Japanese Photography at SFMOMA

image shomei tomatsu

I was recently at SFMOMA, my first visit since it reopened last summer after a big three-year renovation project. My eye was drawn to this exhibition of Japanese photography, a thematic presentation, over many rooms, of works drawn entirely from the museum’s collections. It was a powerful and eye-opening exhibit, to which I gladly devoted most of my visit.

Postwar Japan saw the rise of many important photographers, whose work charts their response to contemporary themes such as urbanisation, industrialisation, or Japan’s relationship with America. For instance, Shomei Tomatsu (1930-2012) produced a series called Protest, Tokyo, in which he tackled protests against the American military presence in Japan, and its involvement in the Vietnam War.

Others have focused on the atomic explosion in Hiroshima. Takashi Arai (b.1978) presents a daguerreotype of a piano that survived the Hiroshima explosion in his work Misako’s Hibaku Piano, Daigo Fukuryu Main Exhibition Hall, Tokyo. The use of this technique from the 19th century heightens the ghostly quality of the image: this instrument is something that survived when so much was lost. Miyako Ishiuchi (b. 1947) makes pictures of garments from the victims of the Hiroshima bombing, and they too co-opt the viewer in an act of quiet mourning or remembrance.

Later on, the show explores how photographers have responded to disasters, including the Fukushima nuclear power plant explosion in 2011. For example, Shimpei Takeda (b.1982) travelled around the Fukushima region, collecting soil samples which he packed in unexposed photographic paper for one month. The resulting papers reveal traces of radiation and are displayed as photographic prints.

The show does of course include many images that are not concerned with these headline, soul-shaking events: the natural world, portraits of people and places, cityscapes. These too are of great interest, yet for me it was the inclusion of the more provocative, context-driven material that elevated this exhibition to something well above the ordinary. Highly recommended.

Japanese Photography from Postwar to Now
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
15 October 2016 to 12 March 2017

Above: Shomei Tomatsu, Untitled, from the series Protest, Tokyo, 1969, printed 1974. Gelatin silver print. Height 20.64cm; width 30.96cm. SFMOMA. Image: Shomei Tomatsu – Interface, at https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/2006.192.A

Below: Takashi Arai, Misako’s Hibaku Piano, Daigo Fukuryu Main Exhibition Hall, Tokyo, from the series Exposed in a Hundred Suns, 2012. Daguerreotype. Height 25.2cm; width 19.3cm. SFMOMA. Image: Takashi Arai, at https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/PH14.046

image takashi arai

Below: Miyako Ishiuchi, hiroshima #71, 2007, printed 2016. SFMOMA. Image: Miyako Ishiuchi, at https://www.sfmoma.org/exhibition/japanese-photography-postwar-now/

image miyako ishiuchi

Below: Shimpei Takeda, Trace #10, Iwase General Hospital, 2012. Gelatin silver print. Height 40.32cm; width 50.17cm. SFMOMA. Image: Shimpei Takeda, at https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/2015.146

image shimpei takeda

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, Flask, ca. 1968. Stoneware. Crocker Art Museum.


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


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.


Books: Listening to Stone by Hayden Herrera

book cover listening to stone

Sometimes it’s a joy to try something different. I knew next to nothing of the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), when I picked up this recent biography by Hayden Herrera. It was a gamble of sorts, given that the book runs to nearly 600 pages, but I am glad I persevered.

Herrera covers the artist’s life story in extreme detail, drawing on archive research and interviews with those who knew him, especially Priscilla Morgan, his partner in later life. This gives a very full picture and presents the biographer with certain challenges.

The action moves backwards and forwards between different countries. There are so many love affairs I lost count (and interest), and numerous professional false starts. On five separate occasions he creates designs for different children’s playgrounds, only to have the projects (yes, all five) cancelled at the planning stage. I found the first third of the book much the slowest and enjoyed the reading more as I went on.

What really lifts this tome are the discussions of the sculpture and other works, including the set designs for Martha Graham and the Japanese-inspired gardens, such as the garden for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Herrera excels in her vivid descriptions and her crisp approach to interpretation. The pieces are mainly abstract, but she tells you where to look for a bird’s beak or a person’s arm, and these gentle hints enlarge your understanding, even from within the confines of a black and white photograph.

She also draws out certain lifelong themes in Noguchi’s artistic career: the tension between his American and Japanese backgrounds; his focus on the natural world; and his notion of sculpture as the shaping of space. Had this been a monograph, we could have had an essay on each of these, but instead Herrera lets them surface naturally, sticking to a chronological approach that can feel repetitive but is also more organic, more like real life.

Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi
Hayden Herrera, 2015.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pages.
$40.00 (hardcover); $25.00 (paperback).

Chinese chicks for Easter

an lin chicks

These lively chicks are the work of An Lin (b. 1930), an artist from Chengdu, Sichuan Province. She studied at the Sichuan Art Academy and is a member of the Chinese Artists’ Association. This is a shuiyin print – a woodcut printed in water-soluble ink.

