Home > Entertainment > Art
  print button email button

Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008

Many forms from the 'zoology of the Maker'

Special to The Japan Times

Mankind has long been fascinated in representing animals. In Paleolithic art, humans hardly even figured. Yet, in contrast to the upheavals in representation visited upon art in the 20th century, the pantheistic bestiary of bison, horse and mammoth has endured millenniums with little significant stylistic development.

Seiho Takeuchi
Worldly detachment: One screen from Seiho Takeuchi's "Crows" (1902) NARA PREFECTURAL MUSEUM OF ART

And while the curiosity with animal life continues, what might count as an animal has greatly expanded, as in sculptor Bukichi Inoue's (1930-1997) "Creature: Insect Series" (1984). Fascinated by the dark phantasmagoria created by Austria- Hungarian writer Franz Kafka, the artist produced a grotesque beast, unnameable beyond being a "creature" — though almost unrecognizable as one — out of black pipes and grills, more mechanical than organic, dead than alive.

Nara Prefectural Museum of Art's summer show, "Mahoroba Zoo — Animals in Art from the Collection," moves along in bumps and grinds because of its stylistic discontinuities, but the fundamental tensions between real and imaginary animals captures the viewer's attention.

As the novelist Jorge Luis Borges wrote, one would expect the population of an imaginary zoo to exceed the population of a real one, but "the zoology of dreams is far poorer than the zoology of the Maker." Nara's exhibition bears this out. While it begins with a thematic selection dedicated to sacred animals and the essential identification between man and beast that was responsible for myths and deities, it concludes with a section entitled "The Cry of Wild Nature" and a return to conservative, naturalistic sculpture, such as the antlered deer in mid-howl by Akio Ota.

Imaginary beasts are in essence composites of features found in the animal kingdom. Hence Tessai Tomioka's "Rising Dragon" (1924) in monochrome ink is a combination of a stag's horns, a fish's scales, an eagle's talons and other such elements. But its strangeness is quite apart from the creations of any particular culture. As Borges noted, dragons are found in distinct times and places, "a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one." Tessai's dragon is derived from the Chinese lore that found a natural place in Japanese art traditions — the rich store of symbolic associations, such as its rising from the water to the heavens to form clouds and rain, were fellow travelers.

While animal symbolism can often seem tired and cliched, it is also a valuable crutch for interpretation. In the modern imagination, the querulous and garbage-scavenging crow that faces the ire of Tokyo's Gov. Ishihara, and which the arts collective Chim 596 Pom recently enclosed within a box along with a rat and one of the group's members in an experiment of uneasy cohabitation, in another time and place had altogether different connotations. It may come as some surprise to find Seiho Takeuchi's "Crows" (1902) in ink on gold ground in the thematic section "Beautiful Animals." The reverence the bird was held in — it was frequently depicted in the works of Japanese literati painters who idealized detachment from worldly and commercial concerns — was its resonance to virtues of independence and integrity.

While the shared domicile of Chim 596 Pom's experiment was forecast to end in the death of either the rat, the crow, the human or all three, the warm enjoyment of human and animal cohabitation is another themed section. Animals correspond to man's passions and properties, and thus there is a fundamental equivalence between the lounging cat and the woman reclining in a chair in Hikoshiro Yamamoto's "Afternoon Sleep" (1983). From there it is a small step to anthropomorphizing an animal pose or physiognomy.

Yasuo Sugawara
Yasuo Sugawara's "Deer" (1958)

Further departures from conventional iconography include Gyo Fumon's "Deer, Youth, Light, Crossing" (1920). Fumon was one of Japan's rare exponents of the Futurism, which began with early 20th-century Italians, and the work captures movement through line and color. Pushing further, Gagyu Ueda's "Flight (A)" (1964) elides all trace of animal imagery in favor of an abstract conception given by blue-and-white slashing lines among which burrow dark cavities.

Yasuo Sugawara's minimally reduced forms reanimate primitive ideas about animals, returning them to the extremely primal archetypes that Plato conjectured existed innately in the human mind, explaining why on on seeing a thing in the world, we are able to recognize it. "Deer" (1958) is sculpted from unadorned, roughly hewn wood, and the identification of the animal comes in part through the distinctive pose of the head and neck turned back over its body. Works like this are reminiscent of 20th century artists' preoccupations with prehistoric depictions of beasts. As it is said that Pablo Picasso stated after a visit to view cave art in 1940 at Lascaux, France — which captures again the sense of Borges' Maker having exhausted all representational possibilities — "They've invented everything."

"The Mahoroba Zoo Animals in Art from the Collection of Nara Prefectural Museum of Art" is at the Nara Prefectural Museum of Art till Oct. 14; (closed Mon. and Sept. 16) days, entrance ¥400. www.mahoroba.ne.jp/~museum/

Other arts this week

Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.