Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA)
Boston, MA, USA
Until 1 April 2018

“Eccentricity has a long history in Japanese art, and Murakami has revived and carried on the tradition. I hope that after seeing this exhibition, people will get a feel for the truly deep connection that exists between the past and the present.” Nobuo Tsuji, art historian

Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics highlights a collaboration of a different kind, revealing how the artist’s vision is also guided by an in-depth exploration of the past, fostered by his mentor, the eminent Japanese art historian Professor Nobuo Tsuji.

The exhibition, on view through April 1, 2018, juxtaposes 12 works by Murakami with more than 30 treasures from the MFA’s unparalleled collection of Japanese art—the finest outside of Japan—selected by the artist, Tsuji and Anne Nishimura Morse, William and Helen Pounds Senior Curator of Japanese Art.

Never-before-seen works include Murakami’s Transcendent Attacking a Whirlwind (2017), a large-scale painting created especially for the exhibition, and Dragon in Clouds—Red Mutation (2010), created within a 24-hour period as a response to a challenge from Tsuji. The 59-foot-long composition is displayed dramatically near its source of inspiration—the MFA’s 35-foot-long Dragon and Clouds (1763) by Soga Shōhaku, an eccentric artist deeply admired by Murakami.

The exhibition builds on longstanding relationships among Murakami, Tsuji and the MFA. Perhaps the most authoritative voice for Japanese art in Japan, Tsuji published the groundbreaking book Lineage of Eccentrics (1970), which has inspired generations of artists and art historians—including Murakami and Morse. As a resident scholar, Tsuji spent more than a decade working with Morse on a project to re-catalogue the Museum’s extensive collection of art from Japan, which encompasses nearly 100,000 objects. Committed to showcasing Japanese art from all genres and time periods, the MFA presented Takashi Murakami: Made in Japan in 2001, marking the artist’s first solo exhibition at a major U.S. museum. Since then, Murakami’s art has evolved with guidance from Tsuji, who has challenged the artist to gain a deeper understanding of traditional art and pressed him to undertake personally challenging projects—several examples of which are on view in Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics.

The exhibition opens with Transcendent Attacking a Whirlwind (2017), a new work that debuted at the MFA. Nearly 33 feet long, the painting draws inspiration from a six-panel folding screen of the same title, created by Soga Shōhaku in about 1764 and now in the MFA’s collection. Shōhaku is one of the six artists from the Edo period (1615–1868) whose careers and contributions are highlighted in Tsuji’s Lineage of Eccentrics, united by their unorthodox approaches to painting. Profoundly impacted by the book, Murakami now describes himself as a “spiritual heir” to Shōhaku, whose exuberant use of ink went far beyond anything seen earlier than the 18th century. With Tsuji’s encouragement, Murakami has been able to effectively challenge Shōhaku’s energy, presenting his own bold and unconventional compositions.

Organized thematically into six sections, the exhibition begins with an exploration of Murakami’s signature concept of “Superflat,” followed by five galleries that contextualize his work according to Tsuji’s principles of Japanese art history: animation, kazari(ornamentation), asobi (playfulness), religiosity and eccentricity.

Murakami’s Superflat Manifesto, issued in 2000, is a bold statement about his artistic approach. With Tsuji’s Lineage of Eccentrics providing critical inspiration, Murakami coined the term “Superflat” to articulate the visual strategy of extremely compressing the space between three-dimensional objects within a picture, as well as to describe the metaphorical flattening of distinctions between “high art” and “low art.” This section of the exhibition includes historical works that demonstrate intentional flattening of the composition, juxtaposed with works from Murakami’s early career.
Dragon and Tiger (late 1770s), a pair of hanging scrolls by Shōhaku, presents bizarre interpretations—almost comic-like simplifications—of the two animals, which are traditional motifs in Japanese painting. The swirl of clouds/water underneath the dragon, rendered by a majestic sweep of the brush, is a motif that Murakami has grown fond of incorporating into his own work. In White Cockatoo on a Pine Branch (late 18th century), Itō Jakuchū meticulously handled the cockatoo’s individual feathers, delicately built up in layers of shell white. In contrast, he attacked the silk with broad strokes of ink to depict the pines, creating an abstract, yet energized setting for the refined bird. The exquisite painting visually shifts back and forth between two and three dimensions, in a manner that can frequently be found in Murakami’s paintings.

