Wearing a pure white hakama (wide-legged pants worn over a kimono), a young Japanese woman appears on stage in the glass-covered atrium of the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) in Cleveland, Ohio.
She bows to the audience, turns to the gilded folding screen that is still blank and touches it gently, then sits down cross-legged and bows deeply to the screen three times.
To music featuring the jingle of suzu (Shinto bells) and haunting female choir voices of the ancient-Japan-inspired “Reincarnation” song, she stands and begins painting.
Putting sumi ink on a brush, she makes broad strokes to draw two ovals in the middle of the screen, followed by a vertical axis in between and a dynamic arc in bold pink.
Audience members watched raptly at a live painting performance by contemporary artist Miwa Komatsu that took place earlier this month as part of the museum’s ongoing exhibition “Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art.”
“We often think of the involvement of a male priest as the main person for a Shinto omatsuri (festival), but I feel Komatsu-san is doing something that connects us back to what used to be a very prevalent tradition of women serving as oracles at shrines,” said Sinead Vilbar, curator of Japanese art at CMA.
Inspired by the 2006 acquisition of a wooden statue of a youthful Wakamiya kami (deity) by the Princeton University Art Museum while working as an assistant curator of Asian art there, Vilbar generated the idea of an exhibition on Shinto art and spent more than 10 years preparing to make it a reality.
It is believed that Shinto was born in Japan, evolving from an earlier form of religion that worshiped nature and one in which ancient people sensed the presence of sacred spirits. People venerated such spirits as kami. Since the arrival of Buddhism in Japan during the 6th century, the amalgamation of Shinto and Buddhism progressed throughout Japan’s history.
The exhibition presents religious art that flourished as a result of this unique fusion of kami veneration and Buddhist practices. With cooperation from the Nara National Museum, the exhibition brings together 125 works from museums in Japan and the U.S., as well as shrines and temples across Japan. On display are works of calligraphy, painting, sculpture, costume and decorative arts from the 10th through the 19th centuries, including treasures never before seen outside Japan and a significant number of works designated as Important Cultural Properties by the Japanese government. Among the highlights are wooden sculptures of seated Tenjin and gorgeous folding screens that depict various festivities.
In 2013, Vilbar had an opportunity to attend a sengu renovation event in Izumo Taisha shrine in Shimane Prefecture, one of Japan’s most revered and oldest Shinto shrines. She was impressed to learn that Komatsu had created a piece for the shrine. The painting “Shin-Fudoki” that Komatsu dedicated to the shrine in 2014 was a turning point in her career, as the powerful iridescent light that broke through the clouds at the shrine inspired her to use more colors.
On the stage at CMA, Komatsu applied acrylic paints, from pink, red, orange and yellow to green, blue, purple and white, directly from tubes or from bowls in which she mixed colors. Using a brush and her hands, she drew unexpected lines in various colors and sumi black, sometimes throwing the brush or the paint at the screen. As she moved from side to side, bending down at times and climbing a stepladder at others, the chaotic picture gradually developed into the figures of chimera-like divine spirits, incorporating falcons, deer, birds, dragons and a number of small komainu (guardian lion-dog).
After inserting eyes in each of the initial two ovals, thereby investing the centerpiece with soul, Komatsu sat cross-legged and bowed deeply to the audience to end the performance.
Coming out of her trance-like state, yet still gasping for air, Komatsu delivered a short speech.
“Today I painted feeling the power of all of you, the power of the land of Cleveland, and the power of the artworks that the Cleveland Museum of Art houses,” she said.
In an interview with The Japan Times, Komatsu said that she goes on stage without any rough sketch in advance.
“For me, painting is meditating. In this sense, there is no difference whether it’s live on stage or alone in my studio,” she said. “But I understand that art lovers are so delighted to see an artist in person that I want to paint in front of them without hesitation or anxiety.”
Although it was her third live painting performance in the U.S., she had never performed at a museum as prestigious as CMA, which houses more than 61,000 works of art from around the world
“While painting on stage, I heard voices from the galleries of the museum,” Komatsu mentioned the artworks featuring divine creatures of different cultures from CMA’s collection. “With a sense of tension that I should properly respond to those divine spirits, I added many tiny komainu to my painting this time,” she said. Komatsu believes the komainu that guard the entrances of shrines reached Japan after a long journey of ancient cultural diffusion from the west.
According to the museum, the event attracted an audience of 1,235 CMA members, who followed the hour-long performance with their immediate impressions: “When she started out, it made no sense to me whatsoever, but as she started completing, it looked like she was painting a story of creation,” “It was intense and lively,” and “It was the first time we’ve ever seen something like that. It was just absolutely amazing that she was in a trance,” to mention a few.
“It was wonderful to connect the ancient traditions in the exhibition with the contemporary feel to understand the continuous thread for many centuries. Her way of painting was engaging, energetic and very fun as well,” said John Easley, deputy director and chief philanthropy officer at CMA.
His comment was followed by Marjorie Williams, senior leadership giving officer in the philanthropy division at CMA. “It was an extraordinary, spiritual art. It makes our audience understand that Shinto in Japan has a contemporary expression and inspires an artist like Miwa,” Williams said.
Still experiencing the whole story, Vilbar was looking at Komatsu, her hakama spattered with paint, who was friendly in posing for photos with the audience members that flocked around her and lined up for their turn in front of the painting.
“She has not yet finished her painting. She is still experiencing the energy that she created,” Vilbar said with a smile.
The exceptional work of art will be on display for the moment at the residence of Hiroyuki Fujita, honorary consul of Japan in Cleveland, to demonstrate “Yamato jikara” (Yamato power), an expression that Komatsu created, meaning the ability of fusing different elements, while venerating sacred spirits in nature, as seen in the Shinto tradition.
The Japan Times is supporting this event as a media partner.