Wednesday, 17 February 2010

An embarrassment of riches

To learn about lesser known parts of Japanese art history, go local. At least that's so judging by at least three exhibitions I've seen in museums outside of (though easily accessible from) Tokyo in the last few years.

The most recent ended last weekend - in Saitama's Museum of Modern Art (on a direct line only some 45 minutes from Tokyo) - and presented the work of Settai Komura (小村雪岱). Under-recognised within Japan as well outside (an art magazine feature about the show had the coverline "Do you know Settai Komura?") I'd guess that for most people, like me, his work is something of a revelation.

With 250 or so works on display there are a couple of ways of reacting to such a scope of material: be swamped and recognise you'll not (OK, I will not) achieve anything like the quality and quantity on display. Or be inspired.

Settai Komura was active in the first few decades of the last century, working much on art for books - book designs, story illustrations, end-paper artworks. But he wasn't limited to - or, for that matter, by - that and 'active' is the right word. He produced sketches, illustrations, woodblock prints, paintings, posters, kimono designs, set designs. He designed bottles for Shiseido - and even designed their logo font.

The exhibition shows that his talent was exceptional - his rough sketches still showed quality, his finished pieces were often superby realised. (Sometimes he worked through both stages of execution - the image of umbrellas in the rain above was originally an illustration for a newspaper, then a more realised drawing and finally a woodblock print.) His style frequently drew directly on traditions in Japanese art - one book end-paper features an empty Japanese street in perspective, with a woman in the foreground, her face turned away from us and looking down the street, one of many realisations in Settai's work of the unsaid and unseen in Japanese art - but he also might merge a Japanese style of line with a hint (or occasionally an explicit suggestion) of art nouveau.

Other book end-papers were designed and painted with beautifully split arrangements over the two-page spread, balancing an emptiness on one page with a detail on another, for example (or, in one case, with a folding screen suitably placed to be part of the layout of a three-way fold).

His works stand on their own, but were often displayed here in their original books etc. The line between "commercial" artist and "pure" artist is often blurred at least and is easily crossed back and forth here - perhaps because he was making products (books, stage sets, kimonos) which had a share in his creative view, and vice versa. It's much as even now when artist Tadanori Yokoo works comfortably in a commercial world. (Yokoo also makes posters for clients - even the same one, Shiseido - as well as magazine cover designs etc.) Interesting, perhaps, from a "Western" view, where the commercial line has always been more defined, at least in the delineation of "pure" artist.

Settai died in 1940, so this is an historical exhibition, but made just that little more interesting as e-readers are at the early stages of introduction. Whether printed books will survive easily alongside e-books, whether special print editions will be more sought after, or whether designing for, and reading in, print will become a dying art is still undecided - while we continue, of course, to have well designed print books, of which these historical examples are just great. (See today's other post.)

So, kudos to the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama, for assembling the show. And in future posts I'll mention a couple of other shows relevant to this blog and from "local" museums.

–––––––––––– Examples of Settai's work ––––––––––––

Settai's design and illustration for the story Osen with the fact that he's illustrating a book cleverly reflected in the folded screens of the cover.
Legs disppearing into the water: an illustration for the novel Osen.

Three stages: sketch, model and in action

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