Restless creativity in the exhibition “Joan Miro and Japan” at Bunkamura

Joan Miro and Japan is the current exhibition at Bunkamura in the Shibuya district of Tokyo. It is worth attending, even if, like me, you are not particularly connoisseur of 20th century abstract art.

Many of the works on display, especially the larger ones, have a powerful physical aura that can only be felt by being there in person, in front of them. Looking at an art book or, worse, looking at a screen could never capture it.

Two huge terracotta pieces were particularly impressive: one titled “Vase,” which would take three strong men to lift; the other, “Woman”, who looks like a creature from another planet. On the other hand, there is the delicate painting “Water Drop on Pink Snow”, made after Miro’s first visit to Japan.

There are 140 exhibits and not all of them are interesting. But I came away with a greatly increased respect for Miro’s relentless creativity and the depth of his engagement with Japan.

Indeed, the exhibition tells a compelling story about Japan’s enduring status as a beacon of inspiration – and also shows how cultures can interact and cross borders even in the most difficult of circumstances. See Bunkamura’s YouTube video of the exhibit, here.

Don’t expect polite references to wabi-sabi or other familiar Japanese aesthetic values. What Miro takes from Japan is buried deep within his very personal artistic vision and never obvious or polished.

The artist

Miro is the least known of the three great Spanish painters of the 20th century, the others being Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. Catalan, Miro was born in Barcelona in 1893, at the height of “Japonisme”, the European boom in all things Japanese. Van Gogh had already included Japanese motifs in his paintings, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Mikado thrilled audiences across Europe.

Then as now, Barcelona was a wealthy and highly cultured city, having hosted the Universal Exhibition five years before Miro was born. There was a shop importing Japanese arts and crafts as well as several collectors of Japanese artwork that young Miro would have known well.

The first piece in the exhibit, a 1917 portrait of his friend Ricart against a backdrop of familiar ukiyo-e imagery, is the only example of standard “Japanism” on display. For the rest of his long life, Miro was a devoted and extraordinarily prolific creator of avant-garde art in various forms, from paintings to pottery, collages to tapestry.

Rather than his fascination with Japan fading as the boom crept past and new art movements emerged, it seemed to grow stronger over time. Perhaps his most directly Japanese-influenced works are the huge calligraphy-like black strokes he produced in the 1970s.

As abstract or surreal as his work was, he stuck to the original principle he described in a 1928 interview: “Hokusai said he wanted even the tiniest point of his drawings to vibrate. And everything that is missing from this life is worth nothing.

The love of Japanese things

Miro has amassed a large collection of Japanese trinkets, kokeshi dolls, brushes and washi paper, haiku books in various languages, and studies of ancient haniwa clay figures. The favorite texts were those of Kakuzo Okakura book of tea (1906), which had been translated into Catalan, and Eugen Herrigel Zen in the art of archery (1948).

Miro’s affection for Japan was mutual. The first time his work was shown to the Japanese public was in 1932, as part of a traveling exhibition of works by avant-garde artists based in Paris. The first book about his work to be published worldwide was written by Japanese surrealist critic and poet Shuzo Takigami in 1940.

Twenty-six years later, the two men will meet in Japan and collaborate on a poetry-painting project. Miro had used the written word as an element in his images for many years, perhaps influenced by the example of ukiyo-e artists.

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Bunkamura exhibition “Joan Miro and Japan” until April 17 (screenshot, Bunkamura homepage)

Friends and Influences

Miro was in his early 70s when he finally visited Japan, but there had been a lot of human contact before that, both direct and indirect. He had met Taro Okamoto, who would later become the enfant terrible of the post-war avant-garde, and other expatriate artists in the 1930s. In the following decades, even during the war, several artists and Japanese writers come to visit him in his rural retreat, Mont-Roig.

Two Catalan acquaintances, sculptor Eudald Serra and art lover Sels Gomis, lived in Japan from 1935 to 1948. As citizens of a neutral country, they were presumably free to move around during the war years. They made contact with personalities from the mingei (folk crafts), initiated by potters Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach in the 1920s. They sent a Spanish translation of The unknown craftsman (1972), an influential book written by movement leader Soetsu Yanagi, in Miro, Spain.

Miro had decided to collaborate with the Catalan ceramist Josep Llorens Artigas, who had become a close friend. The result was to be a deepening of his artistic and human involvement with Japan. Artigas’ son, Joan Gardy Artigas, was already working with Miro. And so did Artigas himself, when he married Mako Ishikawa, a spirited young Japanese woman who arrived in Barcelona after fleeing her Catholic studies in Japan.

The wedding, in 1962, took place in Tokyo, the witnesses being the potter Hamada and the art critic Teiichi Hijikata. Later, Miro told an interviewer from Mainichi Daily News“I have been interested in Japan for fifty years, but since Mako joined my ‘family’, my understanding of Japan and my affection for it has only grown.”

Mako and Joan Gardy Artigas are still doing well today.}

reach japan

In the fall of 1966, Miro finally fulfilled his “fifty-year dream” of visiting Japan. According to Kenji Matsuda, an associate professor at Keio University, the eventful two-week trip was a great success, with large crowds spontaneously cheering when the artist arrived at the National Museum of Modern Art.

Miro met sumo legend Taiho, visited the Hiroshima Memorial, gazed at the Ryoanji Zen Garden and discovered many other famous sites. In the meantime, he found time to visit several pottery kilns and reconnect with Taro Okamoto and other Japanese artists he had met before. At the head office of the Mainichi Shimbunhe sketched a Miro-like — that is, unrecognizable — kanji devotion to his host.

His last night was spent with the eminent Japanese collector of shunga (erotic prints) where he was particularly moved by “Utamakura” by Utamaro and “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” by Hokusai, depicting a naked woman enjoying the attentions of two octopuses.

Kenji Matsuda thinks he would have heard of the shunga collection of Picasso, who had known and admired these specific prints since the turn of the century.

Analyze attraction

So what was it about Japan that captivated one of the great artists of modern times? After all, the vast majority of Miro’s works have nothing overtly Japanese about them.

Ricard Bru, Associate Professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, ​​puts it this way: “Through a new Japanese perspective, the precision and the search for detail and the interest in what is most negligible, ephemeral and humble in nature… provided him with the keys to evolve and enter a world of details…”

Maybe there is something else too. Avant-garde art is a Western concept that is defined by a conflict with a traditional body of work, be it perspective-based figurative painting or musical harmony or poetry that rhymes and has a clear meaning.

But the traditional arts of Japan were not like that at all. Noh theatre, kabuki, gagaku music, haiku, Bizen pottery, designs by Zen monks such as Sengai and Hakuin – these were well-established art forms, but shocking to the eye and soul. Western ears unaccustomed to irregularity and indeterminacy. Japan had managed to be timelessly avant-garde without knowing it or caring – which is an exciting idea for creative minds.

Find the exhibition

Joan Miro and Japan is at Bunkamura in Tokyo until April 17. The entrance fee is up to ¥1600 JPY ($USD) (adult, purchase in advance) or ¥1800 JPY ($USD) (adult, day of visit). Online tickets are available here.

The exhibition then moves to the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, where it will be open to the public from April 29 to July 3, and then to the Toyama Prefectural Museum of Art and Design from July 16 to September 4.

Author: Peter Tasker

Find the author’s essays on JAPAN Striker on this link.

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