. Two wooden bridges transect the pond; of these, the first is more prominent – an arched bridge with numerous fat carp swimming beneath it.

As you loop around the pond, you encounter lush foliage, eye-catching rock formations and a series of beautiful views, punctuated by unique features: the stone pagoda, the waterfall, the viewing pavilion and the tea house. This is a wonderful place to visit and attracts a different crowd from the garden in Golden Gate Park: more local families spending time outdoors, not so many camera-toting tourists on a deadline. Highly recommended.

Japanese Garden, San Mateo Central Park
San Mateo, California
Permanent attraction

Above: pathway near the viewing pavilion. All photos: SF.

Below: looking in through the main gate.


Below: view across the pond towards the arched bridge; there are carp in the water, and you can see the main gate again, this time from the inside.


Below: view from the arched bridge, looking towards the second bridge; you can enjoy the contrast between the trees and the local office block architecture.


Below: five-storey stone pagoda, donated by the City of Toyonaka.


Below: plaque on the pagoda.


Below: waterfall.

Below: reflections on the water; contrasting arrangements of rocks.

Below: the second bridge.


Below: many shades of green.


Below: pine trees.


Below: view looking back to the second bridge; you can see the arched bridge in the background.