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Embracing Western culture

Laura Gascoigne makes a flying visit to Tokyo and joins the gallery shuffle

19 November 2005

12:00 AM

19 November 2005

12:00 AM

It’s five o’clock on a November evening, and I’m leaning over a balcony watching a pipe band parading in the concourse below. But it’s not the chill of a Scottish autumn I’m feeling, rather the mildness of autumn in Japan — and the pipers are not Scots, but Japanese members of the Tokyo Piping Society welcoming a touring exhibition of French and Scottish 19th-century paintings from the National Galleries of Scotland to the Bunkamura Museum in downtown Shibuya.

If you think London is multicultural, you should try Tokyo — the main difference being that, whereas we British rely on others for our multi-culture, the Japanese are happy to do it for themselves. Having made up their minds in 1868 to admit Western culture, they have embraced it in all its manifestations, from Starbucks and McDo’s to Scottish pipe bands and the Mississippi paddle steamer plying the waters of Lake Ashi beneath Mt Fuji. Nowhere is the mix more thorough than in the arts. On consecutive nights of a recent five-day visit I took in an interactive exhibition of Leonardo’s Codex Leicester at the Mori Museum and a recital by the classical pianist Yoko Tokue on one of two supersonic pianos created by the German car designer Luigi Colani (the other one belongs to Eddie Murphy), combining music by Gluck and Gershwin.

Whether Western or Eastern, the Japanese take their art seriously and turn out in enviable numbers for exhibitions. The Codex Leicester, loaned to the Mori by Bill Gates, attracted 7,000 visitors a day, a total beaten by the 10,000 daily visitors to the Hokusai exhibition at Tokyo National Museum — attendance figures to turn the number-crunchers at the DCMS green. For visitors, of course, this has its downside. At nine in the evening, an hour before closing, the Codex Leicester show was negotiable, but when I reached the Hokusai an hour after opening — on a Saturday, admittedly — I had to join a crocodile of 1,000 people doing the traditional Japanese gallery shuffle anticlockwise around the walls. The nation that invented the quartz watch has not yet got around to the idea of timed entry — nor to the concept of a contraflow of spectators who might wish to travel in the other direction, let alone rogue reviewers who criss-cross the galleries at will.

No matter. A scrum is the right reception for Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), the world’s greatest observer of the street — with which he was on very familiar terms, having hawked red peppers up and down it in lean times. The famously antisocial old stick — who had a large sign on his studio wall warning visitors ‘It is no use bowing and scraping’, and once kept a shogun’s retainer waiting while he defleaed his clothes — would be gratified to see that, despite his premature death at 90 (before he had time, in his own estimation, to become a ‘true painter’), his compatriots are prepared to turn out in their tens of thousands to pay him their respects.

The National Museum has done the old man proud. Its exhibition of 500 works covers the full span of a 70-year career in which the artist registered half a dozen changes of art-name (beginning with Shunro, after his first master, and ending with Gakyo rojin — ‘old-man-mad-about-drawing’ — after no one but himself) and allegedly moved house over 90 times in an attempt to evade the house fires that terrorised Edo. (It didn’t work.) There are the books — not just the 15 volumes of collected sketches or ‘manga’ but also the illustrated chapbooks, collections of comic ballads, historical romances and technical manuals, the last of which — on the proper use of colours — was published in his 90th year. There are the popular prints of actors, warriors and beauties, the presentation ‘surimono’ prints with verses, the bird-and-flower pictures, the cartoon gallery of astonishingly contemporary street types — the ‘Cold Drink Seller’ (1793–4) with his washing-up tub and dish rack, the ‘Roofers’ (1830–3) hurling tiles off scaffolding with timeless abandon. And there are the endlessly fertile series of landscape views featuring popular tourist destinations — 130 views of this, 1,000 pictures of that — culminating in the famous ‘Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji’ of 1830–2, supplemented by a further hundred two years later. (Despite his prodigious output as a printmaker, not all the figures in Hokusai’s series titles add up, being the inventions of optimistic publishers — of his ‘One Hundred Ghost Stories’ [1831–2], for example, evidence of only five remains.)

That’s not the end of it. The fire that finally caught up with the 80-year-old artist in 1839 destroyed most of his drawings (although it left him another decade to recoup), but the show’s curators have managed to amass 100 paintings on silk and paper from throughout his career. Beside the traditional birds of various feathers — from the ‘Arriving Swallows and Departing Wild Geese’ (1801–4) to the ‘Drunken Beauty’ gracefully slumped over her shamisen box (c.1807) — there are the more unorthodox subjects in which Hokusai experimented with a blend of Chinese, Japanese and Western styles. One Important Cultural Property that won’t be travelling to Washington for the Freer Gallery’s smaller Hokusai show next March is the precious ‘Gathering Shellfish at Ebb-tide’ (1808–13), a little painting whose combination of quirky humour and clean lines is oddly reminiscent, to British eyes, of William Heath Robinson.

This is not a coincidence. The publication in 1880 of the first English edition of ‘One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji’ had an impact on British illustrators almost as strong as the arrival of ukiyo-e prints in Paris had on French Post-Impressionist painters. The irony is that the art of Hokusai was more influential in the West than in his native Japan, where until the 20th century high art meant traditional painting, and where ukiyo-e prints took time to shake off the stigma of a mass-produced popular art form — succeeding largely thanks to their influence abroad.

That influence can be clearly seen around the corner at the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park, where the ruggedly naturalistic silhouettes of Rodin’s ‘Burghers of Calais’ — set off by the concrete of Le Corbusier’s building — seem to doff their caps to Hokusai’s manga, and the flower paintings of Van Gogh, Monet and, surprisingly, Manet — in the uncharacteristically chocolate-boxy ‘Boy in Flowers’ of 1876 –— curtsy to their oriental cousins. Meanwhile, at the National Museum of Modern Art near the Imperial Palace the Japanese return the compliment, reflecting back the orientalising influence of Post-Impressionism through their homages to modern Western masters. One wonders what they would make of Heath Robinson? It may be time for an exhibition.

Hokusai is at Tokyo National Museum until 4 December; Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland: French and Scottish paintings of the 19th century is at the Bunkamura Museum until 25 December.

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