Recently Stephen Fry’s BBC comedy quiz show “QI,” was in trouble over panelist’s comments regarding Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a survivor of both atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Amid generally admiring chit chat about Yamaguchi, panelists treated the bombings with a degree of levity typical of the show, prompting the Japanese embassy to make a rare complaint.
This goes to show the great sensitivity surrounding the atomic bombings, and the deep respect with which survivors are treated as redemptive symbols of national suffering in Japan. A similar degree of softly-spoken reverence seems to surround Ikuo Hirayama, the renowned nihonga (Japanese style) painter who died in 2009. That reverence has taken on an almost hagiographic tone at the latest exhibition of his works “Hirayama Ikuo and the Preservation of Buddhist Heritage” at the Tokyo National Museum.
Like Yamaguchi, who passed away at the age of 93 last year, Hirayama witnessed and survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. At that time he was a 15-year-old schoolboy and he later suffered some of the ill effects. As part of the narrative of his life, this experience not only adds poignancy to his subsequent career as an artist, but it may have influenced the direction that his art took, pointing him toward Buddhist themes and subject matter that reflected the fragility and transience of the material world.
He found his perfect subject matter in the Silk Road, the historical trade routes that crisscrossed the interior of Asia. These routes, traversed usually by caravans of camels and the occasional marauding horde, connected cities and civilizations that have long since lapsed into oblivion and ruin, and also facilitated cultural exchanges, including the spread of Buddhism from India to Japan.
Hirayama’s fascination with the Silk Road is made evident at the exhibition by a large map detailing the dozens of trips he made to sites associated with the fabled route; but, of course, it is the paintings that drive home his obsession.
“Mingsha Sand Dune, Dunhuang” (1985), two expansive works that present a panorama stretching nearly eight meters, evoke the mystique of the Silk Road. Dunhuang, also known as the City of Sands, was an oasis town that historically marked the Western gateway to China. Like so much else along the Silk Road, it sat not only on the geographical margins but also on the thin line between existence and destruction. Hirayama’s painting makes this clear, showing an area of greenery set against the encroaching yellowish browns of the desert.
He uses a similar contrast in a number of paintings, including “The Bamiyan Caves, Afghanistan” (2000), another panoramic work, where the cave sculptures appear as an uneasy compromise between the harshness of the rocky and arid Afghan hills and the traces of irrigation and agriculture in the valley below. The year after this painting was completed, the two great standing Buddha statues, hewn directly into the sandstone cliffs, were blown up by the Taliban in what was a prelude to the al-Qaida attack on the World Trade Center in New York.
This destruction and its consequences are also an important part of the Hirayama story. In addition to artist, he is also cast as a tireless campaigner for preserving “World Heritage.”
The Hirayama Ikuo Silk Road Museum in Yamanashi has dedicated itself to celebrating the artist in this dual role with a collection that pairs his paintings with archaeological finds. “Hirayama Ikuo and the Preservation of Buddhist Heritage” follows this template, presenting the artist as the champion of Silk Road cultural preservation and displaying Buddhist sculptures lent by the Yamanashi museum and other pieces from state collections.
Though the paintings and sculptures work well together, their symbiotic relationship favors Hirayama. His paintings provide visual context for the sculptures, and in return they gain a sense of being much more venerable and precious than they really are.
Also, with so many Buddhist artifacts on display, the mood is more like a temple than a museum, making any open criticism of the artist seem something like sacrilege. This is even truer with the exhibition’s piece de resistance: the Daito Saiiki Murals. These were painted for Yakushiji Temple in Nara Prefecture and show scenes associated with the famous journey of the 7th-century Chinese monk Xuanzang (Genjo-sanzo in Japanese) to India in search of Buddhist scriptures.
In general, Hirayama is a good artist. But he’s not a great one. His colors are often luminous, but he keeps things simple and takes few risks. His draftsmanship is impressive but not inspiring. Indeed, once you see the meticulous, full-scale preparatory sketch for “Mount Sumera of the Western Pure Land” (2000), the astounding mountainscape loses much of its mystery and power. Hirayama is revealed as a patient and diligent craftsman rather than inspired genius, and this work, like so many others, impresses more by its size and fine mineral pigments, than by the burning creativity of the artist.
Perhaps the reason why Hirayama is such a big name in Japan is because saying such home truths about an atomic-bomb survivor, one intimately connected with preserving World Heritage and who earnestly painted religion-infused works, feels ever so slightly ungracious.
“Hirayama Ikuo and the Preservation of Buddhist Heritage” at the Tokyo National Museum runs till March 6; admission ¥1,500; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.tnm.co.jp