I saw this print one year ago at the Ashmolean Museum, where it was included in their exhibition Michael Sullivan: A Life of Art and Friendship. Michael Sullivan received this work as a gift from the artist in Hangzhou in 1980.

I love how the delicate shading on the little birds conveys a sense of their lightness and fluffiness. The contrast between the pale tops of their heads and the much darker backdrop makes the image all the more vivid, and hints at their vulnerability. Still, the image has a very dynamic quality. You can imagine their quick movements and soft sounds – especially the characterful trio in the upper-left section, who seem to be interacting in a most human fashion.

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Permanent collection

This work is currently in the research collection but can be viewed online.

Above: An Lin, Chicks, 1980. Colour woodcut print on paper. Height 27.8cm; width 32.5 cm. Ashmolean Museum. Image: Ashmolean Museum, at http://jameelcentre.ashmolean.org/object/LI2022.423.

Books: Shanghai Art of the City

pic cover shanghai

This lavish hardback gives a fascinating account of Shanghai’s visual culture in the 20th century, starting with the China Trade paintings of the 1850s (topographical works that showed the premises of important companies) and finishing with video material from the early 2000s. Published to accompany the 2010 exhibition “Shanghai” at the Asian Art Museum, it still works very well as a stand-alone guide.

This was of course a hugely turbulent phase in Shanghai’s history. The Japanese occupied the city during the Sino-Japanese war, first the Chinese sector in 1937, then the foreign concessions in 1941. After the Communist Party took power in 1949, Shanghai artists were not initially too much affected. However, this changed as the authorities relocated art academies away from Shanghai in the early 1950s, and later instigated the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), with devastating effects on artists and artistic practice.

The book presents material from every decade and in a variety of media: traditional ink painting, Western-inspired painting by artists such as Lin Fengmian (1900-1991) and Xu Beihong (1895-1953), propaganda posters, woodcuts and more.

I especially enjoyed the selections from the 1930s, including photographs of 1930s buildings, Shanghai Deco furniture, wool rugs, magazine covers and posters of 1930s beauties. I was also curious to read up on contemporary artists featured in the Saatchi Gallery’s recent “Post Pop” show, such as Zhou Tiehai (b. 1966) and Liu Dahong (b. 1962).

I felt that the essays varied somewhat in quality, and that there was repetition of the historical material – perhaps unavoidable with art that is politically charged. But this volume is bursting with pictures and definitely recommended.

Shanghai Art of the City
Michael Knight & Dany Chan, 2010.
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 284 pp.

This book was received as a gift from family!

Post Pop at the Saatchi Gallery

ai weiwei sofa in white

I was last at the Saatchi Gallery for the Korean Eye show in 2012. But I was no less intrigued by their current offering, which looks at the spread of the Pop Art movement, especially its impact on the Soviet Union and China.

The exhibition is organised thematically, with artists from East and West shown side by side. But an artist can cover multiple themes, meaning different works by the same artist end up at opposite ends of the exhibition.

From Ai Weiwei (b.1957), we find Sofa in White (a marble armchair) under the “Habitat” theme, while Coloured Vases (Han dynasty vases covered in spray paint) is assigned to the “Art History” theme. I enjoyed comparing this presentation of his work with the Blenheim Palace exhibit of 2014, which featured some similar pieces – they had more visual impact in the all-white exhibition space but they felt less playful somehow.

Artists from China and Taiwan feature prominently in the section on “Advertising & Consumerism”. Wang Guangyi (b.1957) in his Great Criticism series combines Western consumer brands such as Benetton and Swatch with Chinese propaganda images, intimating their similarity of purpose. Michael Lin (b.1964) in his large acrylic paintings focuses on the presentation of individual Chinese brands, evoking the seductive power of marketing.

Also popular were the themes of “Ideology & Religion”, where Christian iconography butts up against Communist propaganda. I was drawn, though, to something more contemplative – Confucius’s Confusion, by Mei Dean-E (b.1954), a large textile piece in which the man’s beard flows out across the floor in great piles of white and black thread. There was one truly unnerving piece in this section, but by Russian artist Sergey Shutov, so I shan’t spoil the surprise.

This is a stimulating show, no question, but moments of aesthetic delight are rare. One notable exception is the installation United Nations – Man and Space by Gu Wenda (b.1955), best described as a huge cloth pavilion made of flags, where each flag is rendered from skeins of human hair. I’m not clear why this is Pop Art, but the lighting is just magical.

Post Pop: East Meets West
Saatchi Gallery, London
26 November 2014 to 3 March 2015

Above: Ai Weiwei, Sofa in White, 2011. Marble. Private collection. Photo: STF.

