Why People Love & Collect Japanese Art: Artsy Interviews Miwako Tezuka

Dr. Miwako Tezuka is the first Japanese director of Japan Society Gallery in the Society's over 100-year-long history. Tezuka was formerly Associate Curator at Asia Society and is an expert on Japanese art and its influences on global culture. In addition to organizing the exhibitions and programs, this summer she has launched a new annual Summer Artist Residency Program. I was lucky enough to chat with her about the history of Japanese art and what excites people about Japanese art today for our Japan Focus on Artsy.

Christine Kuan: Many people do not know that Japanese art, particularly Japanese prints, was a major catalyst for modern art in the West in the 19th century. What aspects of Japanese art were most captivating to artists and collectors back then and now?

Miwako Tezuka: The most famous case is the strong influence of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the Edo period (1615–1868) over French artists such as Degas and Van Gogh. In Degas’ case, you can see how he captured an intimate moment of a woman washing her hair in a small basin, and that perspective reflects his love of ukiyo-e prints’ depiction of scenes from people’s everyday life in the pre-modern Japan. Van Gogh, on the other hand, was particularly fascinated by vivid colors you often see in landscape prints by, for example, Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige. Some of the unique compositional devices, like sharp angles and partial framing of objects and scenes in the prints are still creatively appropriated by contemporary artists across the world. The dynamic viewpoints you find in the ukiyo-e prints are totally contemporary in sensibility, and they are still eagerly collected by artists as well as collectors internationally.      

CK: We are currently featuring the British Museum's "Shunga" exhibition and there is a long tradition of erotic subjects in Japanese art. Many contemporary artists, such as Nobuyoshi Araki and Daido Moriyama, are famous for their photos depicting bondage, women's lips, legs, etc. What is unique about the treatment of sex and pleasure in Japanese art?

MT: The treatment of sex and pleasure comes in both overt and covert ways, and that is not necessarily unique to Japanese art. While Shunga are overt (exaggerated) depictions of sex, many apparently benign images produced during the same Edo period are rich with suggestive compositions, patterns, colors, inscriptions, and so on, that are covert expressions of sexuality. Today, it seems that artists such as Araki are foregrounding sexuality and eroticism as something not of pleasure per se but of rebellion. Sexuality is used as an explosive to break through the social conventions and conformism. In a similar approach to eroticism, Japanese female artists are also exploring sexuality, deeply engaging the depth of their psychology in relation to the still mostly patriarchal Japanese society. You can see works by Miwa Yanagi, Emi Anrakuji, and also early photographic works by Mariko Mori, and find their critical viewpoints on how sexuality is constructed in contemporary Japan.     

CK: Post WWII, Japanese culture responded to the aftermath of the atomic bomb and other atrocities by embracing childhood, comics, anime, video games, and other infantilized themes and images. Yoshitomo Nara, Takashi Murakami and others have become mega-artists working in a variety of media and with global appeal. Why are these works so enticing to art lovers and collectors?

MT: It’s the power of popular culture that increasingly became globally shared commodity after WWII due to fast development of new media, satellite TV, the Internet, and so forth. Many of the visual vocabulary that those two artists use are already shared languages worldwide by the time they landed on the field of fine art. Also, more simply put, we all were children at one time!

CK: In the Noguchi Museum's current show "Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi," we can see Noguchi's exploration of traditional ink painting, a hot area in collecting right now, but also a difficult area for people not versed in traditional Asian painting and particularly complex since poetry is often integral to the work. How should people who cannot read Japanese calligraphy approach Japanese ink painting?

MT: The best way to approach it is to actually try your hands on calligraphy. One of our upcoming exhibition related programs in conjunction with Mariko Mori’s solo exhibition (“Rebirth: Recent Work by Mariko Mori” from Oct. 11, 2013–Jan. 12, 2014) is a Japanese calligraphy workshop. No prior experience necessary, and through this workshop, you get to understand what energy, which is often invisible, can be transferred from your body, your hand, to a simple sheet of paper. It is quite revelatory as I recall from my own calligraphy practices in the past. There is a point in calligraphy where you don’t have to intellectualize everything, like reading what’s written; it is ultimately gestural and an enactment of your relationship to the space around you, in my opinion. I think Noguchi was able to inject that same kind of invisible energy into his sculptures and spatial designs.

CK: In recent years, a lot of the spotlight in Asia has been on contemporary Chinese artists. Which young Japanese artists are doing interesting work that should not be overlooked?

MT: There are actually many of them. Some are already in the international art circuit like Kohei Nawa and Teppei Kaneuji, and others are still relatively or completely underrepresented like Erina Matsui, three (we have their U.S. debut installation at Japan Society’s downstairs display space till Oct. 13), and Hidekazu Tanaka. I plan on bringing those underrepresented new Japanese artists to our Summer Residency Program in New York so I do hope people keep an eye on our activities onsite and at our website.

Japan Society is the leading nonprofit U.S. organization committed to deepening mutual understanding between the United States and Japan in a global context. 

Photo of Miwako Tezuka by Elsa Ruiz; building images © Japan Society.