“Storytelling in Japanese Art” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Shibata Zeshin, The Ibakari Demon (c. 1839-40), ink and color on paper, 51-1/2″ x 62-1/2″; courtesy the Klaus F. Naumann Collection

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The advent and subsequent triumph of modernism did much to diminish the role of narrative in the visual arts, insisting, as it did, that the exigencies of craft should take precedence over anything smacking of literature. But modernism is an historical blip—a significant blip, mind you, but a blip all the same. Narratives have dominated world art. To ignore (or downplay) as much is to mistake The Annunciation for a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.

That last line is from the post-impressionist painter Maurice Denis, and it iterates the feet-on-the-ground essence of picture making. But it also throws out the allusive and, yes, the literary baby with the bathwater. Thoughts about narrative—about temporal flow, cultural myths and the human imagination’s range, influence and probity—came to mind while viewing Storytelling in Japanese Art, an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Which isn’t to suggest that the colors and flat surfaces assembled by the painters and sculptors featured in Storytelling don’t merit attention. A story is captivating to the extent to which it is told well, and the artisans responsible for this panel painting, that devotional carving or emaki, a form of illuminated handscroll, tell them well indeed.

Anonymous, Illustrated Legends of the Kitano Tenjin Shrine (13th century), ink, color and cut gold on paper, total length of scroll: 11-5/16″ x 22′ 7-7/16″; courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

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In the work, elaborate stylization coexists with acute observation, generalization with specificity, charm with gravity. Hell is rendered in burnt copper tonalities and whiplash rhythms; the seasons with lucid economy. Shibata Zeshin’s The Ibaraki Demon (ca. 1839–40), the closest Storytelling comes to a showstopper, is a miraculous confluence of line, gesture, character and motion.

Motion as a string of events unfolding in time presides, even if it’s inhibited by curatorial prudence. Were Illustrated Legends of the Kitano Tenjin Shrine or other emaki “read” as originally intended—unrolled by hand—they wouldn’t be long on this earth.

Still and all, Storytelling is a rich, engrossing and provocative brew. If only for the simultaneously occurring narratives in Kano Jinnojo’s kaleidoscopic The Battles of Ichinotani and Yashima (c. early 17th century), the show would be worth a trip. But it contains infinitely more than that.

© 2012 Mario Naves

Originally published in the February 22, 2012 edition of City Arts.

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