The Tokyo National Museum in Ueno isn’t merely a convenient place for old folks to while away an afternoon, or a safe venue to take parties of schoolchildren to on excursions. It’s also a very symbolic and ritualistic space, where the final seal is set on the nation’s cultural and historical image of itself. So, for a Japanese artist to be exhibited there is a kind of induction into the national cultural pantheon.
That is certainly the case with “Hasegawa Tohaku: 400th Memorial Retrospective,” an exhibition that serves to enshrine the painter — whose name read in English is Tohaku Hasegawa — in the nation’s cultural consciousness 400 years after his death.
As with all grand ritualistic events, there is a sense of “so it is and always has been.” But while this approach emphasizes the timeless quality of Hasegawa’s art, the story suffers as a consequence. The tale we are presented with here is the barely interesting one of a humble (but not too humble) provincial artist whose early works were inspired by an ardent faith in Buddhism; and who was then invited to the capital, which was then in Kyoto, where his irresistible talent soon won over discerning big shots such as Sen no Rikyu of tea-ceremony fame and the hegemon Toyotomi Hideyoshi — in the process securing his undying fame. While suitably serene, this narrative, it has to be said, wouldn’t make a particularly thrilling biopic.
The first part of Hasegawa’s story is represented by several hanging scrolls culled from temples in his home region, the Noto Peninsula on the shores of the Sea of Japan in present-day Ishikawa Prefecture. These ink-and-color works on silk depict various Buddhist deities. While occasional touches of artistic vigor are evident, they are redolent of artistic conventions and the incense fumes that have given them their smoky patina.
Next we have examples of his oeuvre after Hasegawa moved to Kyoto in 1571 at the age of 33, when his artistic horizons broadened as he cribbed the techniques of the dominant Kano school of painters. This section features sliding panels and folding screens painted with themes inspired by Chinese art and literature.
The most interesting piece is a painting from Entoku’in Temple that comes with the kind of far-fetched anecdote that Giorgio Vasari, the biographer of the Italian Renaissance, specialized in. According to the legend, Hasegawa entered the temple while the abbot was away, chose four sliding panels and — in defiance of protests from the lesser monks — painted, in a single sitting, a Chinese landscape in sumi ink over the beautiful grain of the paulownia wood.
After a period spent assimilating the styles and techniques of the capital, though, Hasegawa broke away from the Kano school and became the main rival of its leader, Eitoku Kano.
Thereafter, large folding-screen paintings that use huge amounts of gold leaf — such as the designated national treasures “Maple” and “Pine Trees and Autumn Plants,” both from around 1592 — testify to the success and patronage that Hasegawa enjoyed. These works are considered masterpieces of the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1603), a time characterized by relative affluence and a brash but cultured nouveau-riche sensibility after more than a century of upheavals in the Warring States Period. Both designs are dominated by a single massive tree, the vertical thrust of which cannot be contained by the horizontal spread of the panels. We only get a truncated cross section with branches and foliage all thrown into sharp relief by a gold-leaf background. This combination of elements allows the artist to display both a sense of power and subtlety.
These colorful works contrast markedly with Hasegawa’s equally excellent monochrome ink paintings. “Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers” (undated) and “Landscape” (1599) are dominated by clear decisive strokes of the artist’s brush; while “Pine Trees,” a pair of six-fold screens, displays a softer, more smudged approach in presenting a wooded landscape delicately shrouded in mist. “Monkeys in a Withered Tree” (undated) combines both these forms of energy — employing powerful brushwork to create the branches, and fuzzy, softer, cross-hatched strokes to simulate the fur of what appear to be gibbons.
The exhibition seems keen to focus on Hasegawa at his peak, but what makes a far more interesting story is what happened after his death — a tale told five years ago in “New Discovery: The Beauty of Hasegawa Tohaku,” an exhibition at the Idemitsu Museum in Tokyo. Visitors to that show were treated to a tale of skullduggery involving the Kano family, who continued to dominate Japan’s art scene and who worked to suppress Hasegawa’s reputation — not only by ignoring his contribution, but even reattributing his works to other artists.
“Tigers in a Bamboo Grove” (ca. 1590) and “Crows and Pine, White Heron and Willow” (ca. 1593) are pairs of six-fold screen paintings in sumi ink included in both exhibitions. When the former was damaged sometime after Hasegawa’s death, two panels were added by Tanyu Kano, who then reattributed the work to Tensho Shubun. Even more spitefully, Hasegawa’s seal was crudely scraped off the latter work, which was then reattributed to Sesshu, the most famous name in Japanese ink painting.
Thanks to the efforts of art scholars, however, Hasegawa’s reputation has been restored to where it was shortly before he died. This exhibition prefers to focus on the positives and lets bygones be bygones — but ironically, this means that Hasegawa now peacefully rubs shoulders in the pantheon of Japanese art with the very family that tried to destroy his legacy.
The exhibition, at Tokyo National Museum (Ueno Park), runs until March 22; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (Sat. Sun. and national holidays until 6 p.m., Fri. until 8 p.m.); closed Mon., except March 22; admission ¥1,500 (usual concessions apply).