Murakami’s paintings And then, and then and then and then and then/Green Truth (2006) and And then, and then and then and then and then/Original Blue (2006) introduce Mr. DOB, a mouse-like figure created by the artist in 1993 as an effort to create an iconography for which he could be immediately identified. Combining features of Doraemon and Sonic the Hedgehog, two popular Japanese cartoon figures, Mr. DOB has evolved into an enduring symbol of Murakami’s union of artistic and commercial forces, appearing as the subject of everything from monumental paintings to widely available merchandise. The 26-foot-long canvas Impossible Aim (1994) places Mr. DOB inside a narrative adapted from a 12th-century anecdote that Murakami learned from Tsuji, about a priest named Gisei. According to the story, Gisei, a master of oko—a genre of improvisational caricatures that was popular at the time—was once presented with a long, blank handscroll and pressured into composing something. He responded by drawing a person shooting an arrow at one end and a target at the other. In between, he added a single, continuous line to represent the arrow in flight—freezing a moving object in a two-dimensional painting. In Murakami’s composition, one Mr. DOB appears at the left edge, twanging a bow in his hand, while another appears at the right edge, darting from an arrow flying directly at him. No line appears between them—instead, Murakami left a vast expanse of silver leaf, asserting the flat, but shimmering surface as a critical element of the narrative.

Murakami sees his paintings as belonging to a lineage that includes not only eccentric artists from the 17th to the 19th centuries, but also contemporary Japanese anime directors. Visual strategies observed in anime can be traced back to 12th- and 13th-century handscrolls—a view frequently noted by Tsuji. In these historical works, the narrative is composed across multiple sheets of joined paper, read from right to left as the scroll is unrolled. Since the artists were obligated to fit their compositions within the borders of the narrow sheets, the format lent itself to a sequential presentation of the passage of time and a compression of space. In many of these handscrolls, devices such as the repetition of figures or architectural elements and whirring of carriage wheels create a cinematic effect.

The MFA’s Night Attack on the Sanjō Palace from the Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era (second half of the 13th century) is universally acclaimed as the most powerful battle scene in all of Japanese art. Nearly 23 feet long, the handscroll chronicles Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa’s violent abduction from his palace in 1159, during the Heiji Rebellion—one of a number of civil wars in the second half of the 12th century that marked the end of aristocratic rule and the rise of governance by military. Progressing in time and space, the scroll begins at right with a text describing an early-morning attack by several hundred warriors under the leadership of the upstart courtier Fujiwara no Nobuyori and his henchman Minamoto no Yoshitomo. The illustration that follows heightens the drama by setting forth the events in one continuous visual narrative.

Medieval handscrolls like Night Attack on the Sanjō Palace were created by groups of artists led by a master, who conceived the original composition. Specialists were tasked with architectural details and the representation of human figures and animals. Similarly, Murakami directs the production of his large-scale works by providing the initial design, then delegating the execution of the paintings’ details to members of his Kaikai Kiki studio, located outside of Tokyo, while carefully supervising the production of the canvases. To demonstrate this aspect of Murakami’s creative process and the instrumental contributions of his studio, this section features preparatory sketches for his painting In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow(2014), in the collection of The Broad in Los Angeles.

The concept of kazari, which translates to “will to decorate,” has been championed by Tsuji as a core element of Japanese art. For him, it involves not just the physical adornment of an object, but also the transformation of an object or space into something extraordinary that can put viewers into contact with the transcendent. Since the 11th or 12th century, Japanese artists have drawn upon familiar things close at hand—in particular, motifs from the natural world that include flowers, trees, insects and shells. Tsuji believes that decorative imagery of this type has the potential to connect viewers with the spirituality of nature.

Kazari may be seen as an elevated form of installation art. One of its primary manifestations is the creation of artistic environments that can include paintings as part of a larger program, accompanied by decorative objects. Kawaii—Vacances: Summer Vacation in the Kingdom of the Golden (2010), originally designed by Murakami as part of a display at Versailles in 2010, has been recreated for the MFA. The ensemble features a monumental painting with a band of happy-faced flowers set across a background of gold leaf, illuminated by three flowered stained-glass lamps and set off by a similarly patterned floor covering.

Murakami was formally trained in Nihonga—paintings that are produced using traditional materials and techniques. In graduate school, he studied many large-scale floral compositions from the 16th and 17th centuries. Strong affinities exist between Murakami’s Kawaii—Vacances and the MFA’s Poppies (17th century, School of Tawaraya Sōtatsu). Emphasizing sumptuous visuals over narrative content, both works share a lavish use of gold and highly saturated colors, in compositions that call attention to the surface of the picture plane.

Asobi—playfulness—has continuously sustained and stimulated Japanese art, according to Tsuji. The selection of historical works in this section demonstrates various manifestations of the playful spirit throughout time, from the bustle of activity in Hishikawa Moronobu’s Scenes from the Nakamura Kabuki Theater (1684–1704) to a neck-pulling contest in Shōhaku’s Asahina in a Tug-of-war with a Demon (1763–64) to merry-making skeletons in Kawanabe Kyōsai’s Hell Courtesan (about 1870s–80s). With the introduction of Western art in Japan in the 19th century, seriousness became more dominant in the arts. However, the popularity of manga today testifies to the vitality of the Japanese playful tradition, which in turn has provided inspiration for Murakami.

