Blending the Traditional with the Modern according to Takashi Murakami. Post MFA Boston Visit Reflections
To say that the art of Takashi Murakami is eccentric is without a doubt a huge understatement. With a fine blend of traditional Japanese art and modern day pop art, Murakami mixes, not only the old and the new, but elements of the high art and the low art in ways that leads spectators to another level of imagination. From October 18th, 2017 to April 1st, 2018, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston presented an exhibition entitled Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics, which featured a selection of traditional Japanese art from the museum's own collection and a selection of pieces created by Murakami himself.
At first, it seems like the most unlikely combination one could dream up of, but given the context of the rich history behind the arts of Japan and how it shaped the Japanese pop culture of the 21st century, the meaning behind the art of Murakami becomes clearer. The exhibition, fittingly titled Lineage of Eccentrics showcases the heritage Murakami's art depicts through a display of his own works and which traditional pieces influenced them. On one side, museum visitors will see a piece of traditional Japanese art and next to it, a piece created by Murakami himself that borrows from it, mixed with vibrant colors and his signature cartoon (anime) character art. For example, the 17th century folding screen, Poppies from the School of Tawaraya Sōtatsu is among the featured pieces from the MFA's collection. The materials used to create it consists of gold-leafed paper, ink and color paint. Looking to the wall on the right, viewers would see Murakami's rendition, titled Kawaii - Vacances (Summer Vacation in the Kingdom of the Golden) circa 2008, in which one of the materials similarly consists of gold-leafed paper. In contrast to Poppies, the flowers are made with acrylic. Also, the flowers depicted in Poppies are rendered with a slight sense of simplicity, yet more realistically detailed while set in front of a spacious golden background. Murakami's Kawaii - Vacances flowers are arranged in a similar fashion as the ones from Poppies in that they are also in front of a golden spacious backdrop (with clouds behind them in contrast). Unlike the more realistically rendered Poppies, Kawaii - Vacances features flat lined multi-colored anthropomorphic cartoon-like flowers with smiling faces.
So what is it about the collection that makes it so appealing? What possible sort of cultural significance could an art form known for blurring the lines between high traditional art and low commercial art have to offer? Why does something 'commercialized' even need to draw from traditional art? For artists who want to learn how to create his/her signature style, Murakami sets a superb example of how to do it. Because he is both a fine artist as well as a commercial artist, he knows how to build from the arts of the past and offer new insights into them with a modern twist. Without drawing from the traditional arts of Japan as a foundation, the response to post WWII Japan would be very disconnected. To delve into specific detail, when taking Murakami's early career into account, it's known that he is a fan of anime and manga. Even so, at one point, he had dreams of working in the animation industry. Although initially he went to school to garner the skills for it, his career focus shifted and thus majored in the art of Nihonga (traditional Japanese paintings dating back to 1900), instead. Despite earning his Ph.D, he became disenchanted with the art of Nihonga due to its overtly political nature. As a result, he went on to expand his artistic boundaries. The main set back he could see in modern Japanese art was that there was a major focus on incorporating Western trends, which his 90's projects would satirize, receiving less favorable reviews in Japan. Murakami did however, receive a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) in 1994 and traveled to New York City as part of a studio program from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). While he was living in the city, he discovered modern Western contemporary artists and became influenced by their works. The works of Jeff Koons and Anselm Kiefer stood out the most for Murakami. Upon his return to Japan, Murakami defined his signature artistic practices and showcased his recent works at major exhibitions in Europe and the United States. By establishing a cultural foundation for himself as an artist both in the West and Japan, Murakami could take full control over his work and build his own market.
Once he was already well rooted in the high arts, he started to blend the "low" arts of Japanese subculture such as manga and anime into the mix. Eventually, he coined the term, Superflat in 2000, which is a term to describe the 2D flatness of traditional Japanese art and anime and manga. The term, Superflat also takes on an array of other meanings as well, such as the superficial nature of the consumer culture in Japan. It also represents Japan's post-war society, where according to Murakami, trends and various social classes were geared towards flatness, by which he means that after WWII, tastes regarding what can be defined as 'high' and 'low' art have been blurred. When asked about the over commercialization of today's art market in a 2007 interview with BLOUIN ARTINFO, Murakami's response is as follows:
"It's always funny when people say this, because it sounds like they don't understand what a "market" is. Isn't it a place to buy and sell? Personally, I think that the more commercialized the art market, the easier it is to understand strategically. I do appreciate all different kinds of art, though; just like I appreciate all different kinds of people. There are some people who compete in the commercial arena and there are some who abide by more personal, spiritual or idealistic guidelines. If done well, both can be equally satisfying".
And when asked if there is a risk involved in 'straddl[ing] between art and commercial products', Murakami replies:
"I don't think of it as straddling. I think of it as changing the line. What I've been talking about for years is how in Japan, that line is less defined. Both by the culture and by the past-War economic situation. Japanese people accept that art and commerce will be blended; and in fact, they are surprised by the rigid and pretentious Western hierarchy of "high art." In the West, it certainly is dangerous to blend the two because people will throw all sorts of stones. But that's okay - I'm ready with my hard hat".
