The Beauty of the Past and Present: Takashi Murakami at the MFA

Contemporary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami’s exhilarating and unique exhibit, entitled “Lineage of Eccentrics: A Collaboration with Nobuo Tsuji and the Museum of Fine Arts,” is on view at the MFA until April 1, 2018. Known as “the Warhol of Japan,” Murakami has truly become a household name. This is due in part to his ability to create unique images and characters, all of which have truly saturated popular culture, gracing everything from handbags to album covers to skateboards. Viewers of all ages and art-historical backgrounds will be mesmerized by the fun, whimsical, and enticing images that this exhibit has to offer.

Alongside Murakami’s art, the exhibit features the opinions and reflections of Nobuo Tsuji, a renowned Japanese art historian and Murakami’s mentor. Tsuji believes that Murakami’s art participates in a dialogue that uniquely intermingles the past and the present, a concern that also influenced the exhibition’s layout, which features Murakami’s contemporary works next to more traditional counterparts (per “Introduction” wall text). In creating this dialogue, Tsuji asserts that Murakami drew influence from the Eccentrics, a group of radical and counterculture artists active between the 17th and 19th centuries, an idea that he has documented in his book Lineage of Eccentrics (2012) (per “Introduction” wall text).

In addition to inspiration from the Eccentrics, Murakami’s influences comprise pop artist Andy Warhol, manga (Japanese comics), and anime (Japanese cartoon animation). Manga and anime, visually contemporary in their own right, actually date back to Japanese hand scrolls from the 12th and 13th centuries; artists would paint two-dimensional scenes on scrolls, which would be rolled out and read from right to left in order to tell a story (per “Animation” wall text). Other characteristics of these scrolls are that they feature a horizontally organized space and repetition of symbols and themes (per “Animation” wall text).

Murakami records this complex network of influences in his “Superflat” theory (2000), in which he details his artistic philosophy; as indicated by its name, the artist was interested in creating art with a two-dimensional, or flat, aesthetic. In this manifesto, he also explains his desire to amalgamate “high art” (traditional art) and “low art” (commercialized images). His aesthetic does just that; it inserts bright and powerful images that are so characteristic of Japanese manga and anime into the legacy imparted by traditional Japanese mediums, comprising hand scrolls and folding screens. Murakami’s art is the resulting product of an intricate combination of influences, which all at once is a visual feast, is kawaii (the Japanese word for “cute”) without being trite, and invites endless contemplation and curiosity.

As I was viewing the exhibit, a couple of works of art, which I am excited to share with you below, piqued my interest in particular. These works resonate with me because they capture the essence of Murakami’s style: they are visually appealing, evidence his nexus of influences, and skillfully connect past styles with present concerns.

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Takashi Murakami. Left: And then, and then and then and then and then/Green Truth. Right: And then, and then and then and then and then/Original Blue. Acrylic on canvas mounted on board, 2006. Museum of Fine Arts. Image per Kathryn Cooperman.

The figure represented above is named “Mr. Dob,” and serves as an alter ego that Murakami created for himself, which visually is a hybrid of Japanese anime characters Dorameon and Sonic the Hedgehog. Murakami wanted to create an identifying and specific image, something that would establish his legacy and perpetuate his name as an artist (per “And Then” wall text). I would say that Mr. Dob serves its purpose well, as the image recurs throughout Murakami’s art, and even in a wide variety of popular merchandise, making the artist’s name especially resonant. In addition to being quite charming and ubiquitous, Mr. Dob is so popular because the concept reflects every artist’s concern: making a standout name for oneself amid a multitude of talent.

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Takashi Murakami: Kawaii-Vacances: Summer Vacation in the Kingdom of the Golden (detail). Acrylic and gold leaf on canvas mounted on aluminum frame, 2010. Museum of Fine Arts. Image per Kathryn Cooperman.

Another work of art that captivated me was Kawaii-Vacances: Summer Vacation in the Kingdom of the Golden. This work epitomizes the Japanese term kazari, an idea meaning “the will to decorate,” as coined and popularized by Nobuo Tsuji (per “Kazari” wall text). As discussed by Murakami, any work of art representing kazari has a clear ornamental aesthetic, an idea which Kawaii-Vacances definitely embodies. Flowers of all different shapes, sizes, colors, and even emotions, all set against a radiant gold leaf background, adorn the work of art. Kawaii-Vacances is a playful, exciting, and an aesthetically pleasing composition to behold, one that also bears a distinct similarity to Poppies, a folding screen which is located just to its left.

Even though Poppies predates Kawaii-Vacances by almost 400 years, both of the works maintain the same subject matter, as well as similar aesthetic and compositional concerns. In both of the works of art, flowers are at the forefront of the compositions. This was atypical for the 17th century; art of this time seemed to favor more complicated narratives instead of making one sole image (here, flowers) the star of the composition (per “Poppies” wall text). Even though “Poppies” has no ground plane or clear storyline, its power lies in its beauty and simplicity (per “Poppies” wall text). I believe the same can be said of “Kawaii-Vacances.” Because the composition bears the same, repetitive, simplified flower, the viewer can appreciate the image as a whole and more readily notice differences in the flower’s colors, placements, and emotions, three characteristics that make this particular work beautiful and unique. Through his art, Murakami was able to insert himself into the Japanese canon, clearly pay homage to past movements, and still create something unique and refreshing, all while considering a contemporary viewer’s love of sumptuous compositions and popular culture.

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Tawaraya Sotatsu. Poppies. Ink and color on gold-leafed paper, Edo Period (17th century). Museum of Fine Arts. Image per Kathryn Cooperman (the repetitive floral imagery is part of the floor pattern).

As articulated by Tsuji, Murakami, and exhibition curator Anne Nishimura Morse, the connection between contemporary and traditional art in Japan is a topic that has largely been untouched. Through “Lineage of Eccentrics,” scholar, artist, and curator hope to inform the public of this important connection, and even instill a newfound appreciation for older Japanese art. I believe “Lineage of Eccentrics” will be a great success in achieving the exhibit’s goals. Contemporary art wouldn’t exist if it were not for every style and period that came before it, and it is impossible to do a work of art justice without considering its complex combination of influences and predecessors. Making these vital connections between past and present helps me appreciate Murakami’s art even more, and makes it even more beautiful.

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