Below: Ai Weiwei, Coloured Vases, 2007-10. Han dynasty vases and industrial paint. Photo: STF.
ai weiwei coloured vases

Below: Wang Guangyi, Great Criticism: Swatch and Great Criticism: Pop, 1992. Oil on two canvases. Overall dimensions: height 250cm; width 360cm. Photo: STF.
wang guangyi great criticism

Below: Michael Lin, Yunnan Puer Tea, 2007. Acrylic on canvas. Height 300cm; width 200cm. Leo Xu Projects. Photo: STF.
michael lin yunnan puer tea

Below: Mei Dean-E, Confucius’s Confusion, 2003. Installation, mixed media. The National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts. Photo: STF.
mei dean-e confucius's confession

Below: Gu Wenda, United Nations – Man and Space, 1999-2000. Human hair, white glue, burlap. Photo: STF.
gu wenda united nations

Celebrating Fang Zhaoling: Chinese paintings at the Ashmolean

fang zhaoling plum

The Ashmolean is celebrating the life of Chinese artist Fang Zhaoling (1914-2006) with an exhibition of paintings drawn from several private collections. She studied at different times with the Lingnan School master, Zhao Shao’ang (1905–1998), and the celebrated Zhang Daqian (1899–1983).

It is fascinating to see works from throughout her life, and the variation in style. The unrestrained splashing of the ink in works from the 1960s such as Plum Blossom and Abstraction gives way to a more controlled, conscious simplicity, seen in Mount Hua Landscape, painted on a trip to western China in 1973.

She also developed a practice of layering multiple washes of ink and colour, as seen in two later works, the dramatic Flowering Branches on Cliffs (1978) and Spring Returns to the World (1987).

Fang Zhaoling: A Centenary Exhibition
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
2 October 2014 to 22 February 2015

Above: Fang Zhaoling, Plum Blossom, 1961. Ink and colour on paper. Height 47cm; width 42 cm. Private collection. Image: Ashmolean Museum, at http://wsimag.com/art/10784-fang-zhaoling.

Below: Fang Zhaoling, Mount Hua Landscape, Spring 1973. Ink and colour on paper. Height 42cm; width 69.1 cm. Private collection. Image: Ashmolean Museum, at http://wsimag.com/art/10784-fang-zhaoling.

fang zhaoling scenery

Below: Fang Zhaoling, Flowering Branches on Cliffs, 1978. Ink and colour on paper. Height 68.6cm; width 88.9 cm. Private collection. Image: Ashmolean Museum, at http://wsimag.com/art/10784-fang-zhaoling.

fang zhaoling cliffs

Modern Chinese art from the Sullivan collection

Abstraction 1989
As ever, I enjoyed the Ashmolean’s latest selection of modern Chinese art. This display commemorates the art historian Michael Sullivan, who died last year and bequeathed to the museum the collection of over 400 works that he had built with his wife Khoan.

Zhang Daqian is well-represented, from his Figure of a Lady Reading a Poem (1935), to flower paintings such as Old Plum Branch with Young Shoots (1965) and Lotus (1978), to landscapes such as Blue and Green Landscape (1975) and River Landscape (1975).

Numerous other artists make an appearance.  I was happy to spot Abstraction (1989) by Zhao Wuji (Zao Wou-Ki), whose dreamy work I first encountered at ART14 London.  A more historical perspective emerges in Lu Sibai’s Street in Chongqing after Japanese Bombing, the first work to enter the collection, or Lui Shou-Kwan’s Houses and Squatters’ Huts on Hong Kong (1967).

Michael Sullivan: A Life of Art and Friendship
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
11 March to 14 September 2014

There is an online version of the exhibition.

Above: Zhao Wuji (Zao Wou-Ki), Abstraction, 1989. Lithograph. Height 21.3cm; width 15.8cm. Ashmolean Museum. Image: http://jameelcentre.ashmolean.org/collection/8/object/15074.

Lingnan School paintings at the Ashmolean

Kapok Flower

Chinese paintings from the Lingnan region can be seen at the Ashmolean until later this month.  “Lingnan” refers to Cantonese-speaking south China, including Guangdong and Hong Kong.  In the early 20th century, the Lingnan School sought to innovate and experiment, not always following the existing practices of traditional Chinese painting.

The three artists leading the movement were from Guangdong: two brothers, Gao Jianfu (1879-1951) and Gao Qifeng (1889-1933), and their friend Chen Shuren (1884-1948).  All three spent time studying painting in Japan, where they took inspiration from Japanese painters who had adopted more Western styles.  Their approach drew criticism from more traditional artists.

The display presents works by the “Three Masters”, their followers and other artists.  The challenge with this material seems to be around communicating both that there is an artistic lineage (suggesting similarity) and that the output is extremely varied (suggesting difference).  In my mind, variety won the day – variety of formats, styles and subjects, from figure painting and flower painting to landscapes and calligraphy.

Among the more modern pieces is Kapok Flower by Zhao Shao’ang (1905-1998), who studied under Gao Qifeng.  The brilliant colour and bold fluidity of the brushwork make this hugely appealing.

Lingnan Masters: South Chinese Painting in Transition
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
29 November 2013 to 23 February 2014

There is an online version of the exhibition.

Above: Zhao Shao’ang, Kapok Flower, 1978. Ink and colour on paper. Height: 29.4cm; width: 37.8cm. Ashmolean Museum. Image: artist’s estate, at http://jameelcentre.ashmolean.org/collection/6980/16164/16175.