To summarize Murakami's statements as well as his experiences throughout his career, whether artists are meeting the criteria of 'high' art or 'low' art, either way, they are all in it to market and sell their works. Regardless of their values represented in their art, all artists are marketing and branding themselves every time they put their work out into the public eye. In either case, if the art the artists are selling display a level of craftsmanship and a solid understanding of stylization, the end results that come of their efforts are truly rewarding. As for the 'straddling' effect, Murakami deftly puts it that in port-War Japan, both 'high' and 'low' art intertwine and receive an equal amount of respect and acceptance. Blending the 'high' and 'low' art in the United States on the other hand, often receives a negative reaction and thus, are seen as separate.
Returning to the question of what possible cultural significance could art blurring the lines between high traditional art and low commercial art have to offer and why would commercial art even be drawn from traditional art, it all boils down to a deep rooted connection to one's own heritage and that the commercial world would never have existed without such a rich history. As bizarre as the works of Takashi Murakami tend to be, when given context from the traditional art of Japan, the branded art contains a deeper meaning behind it. Murakami demonstrates that without that connection and understanding of cultural heritage, what is defined as commercial art wouldn't have a platform to stand on. Even so, in order for artists to come up with a signature style, (as discussed in my previous blog post), understanding that lineage is what gives the artist's effort a significance. It is truly quite surprising to see how much of commercialized art came to be as a result of art history and Murakami as both a branded business man and traditional artist proves it best.
I’ll admit, I’m not a big fan of early 20th century art, but from Cubism to the Dada movement to Surrealism, no one can deny the art of the time had a major influence in the art world going forward and into the 21st century. Throughout those years, the definition of what constitutes as art became immensely loose as artists in the late 19th and early 20th century were drifting away from the classical art to the absurd, often being subversive in their pieces. Before World War I, from the Neo-Impressionist works of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac to the Post-Impressionism of Vincent Van Gogh to the Fauvism works of Henri Matisse, leading up to the works of Pablo Picasso, the craftsmanship of the classical art was slowly starting to decline in favor of more free-flowing types of art styles and movements.
Taking place after the first World War began, the Dada movement originated as a reactionary response to, not only the war itself, but to traditional values in art and modern capitalist society as well. The Dada movement as defined according to manraytrust.com, is “[a] European artistic movement (1916-1923) that flouted conventional aesthetic and cultural values by producing works marked by nonsense, travesty, and incongruity”. With that definition of Dadaism in mind, the movement steered away from the complexities, beauty and logical to the carefree and put forth that anything, - just anything - can be considered ‘art’. Alongside Marcel Duchamp (who infamously signed and dated a urinal, which he titled, Fountain (1917) to emphasize the anything-can-be-art/anti-art mentality), Pablo Picasso and Man Ray were also prominent figures in the movement. After WWI and the start of the 1920’s, the Dada movement was phased out by Surrealism, which evolved from Dadaism and continued to display similar traits and mindsets. While practices of Surrealism also consisted the anti-art mentality of Dadaism, it distinguished itself from the previous movement by putting more emphasis on dreams and the unconscious mind. Amongst the major figures in the Surrealist movement were Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Rene Magritte. Breton was a Surrealist writer and poet and was known as the founder of the movement. Dali was a painter, illustrator and sculptor. Ernst was also known for his paintings and sculptures and Magritte was also a painter. While the main figures of the Surrealist movement were, no doubt influential, the works of Man Ray set fourth new, innovative ways to depict such absurdities and illusions to the art movement, not only through photography, but via the art of photogram (camera-less photography).
Although the art of photogram had existed decades prior to Man Ray’s time, Man Ray used the medium to his advantage to display his signature dream-like illusions. Referred to as rayographs, Man Ray’s subjects consisted of everyday items and would utilize his composition in rather peculiar and imaginative ways. Take for example, a pair of scissors, a nail filer and a strip of film and those ordinary objects would be arranged to depict a surreal, image that looked like it was derived from a dream.
Other photographic techniques Man Ray was known for was the thick black lining of the people he photographed. At first glance, it appeared that he used ink on the images, when in reality, he created this technique via solarization. In a translated interview from the documentary, The Adventure of Photography from Kultur Video, Man Ray stated it was “a method of re exposing a print to light during the development stage to produce unearthly pictures of people with mysterious halos” and that it was “a matter of luck” at first. Eventually it became a repeated process and after several experiments, he refined the technique that it became old hat.
While the Surrealist movement may have been primarily a literary one, and paintings and sculptures were also other predominant forms of media used to depict this bizarre art style, the influence of Man Ray’s photography is important to note when delving into the history of the movement. As other artists of the period were known for their roles in influencing Surrealism through such art forms, Man Ray was a main driving force for photography in which he brought something truly unique to the table. With his outlandish approaches to camera less photography and his quirky techniques he developed using the camera, there’s no denying Man Ray was also of a creative and innovative mind in his medium. Whether the viewer deems it art or ‘anti-art’, the craftsmanship behind Man Ray’s works merits its place in art history.
Ever (re)discovered new facts about any art form or part of pop culture that you thought you knew before and realized there might be more to the story than what meets the eye? The Blog section debunks common expectations and assumptions in the art world.