The humorous, face-making Kaikai and Kiki are, in a sense, Murakami’s artistic ambassadors. They have been part of his iconography since 2000, beginning with just Kiki (with rounded mouse ears and Cyclopean third eye), born out of an interaction with an intellectually challenged child, and followed by Kaikai (with his rabbit ears) as his companion. Lots, Lots of Kaikai and Kiki (2009) abounds with multiple images of the signature monsters, set against a background of smiling flowers. Traditional representations of monsters in Japanese art also appear in the gallery, as well as a group of netsuke (miniature carvings worn as accessories by fashionable men) and okimono (purely decorative objects) in the shape of imaginary animals, ghosts, demons and monsters.

The earliest Japanese worshipped spirits that they found in mountains, rivers, trees, rocks and other natural forms. According to Tsuji, such animistic beliefs, which came to be known as Shinto, constitute the core of the Japanese religious experience. Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century and absorbed a number of indigenous animistic practices over time. Particularly since the disasters of March 11, 2011—the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown—that afflicted Japan, Murakami has explored the idea of impermanence, the transience of life, that is central to both Shinto and Buddhism.

According to Murakami, religions must change dramatically in order to remain relevant to new generations, and the forms of deities, therefore, must also mutate. Historically, images of the Buddha throughout Asia have been shown with a standard iconography, embodied by Shaka, the Historical Buddha (late 10th-early 11th centuries) from the MFA’s collection. The sculpture shows the Buddha in traditional form, seated in a posture of meditation, with his right hand held in the gesture of reassurance. Customarily, the Buddha sits on a lotus pedestal, symbolizing his purity in the mundane world. The lotus petals of Shaka, however have not been preserved, leaving an uncharacterized geometry in their midst. In 2001, when Murakami first toured the MFA’s collection, he was immediately taken by the unusual form of the base and has since adopted it for the pedestal of his Oval Buddha Silver (2008–11). Murakami’s Buddha is double faced: one side, with lowered eyes and a vacant expression, sports appendages erupting from its cheeks and a goatee on its chin; the other has a wide-open mouth with leering fangs, reminiscent of some of the artist’s Mr. DOB figures. Unlike the perfect proportions of traditional Buddhas, Murakami’s deity has an oversized head and a small, frog-like body with a distended stomach.

In 2007, Murakami turned to Zen Buddhism as a theme for a series of paintings that includes “I open wide my eyes but see no scenery, I fix my gaze upon my heart.” The Zen sect traces its legendary beginnings to the 6th-century monk Bodhdharma (Daruma in Japanese), who traveled from India to the Shaolin monastery in China. For nine years, he stood before a rock cave, so deep in meditation that his legs and arms atrophied. Finding himself distracted by sleep, Bodhdharma cut off his eyelids. While Zen Buddhism has eschewed devotional paintings, portraits of Bodhdharma have long provided aspiring practitioners with exemplars in their paths to enlightenment. Normally, artists have portrayed the figure with spare calligraphic strokes on paper, but Murakami’s painting reinterprets the subject with highly saturated colors and a luxurious platinum leaf ground. It appears in the gallery juxtaposed with Bodhidharma (Daruma) on a Reed, a 14th-century hanging scroll from the MFA’s collection that offers yet another interpretation, depicting the monk with a bushy beard and gold earrings.

The final section of the exhibition dramatically presents Murakami’s never-before-seen Dragon in Clouds—Red Mutation: The version I painted myself I annoyance after Professor Tsuji told me, “Why don’t you paint something yourself for once?” (2010) in the same space as several works by Shōhaku, including the masterpiece Dragon and Clouds (1763).

The painting has long been a looming presence in Murakami’s artistic imagination. Early in his career, he saw it reproduced in Tsuji’s Lineage of Eccentrics. Many years later, Tsuji challenged Murakami to reinterpret Shōhaku’s dragon as part of Battle Royale!—a series of intellectual “jousts” during which Tsuji provided a painting, object or idea and prompted Murakami to create a response in the form of a new work of art. He completed his interpretation of the 35-foot-long Dragon and Clouds within a 24-hour period, producing a rendition—all in red—that spans nearly 60 feet.
Shōhaku brought his own dynamism to the execution of his masterpiece, with forceful brushstrokes that sweep across the vast surface of the painting. Murakami’s Red Mutation captures these same qualities, with explosions of pigment flying at the canvas—an unprecedented investment of his physical being in the canvas. While Dragon and Clouds provided the primary inspiration for Murakami’s rendition, he also drew upon diverse pre-modern and contemporary sources, some Japanese and some Western, including paintings by Katsushika Hokusai and Kawanabe Kyōsai and the watercolor The Great Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun by English artist and poet William Blake. The final composition reflects an internalization of the art historical past that separates this undertaking from Murakami’s previous work and establishes his claims to be the most recent member of the “lineage of eccentrics.”

Takashi Murakami
Dragon in Clouds—Red Mutation: The version I painted myself in annoyance after Professor Nobuo Tsuji told me, “Why don’t you paint something yourself for once?” (detail), 2010