East Asian flower-and-bird painting emerged as a genre in China around the 8th century and the tradition has survived through to the present. Its resonances for modern and contemporary Japanese artists are currently the theme of two very different exhibitions: “By the Water-lily Pond” at the Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art and “From One Flower to Another” at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art.
“By the Water-lily Pond” comprises a group of late water-lily paintings by French Impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926), painted wooden sculptures by Yoshihiro Suda (b. 1969) and embroidered panels by Zon Ito (b. 1971). All of the works take their genesis from water lilies, in Zon Ito’s case from their leaves. The exhibition is provocative because while the subject for the three artists’ is the same, the works differ radically.
Suda carves lifelike plant sculptures from magnolia wood, colors them with traditional Japanese painting pigments and arranges them in installations. His works often draw on Buddhism, and his central exhibit here, “Sleeping Lotus” (2002), continues the theme. The lotus, a symbol introduced to Japan from India via China, is often used in Buddhist art and architecture. The story goes that one grew from Vishnu’s navel along with Brahma who created the universe. The iconography subsequently became the symbol of the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.
How Suda’s iconographic concerns relate to Monet’s is far from clear, even though Monet was known to be a bit of a Japan buff. Perhaps on a more rarefied level, a dialogue between the two artists emerges: The sharp realism in Suda’s perceptually indistinguishable vegetal sculptures contrasts with Monet’s blurry figurations, which are the true heir to realism, based as they are on fidelity to subjective perception — what the artist sees — rather than realistic painting conventions.
Zon Ito’s work approaches the subject in a completely different manner. Where Monet’s water lilies almost slide into abstraction, Ito’s works of lines and stitches engage in abstraction/figuration traversal. In “Grass Carp Line” (2009), for example, we can almost discern a carp shape seen from bird’s-eye view. It then becomes nearly impossible to intuit what the other squiggly surrounding lines are — ripples? Lily leaves? The side of the pond? Any resolution ultimately remains elusive.
“From One Flower to Another” is a more conventional flower painting exhibition, free from the conceptual dislocations found in “By the Water-lily Pond.” The show is divided into several thematic sections that trace the range of relationships people and artists have had with flowers. These include the fundamental role flowers play in landscape painting and, more importantly, their presence in ideal worlds such as Shunkyo Yamamoto’s “Mountain Paradise” (1922).
More taxonomic is “Flowers, Birds and Insects” (1885-87) by Bairei Kono (1844-1895) and Sobun Morikawa (1847-1902), a virtual catalog of different flower species with the 36 album leaves mounted on a folding screen. This and other works in the section portray the importance of kacho-ga (flower-and-bird painting), which played a prominent role among the followers of the Maruyama-Shijo school of painting in Kyoto from the late 18th century.
Another of Kyoto’s stylistic lineages, the courtly Rimpa school founded in the 17th century, finds modern continuity in Taizan Sakakibara’s (1890-1963) “Peonies” (1912-26). While many flowers have been used symbolically, the peony, also known as “Queen of Flowers,” has had especial significance. On a basic level it brings to mind beauty, femininity and, as a spring flower, seasonal and cyclical rhythmns. The white peony in particular was symbolic of young girls, distinguished both by wit and beauty. Sakakibara’s work, however, is largely free from such associations. His painting leans toward a more decorative approach, pursuing refined stylization, graphic linearity and bold, distinct color over a gold-leaf background — all Rimpa school attributes.
This decorative thread is also pronounced in other artists’ works where flowers are merely incidental details and not focal features. Keisen Tomita’s (1879-1936) “Carrier Pigeons” (1934) depicts birds in flight or perched on a rooftop. The peripheral flowers here are less an important subject matter and more an inclusion to brighten up an otherwise uninspired composition.
One final work in the exhibition, Zaisen Hara’s (1849-1916) “Plum Garden at Tsukigase” (undated), is particularly seasonal, and usually mistranslated. The plum is a bloom celebrated as a symbol of longevity and fortitude because of its ability to flower in late winter when all around it is dead. It heralds the advent of spring and new life. A persistent misconception, however, is that “ume” translates as simply “plum,” rather than its full name: prunus mume. A more appropriate vernacular translation would be “Japanese apricot.”
“By the Water-lily Pond” at the Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art, Kyoto, runs till Feb. 28; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Mon.); admission ¥700. For more information, visit www.asahibeer-oyamazaki.com “Masterpieces from the Permanent Collection IV: From One Flower to Another, The Shapes of the Rapport” at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art runs till March 28; open 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. (closed Mon., except on national holidays); admission ¥500. For more information, visit www.city.kyoto.jp/bunshi/kmma/en/index.html